Peter Worley on his philosophical work with children in schools. This article appears in Issue 60 of The Philosophers’ Magazine. Please support TPM by subscribing.
I was coming to the end of my first degree in philosophy at University College London and was beginning to have to think about what to do next. I was just starting “to get” this philosophy stuff and had warmed very much to the Greeks, particularly Socrates and Plato and the way that the Greeks had seen philosophy as something applicable to one’s own life. It wasn’t only an academic concern for them. Then I read a series of articles in tpm by Tim LeBon describing philosophical counselling sessions. I wondered if this might be the route for me. I trained with Tim and began practicing as a philosophical counsellor, though I earned my living as a guitar teacher for The Lewisham Music Service in South East London. Because of the counselling I had also embarked on a part-time MA in philosophy at Birkbeck in order to strengthen my subject knowledge, particularly in ethics.
When teaching music I had noticed that there was something I now call “the ensemble effect”: that the overall sound of, say, five children playing together was often much better than each child could manage on their own. And I wondered if doing philosophy with children could be approached in a similar way. I mentioned this idea to a head teacher in one of the schools I was working in and she encouraged – no, prodded – me to put together a proposal for a philosophy pilot project. That was over ten years ago, but, even to this day, when people ask me “how is it possible to do philosophy with young children?” my first response is to say that it is very difficult to do philosophy with one child, because they often don’t have the range of intellectual responses needed to be able to sustain a philosophical discussion. However, doing philosophy with up to thirty children can solve this particular problem; thirty minds bring thirty different perspectives to an issue or problem. When one child makes a point there are up to thirty other minds thinking about it. This is where the basic fuel for doing philosophy for children comes from. It’s worth noting that one of the overall aims of The Philosophy Foundation when doing philosophy with children is to have the class model to each individual within the class how a philosophical conversation progresses. So, the children begin by philosophising externally with each other as a class but in doing so model how philosophy can be done internally, by each individual child, using the “silent dialogue” model. A similar transition is also suggested by Plato when Socrates talks about silent dialogue in the Theaetetus (recall that Plato’s dialogues are usually written in dialogue form where Socrates is engaged in external dialogues with others):
SOCRATES: And do you accept my description of the process of thinking?
THEAETETUS: How do you describe it?
SOCRATES: As a discourse that the mind carries on with itself about any subject it is considering. You must take this explanation as coming from an ignoramus, but I have a notion that, when the mind is thinking, it is simply talking to itself, asking questions and answering them, and saying yes or no. When it reaches a decision – which may come slowly or in a sudden rush – when doubt is over and the two voices affirm the same thing, then we call this its “judgement”. So I should describe thinking as discourse, and judgement as a statement pronounced, not aloud to someone else, but silently to oneself.
An indication that this kind of transition is beginning to occur is when children start to say things like, “Now I’m going to disagree with myself” or “I know I said x but”. Some children naturally engage in this kind of dialogue with themselves but for others the modeling is essential. I think that this ability is one of the most important skills they can leave the classroom with. Actually, I would resist saying that developing silent dialogue is simply a skill, but more like a disposition. Research has suggested that the skills gained from engaging in philosophy at primary level remain with the children long after they stop doing philosophy (two years later it was found the children still demonstrated the reasoning skills gained from doing philosophy). A good essay or research project will include good “dialoguing” in the form of objections and responses to any claim made – the dialogue being implicit, as it is in Descartes’ Meditations, a dialogue in one voice, rather than explicit as with Plato’s dialogues.
I soon discovered that there were other approaches and methods for doing philosophy with children but, when I looked into them, I was somewhat concerned about the extent to which these endeavours really were philosophical. They seemed to be laudable attempts to make general education more reflective and enquiry-based but fell short of introducing genuine philosophy as I had come to understand it at university. This got me thinking: is the kind of academic philosophy I had learned something that can be done by young children, or is it simply out of their reach, something beyond their cognitive abilities? In many ways the charity I co-founded, The Philosophy Foundation, has been built on trying to answer this question. And I am happy to report that children are capable of the kind of thinking that characterises philosophy.
I have witnessed (and have corroborative footage to support this) primary aged children demonstrate a priori reasoning, spot an infinite regress, make use of reductio ad absurdum argumentation, draw distinctions, construct thought experiments, invent new words, discuss abstract, metaphysical questions and much more besides. In short: most of the thinking tools of philosophy. The Philosophers’ Magazine’s own Julian Baggini, who has on occasion spoken about philosophy in schools, has voiced a legitimate concern that, though he concedes young children may make statements that sound philosophically interesting, he is sceptical that they can sustain genuine lines of philosophical reasoning or develop arguments. This, I take it, is what Baggini thinks is necessary for being able to say that one is doing philosophy. Of course, there is a limit to the extent that children can develop arguments and/or lines of reasoning, but they are perfectly capable of doing so. For instance, here is an argument put forward by a 10-year-old boy:
“I’ve got an argument to prove there’s only one universe and nothing doesn’t exist:
I know the universe is infinite, but, say, half of this room is the universe and the other half of the room another universe.
When they meet together, they must have a point where they meet.
And what is to define that the two universes are different? I mean they [both] have the same description; they cover everything.
And if the universe was here [he points] and nothing was there [points elsewhere] the universe must be touching the nothing, and if it is touching it, it must physically exist, therefore…”
Though the argument shows a level of creative and logical thinking that is highly sophisticated, one may respond by saying that the argument is unsuccessful. If it is this does not, by itself, go on to show that children can’t philosophise. Take the example of Descartes. Many of his arguments are thought to be unsuccessful but this does not mean that he was failing to philosophise. As P F Strawson remarks about Descartes, in his essay “Self, Mind and Body”, “One of the marks … of a really great philosopher is to make a really great mistake.” Further, the boy who formulated this argument went on to defend his argument successfully from objections by other children in the group.
