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Can Children Philosophise? The case for caution

Richard Fox argues that children are doers, not thinkers (From the archives, 2003)

education200For several years I was involved in investigating and implementing the educational programme known as “Philosophy for Children” (P4C). During that time I developed mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it seemed to offer a powerful framework and method for involving children in productive discussion and collective thinking. On the other hand, children have difficulties with philosophising, which the programme’s literature and training seem to underestimate.

Here, I want to explain what some of those difficulties are. This should not be seen as an attempt to debunk P4C. Indeed, I believe that its core pedagogical method – the “community of enquiry” – is a simple and effective means of facilitating class discussion. It has the potential to provide an intellectual core to classroom life, a forum within which any and all issues can be raised and considered within clear rules of engagement. We might call this philosophy in a loose sense of the word, but we should be mindful that children typically do not make systematic progress in truly philosophical thinking until much later, when they are 15 or older.

Having said all that, my main purpose here is to criticise what I see as an excess of optimism within P4C about children’s thinking. This seems to be rooted in the systematic neglect of the findings of developmental psychology and a refusal to admit that there may be any real limitations to children’s powers of thought. These factors mean that four key problems are ignored.

The first is the simple fact that children are made chiefly for action. They mostly like doing things. Their nature is to move, to explore, to interact and to try things out in a practical way. Visit any interactive museum and this propensity is evident. You will see children drawn to opportunities to press buttons, turn wheels, pull levers, run about and generally try things out. Children in their first years at school actually start to writhe about physically, in a manner they cannot control, if they are left sitting for too long, for example during an assembly. When the doors to the playground are flung open at breaks, their immediate reaction is typically to run about, twirl around, jump and shout. These simple facts are familiar to all who spend any time with children. But for some reason they are seldom mentioned in educational texts.

One implication is that children will have limited patience and perseverance with any classroom activity that demands long periods of inaction, of listening rather than speaking, and of attention only to the “thread” of spoken language, unrelated to practical activity. All primary teachers intuitively know that tasks involving some form of making or doing are initially likely to be more popular than tasks involving listening, silent reading or writing. It takes time for language by itself to be the focus of children’s attention for long periods.

Developmental psychology goes some way to explain why this is so. Margaret Donaldson has described in elegant detail how initially perception, action, thought and emotion are bundled closely together in children’s minds and are gradually, and partially, disassembled, during development. Thus babies cannot separate out thought from feeling or from action. They seem to perceive, act, feel and think all at once. As they get older, children gradually learn to look without touching, then to think and talk without acting, even about things they cannot see or hear. Finally they may learn to put feelings to one side in the process of dispassionate enquiry, unrelated to their own immediate concerns.

This doesn’t mean children are incapable of attending to relatively formal discussions. Even five year-olds, or most of them, can learn to sit quietly on the carpet and take part in something like the Literacy Hour. And it is true, too, that all of schooling works to develop in children this patient activity of dealing in representations of the world, rather than with the world itself. (What more than anything else teaches them this new kind of thoughtful engagement is involvement in listening to stories). All I am concerned to point out here is that P4C, and other “thinking lessons” and indeed literacy lessons tend to rely on discussion, reading and writing, rather than on physical exploration and active manipulation. To this extent they are difficult for a young child and many children find them irksome, at least sometimes. Prolonged concentration on an oral discussion, involving one’s peers, is a difficult achievement.

The second problem concerns group discussion and empathy. A successful discussion requires the ability to understand and value other participants’ points of view. This is not an ability all adults demonstrate consistently. I have often found myself impatiently sitting through long meetings or group philosophy discussions when no one seems to want to hear my (oh, so important!) point and others persist in taking the conversation in directions that fail to interest me. But I do have an advantage over children, in that I am more practised at the business of considering other people’s feelings and points of view and at inhibiting my own train of thought whilst attending to that of others in the group. Again, and of course, children do learn to do these things. But the primary-aged child finds it very difficult. There is a well-documented, slow progression, roughly between 4 and 12 years, during which children gradually learn to distinguish between their own mental view of the world and that of other people, to co-ordinate these points of view reciprocally and to allow for them, for example in conversation. This means that learning to listen well, to build one’s contribution to a discussion on what has gone before, to avoid repeating points already made and in general to tailor one’s ideas to the developing needs of the group, is something of an uphill struggle for primary children. In my experience, and not surprisingly, they frequently fail to sustain such a level of discussion.

The third problem concerns philosophy and its methods, in relation to other academic subjects in the school curriculum. It is only really in the last two hundred years or so that philosophy has become separated from the natural sciences. The term “natural philosophy” for many years covered both empirical and conceptual enquiries. Now there is a pretty clear distinction: if a question is best answered by observation or experiment, it belongs with the natural or social sciences. If conceptual analysis and interpretation of meanings best answer it, it belongs to philosophy or to other interpretative disciplines.

My problem is that children have the same general attitude towards this matter as the ancient Greeks, for whom this distinction did not exist. If and when children do become interested in general questions they are not at all concerned to distinguish between subjects or methods of enquiry. Thus what starts off as, say, a talk about number, or infinity, can easily turn to matters such as the creation, the nature of black holes, the age of the universe or life after death. Science, cosmology, history, religion and philosophy are all jumbled happily together. If our concern is to hold wide-ranging classroom discussions about issues of interest to children, this doesn’t matter at all. However, if, as some P4C advocates seek to do, we want to focus especially on philosophical issues and concerns, and hence philosophical progress, we would again be going against the grain of children’s thinking.

