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Mind-play: philosophy with children and its critics

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 10, 2009

In an article in the Daily Mail on the 9th April in which our (The Philosophy Shop) work was featured, Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education was quoted as saying: “considering how many youngsters leave education without a fundamental grasp of the basics, schools should concentrate on building a foundation of knowledge for youngsters in the limited time they have.”

I would like to respond to this and, at the same time, respond to the more general objection to philosophy with young children: ‘what’s the point?’

Philosophy is not a well-meaning add-on to normal lessons that interferes more than helps with the national curriculum element of children’s learning. Philosophy deals with the very fundamental building blocks of all knowledge, namely concepts, and it seems to me that the problems children have with education are mainly conceptual problems. They learn a great deal of facts and procedures but whether they properly understand these facts and procedures is contentious (see my blog Good Thinking vs. The Right Answer for a discussion of this). Children need opportunities to apply these new concepts so that they begin to understand how they are used. Testing is one very artificial way of doing this but philosophy is a natural context for trying out new ideas and lines of reasoning and argument playfully but also very seriously. And philosophy has the unique ability to be applied to almost any subject from maths to R.E. and enables the children to gain the understanding of these subjects that simply learning the procedures involved in them fails to do.

Teachers that I work with have recognised a real value in using the philosophy sessions to aid their national curriculum work and assessment. For example, after spending a few weeks putting the children through a science module on ‘sound’ in Year 5, then following this with a philosophy session on ‘sound’ asking children questions like ‘can you see with sound?’ (like bats or dolphins) and ‘if a tree falls in a forest with nobody around to hear it, would it make a sound?’ visibly allows the children to apply the knowledge they have gained in science to imagined situations. The teacher is able to see exactly who has understood the concepts they have been introduced to and also what has not been understood. It also enables the children to work through their understanding together so that by the end of the session the understanding level within the class will have been raised.

When lions are growing in the wild they play almost continuously and it is this play that develops the skills that will be so necessary to them as adults and in the same manner the best playground for the children to develop their essential thinking skills is the philosophy session. Maybe there is something here for future testing reform. If testing should continue – which I think it probably will need to – then a more natural context that tests children while they play might be the future of assessment and using the philosophy model could be the way to approach this.

Karin Muriss has argued that there should be a fourth R: reasoning. It boils down to this: what use is reading, writing and arithmetic if one does not know how to apply it properly? Socrates said that true opinions are a fine thing but they do no good if they are not accompanied with understanding and good reasoning. If the three Rs are the water then the fourth R provides the channels through which the water is given direction and purpose.


2 Responses to “Mind-play: philosophy with children and its critics”

  1. Red Baron said

    Knowledge is having in your possession a collection of facts, wisdom is knowing what to do with them.

    It takes time and effort to be able to ascertain whether a child (Or an adult) has wisdom, whereas it is a simple process of checkboxes to determine if they have knowledge. Our education system now is one of lowest common denominators and paths of least resistance. We will in this more perhaps than anything else reap what we sow.

  2. Martin Hargreaves said

    It was thinking along very similar lines to this which led us to home educate ours, which is a lot of fun and working out quite nicely.

    Do the Philosophy shop have anything pitched at Home Ed groups, by the way? 🙂

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