Wednesday, 28 September 2016

A Look at Philosophy for Children

The Philosophical Society of England has long championed 'philosophy in schools', and over the years has published several articles on the topic. In 1952, Bernard Youngman's  strategy for a philosophical education was copious amounts of  Bible study, whereas nowadays Philosophy in Schools is portrayed as a kind of antidote to religion, a position both explored and advocated at book length by Stephen Law in The War for Children's Minds (also reviewed on the Philosopher website.)

But at least Law would agree with Youngman that the educator's task involves leading 'the young untutored mind towards love of wisdom and knowledge'. And both follow the philosophical principle that the teacher (in Youngman's words) "must value freedom of thought and revere independence of mind; he must at all times be as Plato so succinctly put it - midwife to his pupils' thoughts".

In the dark days of Madame Thatcher, and the UK of the 1980s, when everyone 'knew the price of everything and the value of nothing', philosophy was out of fashion at all levels of education. But these days Philosophy is undergoing something of a resurgence, particularly in UK schools. Not for nothing did that cynical marketing phenomenon, Harry Potter, designate his first task as 'the search for the Philosopher's Stone'. Because, philosophy, however interpreted, has something about it that is appealing to children, intellectuals and hard-nosed accountants alike.

And even if it is sometimes not quite clear which group is driving it, certainly there are now schools dotted all around Britain dipping at least a small toe into philosophy, from small rural Primaries to large urban Grammars. There are a lot of deep philosophy of education and teaching methodology issues raised by these projects. In particular, philosophy like this (unlike the elitist and stultifying French /Philosophy Bac') is part of the shift away from learning content to towards 'thinking skills', and indeed listening and communication skills. Philosophy for children in this sense is just part of a "creative curriculum", made up out of Music, Dance, and the Arts.

One school that has made a particular campaign out of the approach is a small London primary school called Gallions (in E6) which claims that philosophy has cultivated and encouraged creativity, empathy and a sense of self-worth throughout the school. After reinventing itself in this philosophy-inspired way, it claims to have made enormous progress.

"Regular practice in thinking and reasoning together has had an extraordinary impact on learning, on relationships, and on mutual respect within and beyond the school gates", Gallions says in one of its innovative (read expensive) publicity materials.

Gallions claims to have found the holy grail of education - active, creative, democratic -somewhere in the, by now fairly well-worn, methods of Matthew Lipman, a professor of philosophy in the United States, branded as 'P4C', along with more recent help from SAPERE a sort of British off-shoot busy selling courses in its methods (including 'masters' degrees at Oxford Brookes University).

Made into a commercial brand by Lipman, 'P4C' is an educational approach which promises to turn children and young people into effective, critical and creative thinkers and help them to take responsibility for their own learning 'in a creative and collaborative environment'.

The method invariably involves a warm-up or 'thinking game', featuring what is rather grandly called 'the introduction of the stimulus' but might more prosaically be counted as the presentation of the lesson's theme. The group are invited to discuss and eventually decide exactly what questions they want to discuss related to this theme.

For younger children, 'thinking games' like these are advocated.
Bring an object in (Use a prop): In this, an everyday object is placed in the middle of a circle of children, and everybody in turn given an opportunity to ask the object a question.  Random words: This time, again working in a circle, each child says a word which must be unconnected to the last word spoken. If someone thinks there is a connection between the words they call out 'challenge!' and must explain the link.

(If you think these are not much of 'games', you should try the ordinary lessons )

Naturally , schools being schools, philosophy starts off with 'rules'. There are rules about speaking - not talking when someone else is talking, about not laughing at other people's ideas - and rules about 'listening - letting people finish, taking 'thinking time' to consider other people's ideas before speaking, and connecting new contributions to points previously made. All this is both virtuous and very practical. If children learn little else at school , they learn ways of intreating with others. Too often, the school environment discourages discussion and collaboration in favour of rigid distinctions between 'right and wrong' points of view and hierarchies of knowledge.

In all this, the teacher is there not to teach, but only as a source of information or occasionally a 'referee' ensuring both fairness and perhaps encouraging (assuming, which is a big assumption, that they are able to distinguish) the most interesting lines of discussion from the rest. In short, they act as as 'facilitators' for the groups' learning. 'In a community of enquiry all the knowledge to be absorbed comes from the children', preach the P4C guidance notes. The aim is that the children teach each other. Their choices are aid to dominate the entire process: they construct the questions they consider interesting about the stimulus, they choose the question they wish to debate, and they decide in what way they want to contribute to the discussion.

As a consequence of all this freedom to decide what to talk about, the adherents of philosophy for children claim that the classes learn how to think and express their thoughts in new and often dramatic ways.

Secondly, as children listen to and learn from each other, they are said to practise and develop 'communication skills, such as empathy, patience and generosity. Both individually and as a group they become attentive and supportive of each other.

