Think of doing philosophy with children. What picture does this conjure up? Should we imagine classes slaving over the works of Plato or listening to a lecture on educational philosophy? Think again.
Whether it is truth or beauty, friendship or fairness, what’s right or what’s real, philosophy deals with so many things that children love to discuss. Set these ideas and concerns in stories and novels written for children. Add to this the procedures of classroom inquiry based upon the philosophical tools of reasoning and imaginative exploration. Top it off with a teacher whose role is to develop and challenge the students thinking. This is the starting point for philosophy for children.
Traditionally, philosophy is the discipline primarily concerned with logical, critical and reflective thinking, the development of reasoning competence and the analysis of meaning. Philosophy is thinking dedicated to the improvement of thinking. It is both open-ended and rigorous.
Philosophy taps children’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder. It engages them in the search for meaning and enriches and extends their understanding. It strengthens thinking and reasoning skills and builds self-esteem. It helps to develop the qualities that make for good judgement in everyday life.
“I like Philosophy because it gives me a chance to discuss new things and hear other people’s thoughts about it” A Year 7 student’s comment.
A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
Developed more than twenty years ago by Dr. Matthew Lipman a philosophy professor at Montclair State College in New Jersey, Philosophy for Children is an international educational programme taught widely in many countries. At last count, Philosophy for Children was represented in some thirty countries around the world - ranging from Austria to Iceland, Bulgaria to Brazil and Canada to Taiwan - with philosophical conversations among children taking place in sixteen languages.
“In philosophy you learn how to think, not what to think” A student.
WHAT IS SO SPECIAL ABOUT PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN?
Philosophy for Children is often described as a thinking skills programme or a course in critical and creative thinking. While it is true that philosophy for children does improve students’ critical and creative thinking skills, calling it a “thinking skills” programme does not do it justice. It does much more as well.
Philosophy for children builds on the students’ own wonder and curiosity about ideas that are vitally important to them. The subject matter of Philosophy for Children is those common, central and contestable concepts that underpin both our experience of human life and all academic disciplines. Examples of such concepts are:
The central pedagogical tool and guiding ideal of Philosophy for Children is the community of inquiry. In the community of inquiry, students work together to generate and then answer their own questions about the philosophical issues contained in purpose written materials or a wide range of other resources. Thinking in the community of inquiry is critical, creative, collaborative and caring.
In the community of inquiry students learn to respect, listen to and understand a diverse range of views. The process of philosophical exploration in this environment encourages students to take increased responsibility for their own learning processes and to develop as independent and self-correcting learners. Students develop the confidence and intellectual courage to put forward their own views in a group. Participation in the community of inquiry develops higher order thinking skills in the context of meaningful discussion.
Outcomes of Participation in the Philosophical Community of Inquiry:
higher order thinking skills
excitement and motivation
increased reading comprehension
maths and science achievement
increased co-operative skills
better relationships with peers and parents
personal development and self esteem
transfer of skills to other areas of study
Skills learnt in the community of inquiry are transferable. Philosophy for children enables students to make bridges between the various things they learn, thus making the curriculum more meaningful to them. Both the co-operative skills and the thinking skills developed in Philosophy for Children contribute to improved social interactions and greater social responsibility.
THE SKILLS DEVELOPED BY PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN
Philosophy for children improves critical, creative and rigorous thinking. Participants develop their higher order thinking skills and the attitudes and dispositions necessary for good thinking. They improve their communication skills and their abilities to work with others. Specifically these include:
Cognitive Skills Evaluating reasons and arguments Exploring and analysing concepts Drawing inferences Identifying underlying suppositions and assumptions Making distinctions Seeing connections Identifying fallacies Testing generalisations Formulating questions Clarifying ideas Constructing arguments Refining and modifying arguments in response to criticism Recognising implications: theoretical and practical Finding examples and counter examples Finding analogies and disanalogies Seeing broader perspectives Formulating and testing criteria Being consistent Sticking to the point Self correction
Co-operative Skills Listening to others Open mindedness Treating others’ views with respect Building on others’ ideas Confident self expression Being willing to offer criticism Being willing to accept and respond to criticism Becoming committed to inquiry Valuing reasonableness Developing intellectual courage
“The students become accustomed to asking each other for reasons and opinions, to listening carefully to each other, to building on each other’s ideas” Dr. Matthew Lipman
WHAT DOES IT INVOLVE?
Philosophy for children achieves these aims by giving students the opportunity to think for themselves about ideas and concepts that they themselves select as the ones which are interesting and worthwhile pursuing. Examples might be: What has a mind? How should we treat our friends? Should we always think for ourselves? What would a fair society be like? Do we own our bodies? What does it mean to know something? What counts as a good reason for something?
A typical session consists of a group reading of a source text, followed by the gathering of students’ questions that have been stimulated by the reading. These questions form the agenda for discussion. Each reading usually generates enough questions for several subsequent discussions in the community of inquiry. The students’ collaborative inquiry can be facilitated by the use of appropriate discussion plans and exercises, which function to maintain focus and encourage depth of discussion. Purpose written texts are just one possible source material. Other written material, images and recordings can also be used to stimulated philosophical inquiry. Drawing and drama can also be used as a springboard for discussion.
Discussion in the community of inquiry is not just a process of swapping opinions. Classroom discussion is aimed at the construction of the best answer to the questions raised. This best answer is not provided or validated by the teacher. Instead, the class has the responsibility for both constructing and evaluating the range of possible responses to a question. Philosophy for children is not based on the assumption that there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, it is based on the belief that, even if final answers are difficult to come by, some answers can reasonably be judged better - more defensible - than others.
Philosophy for Children emphasises a conversation and dialogue based process of inquiry. As all participants share their own ideas so each individual must consider many different perspectives. Many students have the experience of seeing that what they thought was obvious is not obvious to people who have different perspectives. This encourages tolerance of others’ ideas, and increases students’ ability to work together.
“It taught me to think deeper into subjects and I could open up and say what I thought instead of being afraid of doing so.” Year 6 student
PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN AND VALUES EDUCATION
Ethical values are integrated into philosophy for children in two ways. First, the ethos of the community of inquiry both requires and develops a range of ethical values that are essential to participation in a society in which there exists a plurality of values. These “democratic” values include tolerance, respect for others, taking all ideas seriously, caring for the procedures that govern collaborative inquiry, and willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints. Secondly, ethical questions are often the subject of inquiry. Ethics is a central area in philosophy and many of the purpose written materials stimulate philosophical exploration of concepts such as good, bad, fairness, rules, rights, duty, friendship, and empathy.
The issue of values education has given rise to two contrasting concerns. First, some people fear that “values education” is likely to be authoritarian and didactic and therefore, in the long term, ineffective. Second, others fear that if children are encouraged to make up their own minds about ethical values, there will be little agreement about core values, and that children will adopt a relativist position on values, according to which all choices for action are equally “good” and all immune from criticism. Ethical inquiry in philosophy for children avoids both these perceived dangers. Exploring ethical questions in the community of inquiry does require students to make up their own minds, through dialogue with others, but the rigorous nature of the inquiry, and the emphasis on assessing reasons for positions means that, in practice, a community is very unlikely to come to the conclusion that “anything goes”. In fact, students in the community of inquiry typically recreate for themselves - and own - a stable set of core ethical values which have withstood the test of careful evaluation.
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