The fourth problem concerns language and meaning. In an interesting experiment, Astington and Olson told subjects a story in which a character, Barbara, wants to sneak out of the house and buy Adam a present, without his knowing. In the course of the story, Barbara says, “We’re out of milk. I’m going to the store.”

After hearing the story, the subjects were asked which of the following correctly describes what Barbara did when she uttered that sentence:

Barbara means that she is going to buy milk.
Barbara concedes that she is going to buy milk.
Barbara asserts that she is going to buy milk.
Barbara implies that she is going to buy milk.

Very few 12 year-olds could get this right. Similar research shows that only in middle childhood do children distinguish clearly between the (easier) cases of asserting, predicting and promising. In general, the difference between what people actually say and what they mean (their communicative intention) is hard for young children to understand. Yet it lies at the heart of the activity of philosophising.

Philosophy is centrally concerned to examine closely what has been said and to analyse what has been meant, asserted, implied or conceded and so forth. Philosophy gets going, as it were, when words are considered apart from their immediate context of communication and examined for sense, consistency, validity and implicit assumptions. Philosophy is the enquiry into what is meant, by what is said. Yet we know that primary-aged children find this very distinction both unnatural (in the sense that they don’t spontaneously do it themselves) and difficult.

A related aspect of this problem is that philosophy is chiefly concerned with “second-order” questions, not, for example, whether it’s wrong to steal, but what sorts of criteria and arguments we should use in making such moral judgements. Children have yet to sort out second-order from first order questions. Nor are they much interested in them, since they don’t really understand them. They may discuss the rights or wrongs of stealing, but they are unlikely to make much progress in understanding ethics. This may not worry supporters of P4C at all, but for me it has the implication that one cannot expect much genuinely philosophical progress in P4C groups. It is rare for children to begin to go beyond particular points and anecdotes and to articulate the general underlying issues or problems raised by a discussion. Kuhn argues that it takes children years to realise fully (i) that assertions are not simply reflections of reality, (ii) that assertions are not simply and certainly true or false, (iii) that knowing is a human and fallible process and (iv) that, nevertheless, it is worth comparing and evaluating assertions, using reason and evidence (as in philosophical enquiry).

It is bracing and exciting to throw off the reservations of psychologists and to commit oneself to the idea that children are not barred from any kind of enquiry. P4C was, in its early days, much encouraged by its success in ignoring the limitations proposed by Piagetian cognitive psychologists. There is an unwarranted romanticism, however, in continuing to ignore what later research has continued to suggest, namely that it takes children many years to have a clear understanding of general, abstract, second-order questions, unrelated to any particular time and place. I think Egan is right to see the “philosophical” as a higher level of understanding, usually reached by some but not all children in the post fifteen year-old period.

These problems do not constitute a reason for barring general discussions with children about ideas, or indeed to doing preparatory work on philosophical thinking. Rather, they add up to a series of predictions about the kinds of difficulty and lack of clear progress that one is likely to encounter in such discussions during the primary school years. Of course one is always free to define philosophical thinking in a more liberal manner, for example as any and all sorts of wondering about the world. But I feel that this kind of thing should be distinguished from the kind of systematic theoretical thinking that characterises philosophy as studied formally, for example in universities. Moreover, in the case of such general “wondering,” philosophical issues appear to have no particular priority and should be dealt with alongside historical, scientific, literary or other sorts of issue.

A more realistic acceptance of the nature and pace of children’s cognitive development would also allow for a better assessment of children’s progress in thinking and communication, during such discussions, indicating what difficulties they are having and suggesting how they are moving towards being able to do philosophy. Advocates of P4C are keen to show that it has benefits, sometimes in terms of philosophical progress, sometimes in terms of its effects on other parts of the curriculum. However, the challenge is to show that it really does so. To do this one would need to show measurable progress for a group doing P4C which is significantly greater than that of a matched control group not doing P4C, in a post-test compared to a pre-test. Ideally, the tests would be of both philosophy, as studied by the experimental group, and of other subjects or skills that are claimed to improve as a consequence of P4C work. I know of no such study. Needless to say, I would be delighted if one were to be produced but, until then, I remain a sceptic about the benefits of P4C.

An earlier version of this article appeared in Teaching Thinking, issue 4, Summer 2001. (www.teachthinking.com).

Suggested reading
Human Minds, M. Donaldson (Penguin).
The Educated Mind, K Egan (University of Chicago Press).
Cognitive Development, J H Flavell (Prentice Hall).

Dr Richard Fox has retired after being senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Exeter.


One comment for “Can Children Philosophise? The case for caution”

  1. ” . . an excess of optimism . . .” is exactly what I felt about the two previous papers given here on this subject, to the point of disbelief, though I was reserving some hope that the mentioned program does have some merit.
    Dr. Fox, you did answer a basic question I had about the purported aim of the program, viz. is teaching philosophy just a matter of asking and talking about questions that have a certain philosophical ring to them? I’m happy to be in agreement with you on this.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | April 24, 2010, 5:50 pm