Regular doses of 'P4C' are claimed to enable even the shyest children to develop such speaking and listening skills. 'They learn that, in order for them to be heard when they have something to say, they have to listen, and listen carefully, to what others say. The cognitive challenge represented by the stimulus, the facilitation that constantly challenges understanding and pushes for greater depth and clarity, and the thrill of being listened to with interest, causes them to develop their vocabulary and grammar. Children are generally seen to increase the length and complexity of their contributions over time.' (From a P4C Handout for in-service teacher training edited by Lisa Naylor.)
They also acquire a vocabulary for expressing unhappiness, discomfort or frustration, which leads to negotiating with other children instead of expressing their feelings through physical means. Playground interactions change.

All this leads to children spending more time reflecting on ideas, and becoming generally more thoughtful and articulate. The ability to reflect on one's own thinking is, after all, we are told, a feature of very able people. And so, the children's improved self-esteem translates into increased academic achievement.

Mind you, if the approach was really as successful and as transformative as its advocates claim, it would seem a pity to restrict it to the drip-feed of accredited trainers and special conferences. After all, the ideas are as old as the slopes of Mount Olympus, and materials abound promising ways to implement them.

Yet, the would-be philosophy teachers are encouraged to think that introducing creativity, much less philosophy into the classroom, requires additional training - more expertise, not less! Since the UK government privatised education, the Internet is full of sites (such as Independent Thinking Limited) offering 'experts' in education, usually seen as a kind of branch of business management. In places such as this, the experts, fresh from successful careers as insurance salesmen or racing car drivers boast of their outstanding qualities under pictures of themselves on yachts. 
Attitude, creativity, taking responsibility, genius, goal setting and much more ? all the stuff that he had never been told before but was beginning to wish he had. More to the point, he began to formulate the idea of working with young people to take these ideas into schools around the country.
- As one teacher trainer puts it. No wonder that all too often the claims made for P4C turn out to be inflated, and that the children describing how they have benefited seem to be repeating new educational mantras rather than finding their own authentic voices.

This all goes against the original 'Socratic' principle that the teacher stays in the background, only occasionally asserting themselves if they feel either that the discussion has left the philosophical arena completely - or alternatively, to encourage further consideration fo an aspect that may have been raised but is not being followed up by the others. They act as 'chairmen' of a debate, not as sources of new information or adjudicators, both roles which rapidly lead to the class becoming passive in the process.

But if school teachers find it difficult to stay in the background and give up their role as final adjudicator, (few teachers indeed have this knack) it is equally the problem for philosophy in Higher Education too. How to democratise and stimulate philosophical debate is very much the themes of recent work on Philosophy for 'big children' in universities and colleges these days - particularly those taking philosophy as a foundation course for a more specialised degree. In the 1990s I was myself involved in research, under George MacDonald Ross of Leeds University (nowadays part of the so-called 'Higher Education Academy'). Here, tactics such as 'proctorials', which are discussion groups structured in a very similar way to the 'P4C groups reign supreme.

Because philosophy with children and Philosophy, 'with a capital P', in seminar groups, shares many of the same characteristics. There is, first of all, a wish to stimulate the group into active discussion of an issue, and that requires 'the stimulus'. Puzzling problems and paradoxes are often attractive to students, whereas children may prefer more 'concrete' examples.

Whatever method is used, the important thing is to recognise that the problems are triggers, not material in themselves, just as philosophy should be a process, not a body of material to be passively learned.

One secondary school teacher, Michael Brett, who introduced philosophy to his classes (with children between 10 and 13) with books of short philosophical problems, found that the ones which worked best with school students were ones where 'pure philosophers' would refuse to go, such as the economic ones in (my own book) 101 Philosophy Problems, featuring eminently 'concrete' issues such as the price of stamps, potatoes etc., alongside more traditional philosophy problems represented however as secular puzzles, such as the barber who couldn't cut his own hair (Russell's paradox) and so on.

Another book Michael Brett tried with his classes, published in America, called The Book of Questions, had, as one would hope, lots of questions - most of which were ethical and which he thought they'd like, but ihis experience was that children basically preferred the 'barber', the 'stamps and potatoes'...

As he later summed it up, this seemed to be because: 
children like to see a point to what they are thinking about: understanding economics, money etc., or the interest of puzzles. They aren't that bothered about questions that bear little on their lives - as they see them.
When Lisa Naylor says (see article at The Philosopher) that philosophy encourages children to become producers of surprisingly abstract thought, it has to be remembered that these abstract issues have first of all been made 'concrete' by being brought into the classroom as tape recordings or even simple objects.

This fact has to be borne in mind when imagining that philosophy for children is an opportunity to introduce questions with no particular answer, debates with no particular purpose. Philosophy is not just anything goes... Of course, it might be too early to ask, that this should also be borne in mind for philosophers at all levels.
Martin Cohen


  1. Thanks, István. Actually, it's a workon progress - ... One day we might have a little section here on Pi for Philosophy for Children. (Have you any views on it?)