Another example comes from a group of Year 3 (age 7) children discussing whether it is better to be an unhappy person or a happy pig (see “The Prince and The Pig” in my book The If Machine for the lesson plan used with this class). One boy had said that it must be better to be a person because there is not much a pig can do, whereas a person can do so much more. Another boy said that you don’t know what makes the pig happy and that it may well be happy doing the few things that pigs do. But the first speaker was dissatisfied with this and responded by saying that you would know: you could just look at the pig and see if it is happy with what it is doing. Someone else interjected saying that you still wouldn’t know whether it was happy because you can’t know what the pig is feeling. The question was raised, “What if it looked happy? Would you know that it was happy?” Many of the children thought that they would know, except for one single child, a boy who had said nothing up to that point. He said that even though it looks happy, it doesn’t mean that it feels happy: “By magic [the speaker was referring to a magic spell that had featured in the story] someone may always have a smile on their face but underneath they may be very sad,” said one girl.
There are several interesting features about this exchange that help us to understand what the extent and limits of philosophy with children are:
- This is clearly a developed and sustained line of reasoning (something like an argument against behaviourism); it is not just a single, isolated statement that superficially resembles something profound such as “Life is a jigsaw with one piece missing”. There is a context, which demonstrates some of what the philosopher John White calls “philosophical intention”.
- The argument is put forward as part of a dialogue between speakers as opposed to being the product of just one thinker (as with the first example above).
- It would be very unlikely that the children – or at least many of them – would be able to recount the argument or the steps made after they had made it. (This of course changes as they get older and there are exceptional cases.)
- They are not necessarily aware of what it is they have actually done. They may have formulated an argument against a behaviourist-like position but would not be aware, more generally, that they had done this, or of the implications of such an argument. (Again, this changes as they get older and again, there are exceptional cases.)
- There were strategies and techniques that were employed by the facilitator that were needed to enable the children to construct this line of reasoning. Without them the level of sophistication present in the example simply would not have occurred (see The If Machine for examples of these strategies and techniques.)
From these observations we see not only that the children are capable of philosophical thinking but, where their philosophising is deficient, we can see a space for an argument for why they should do philosophy. Given that they have a basic ability to philosophise surely there is a case for saying that they be given the opportunity to practise philosophising so that they can develop the aspects that they are less good at, such as taking a wider, more holistic view of a discussion as a whole (points 3 and 4 above), what is sometimes called “the synoptic view”. As the philosopher Simon Glendinning said during an interview with Baggini after one of our events (a Philosophers’ Football match celebrating the famous Monty Python sketch), just because children are not very good at playing music or doing maths is no reason to refrain from teaching them music or maths or from encouraging them to do so. It is precisely because they are not good at them that they are taught them or encouraged to do them – so that they can get better.
Interestingly, philosophy has a good deal in common with both maths and music. It shares with maths a logical, conceptual foundation, and it shares with both of them an intrinsic value, i.e. that one is motivated to pursue it for its own sake and that it is good to pursue for its own sake. These are two powerful reasons for doing philosophy – with anyone, for that matter, not just children – but also two reasons that increasingly find themselves distanced from our instrumental, productivity-based society.
If we must, then here are some instrumental arguments (briefly put) for why philosophy should be taught in schools, or for that matter, why it should be taught at all:
The “basic” argument: Thinking and reasoning are even more basic than the three Rs (reading, writing and artithmetic) given that reasoning (the fourth “R”?) and the concepts involved in reasoning underpin all three. Philosophy is the subject that specialises in conceptual thinking and reasoning, therefore we may appeal to a very basic educational need for doing philosophy, i.e. conceptual thinking and reasoning.
The “truth” argument: By honing the concepts that we use in all other truth-seeking subjects (e.g. the sciences), philosophy, which is singularly concerned with concepts and reasoning, is the subject best placed to improve the thinking on which the other truth-seeking subjects are based, thereby improving our efforts to reach truth. (This is to paraphrase an argument owed to Catherine McCall.)
The incoherence argument: When incoherence occurs between disciplines (or simply in the way the world seems to “hang together” or not) one needs the tools to deal with such incoherence, to be able to attempt to make sense of it. Philosophy is the subject that specialises in making sense of incoherence. Therefore philosophy should be taught. (This is a paraphrase of an argument put forward to me by Stephen Boulter.)
It is worth noting that incoherence is just as much a feature of school children’s lives as anyone else’s. Just think of the way the children learn objectivity in the sciences but then are taught something like universal relativism in other aspects of their schooling, perhaps in religious education or the classroom mantra “opinions are never wrong” and such like.
The inescapability argument: Philosophical problems are inescapable. Every time you read something in a newspaper or on the internet you are faced with a philosophical problem: how do you know when something is true? When the teacher teaches you about atoms and shows you the atomic model: how do they know that atoms look like that if they’ve never seen one? If it’s true that philosophical problems are inescapable then surely there is an argument for preparing people/students for how to respond to these problems intelligently and philosophically. (This is a paraphrase of an argument put to me by Michael Hand.)
Perhaps the last word on teaching philosophy to children should go to Montaigne, who wrote, back in the sixteenth century: “Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?”
Peter Worley is co-founder and CEO of The Philosophy Foundation. He is author of The If Machine and The If Odyssey both published by Bloomsbury, editor and contributor for The Philosophy Shop and co-author of Thoughtings, both published by Crown House. Visit www.philosophy-foundation.org for more information.