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Archive for May, 2009

The Classroom in One Voice

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on May 29, 2009


Dialectic is a form of enquiry that makes use of question-and-answer, or objections-and-replies as its basic structure. In other words it is an enquiring conversation, reflective and critical. The word ‘conversation’ pinpoints the essential character of dialectic: there is more than one speaker. 

Sophists and Socrates

Dialectic as the standard method of philosophical enquiry probably began with Socrates. He took exception to the methods of the Sophists (from which the word ‘sophisticated’ originates) for engaging in argument. They were a professional group of philosophers that took a fee to teach the skills of rhetoric; the art of the public speaker. What Socrates took exception to was their indifference to truth; they were concerned only with teaching how to win an argument not with which argument was true. Two ancient Geek words capture the distinction between the approach of the Sophists and Socrates respectively: eristic and dialectic. The first of these is ‘combative’ and the second ‘collaborative’. 

Plato’s Dialogues

In fact, we only know about Socrates from Plato’s written works in which he depicts the character of Socrates, and most of his philosophical works were written in dialogue form, detailing discussions between Socrates and various other characters from Athens. Although they represent an internal dialogue in the head of Plato, his dialogues are, prima facie, an externalisation of the enquiry process; that is, something going on outside of the heads of the interlocutors and between the different speakers. 

Classroom Philosophy and Magnets

When doing philosophy in the classroom it is the Socratic model that we begin with because it is very difficult to get children to engage in a philosophical discussion or thought process on their own. Put a group of children together and they naturally engage in dialectic, pushing the enquiry into directions it could never go with just one child. We use the external process of dialectic to magnetise children into philosophical enquiry. And it works.

Descartes swallowed Plato!

Now take a look at Descartes’ Meditations. This is not written in dialogue form, there is only one speaker addressing the reader who cannot object or question; it looks very different to Plato. But take a closer look and you will see that it is not quite as simple as this. The dialogue is taking place but implicitly. Descartes seems to have swallowed Plato and internalised the process of dialectic. If you read the first Meditiation carefully you will notice that there are different speakers but given only one voice: the narrator’s. Descartes makes a point in on sentence and then raises an objection in the next; he then responds to the objection in the next sentence and the enquiry continues in this fashion. This is what has sometimes been called the dialogue in one voice

The classroom in one voice

One of the overall aims of the philosophy project in primary school is to internalise the dialectic process so that any one child can learn to question and challenge their own thoughts and assumptions as if they were someone else. This has prodigious implications for self evaluation, moral development and critical thinking. If this is achieved then the child has learned to engage in second-order thinking.

Why philosophy should be taught in primary school

As you can imagine, a process like this, i.e. the internalisation of the dialectic process, needs time to be properly assimilated by a student, and it is best if the habit is formed at an early stage of a child’s development so that it is more easily naturalised (think of language learning). Because of the obvious difficulties of trying to confer this kind of habit to teenagers, it is therefore best to do this before adolescence, so, learning dialectic is best done when in primary school.


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The Future Teacher: Learning from the past

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on May 28, 2009

This essay was first published on the Teacher’s TV website as a prize-winning entry for a competition entitled Tomorrow’s Teacher. See for downloadable collection of all the winning entries. At the time I had not read the short story by Isaac Asimov called ‘The Fun They Had’ about a possible future teacher. But I wish I had, so that I could use it to make the point that technology does not necessarily herald progress. I think technology will play an important role in the future of teaching but unless we consider the timeless virtues of teaching that must be embraced by the teacher, the technology will count for little. I have included the complete list of judge’s comments about the ‘think piece’ at the end as only one was included on the website version.

Plato: the virtue of teaching

For my vision of a future teacher I would like to draw upon the past. Nearly two and a half thousand years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Plato wrote a dialogue called the Meno that begins with the question: can virtue be taught? but quickly develops into an extraordinary discussion of the nature and form of teaching itself.  I believe there is a great deal we can learn from Plato even to this day, helping answer what might be our secondary question: what are the virtues of teaching?

 The child-centred questioner

From the perspective of my future teacher some very important principles emerge from the discussion. Socrates, Plato’s protagonist in the dialogue, states that knowledge will not come from teaching but from questioning, he says that the student ‘will recover it for himself’. My teacher will put questioning at the heart of their teaching so that, as much as possible, the student will be able to arrive at knowledge from their own starting point: approaching new knowledge from that which is already known to them. The teacher will not only question but will develop questioning to the level of an art so that they can fashion any part of a curriculum around good questioning and thereby fully engage the students with the learning process. Learning to put the child at the centre of the learning process is comparable to the Copernican revolution of putting the sun at the heart of the solar system in place of the Earth and, as Montaigne, the 16th century writer acknowledged, this is no easy task:

It is good to make him [the student] trot in front of this tutor in order to judge his paces and to judge how far down the tutor needs to go to adapt himself to his ability. If we get that proportion wrong we spoil everything; knowing how to find it and to remain well-balanced within it is one of the most arduous tasks there is. It is the action of a powerful, elevated mind to know how to come down to the level of the child and to guide his footsteps. Personally, I go uphill more firmly and surely than down.”

                                              Michel De Montaigne (1533-1592), On Educating Children

And, as Montaigne himself quoted in the same essay: “Obest plerumque iis qui discere volunt authoritas eorum qui docent.” [For those who want to learn, the obstacle can often be the authority of those who teach.]


Also in Plato’s Meno he discusses the importance of ignorance and perplexity (aporia in ancient Greek) in the learning process. For many, not knowing and confusion are seen in a negative light, often signifying stupidity or failure. Plato did not think so: only by going through this essential stage of the learning process can one hope to arrive at insight and clarity. The future teacher will celebrate this state and use it to 1) show how this signifies a proper engagement with the subject; 2) communicate how this can be harnessed to reach deeper levels of thought and insight and 3) use aporia to motivate rather than stifle a student. The future teacher will also not be afraid of their own aporia and will use it to collaborate with the students and will use Socratic irony (feigned ignorance about a topic) to encourage the students to think for themselves as Socrates did with his interlocutors in the marketplace of Athens. No longer will the teacher feel that they cannot be wrong and no longer will they feel the need to portray themselves as a fountain of all knowledge.


An aoidos (literally: ‘singer’) was the ancient Greek name for a teller of epic poems and Homer, of The Odyssey/Illiad fame, was an aoidos. The Odyssey itself was told, following an oral tradition, for hundreds of years before it was written down (probably not by Homer). There are many other examples of oral traditions of storytelling in other cultures too, but with the advent of the printed word and now DVDs etc. this skill has been lost to all but a very few as we have learnt to relinquish these skills to technology. The future teacher will revive this tradition with aplomb. Teachers will build a repertoire of stories for young and older students for all sorts of contexts from learning to speak and write to the use of thought experiments to explain Newton’s concept of absolute space in ‘A’ level physics, thereby putting learning into a narrative context – putting the ‘story’ back into ‘history’.


Also in the Meno Socrates speaks of the difference between true knowledge and true opinion. In other words about knowledge supported by sound reasoning (true knowledge) and the right answer got by some other method such as being told (true opinion). He thought that getting the right answer was all well and good but if it was not arrived at by a reliable method then it was not worth much. The future teacher will prefer a good understanding of the processes and concepts involved in learning rather than simply getting the right answer by any means. This idea is captured in the ancient Greek word logos, which translates as ‘reason’, or, better still, ‘account’ as this translation captures the importance of the process rather than the outcome of reasoning.


The future teacher will encourage logos, in the right sense described above, by encouraging a disposition towards dialectic in his or her students, first of all among the class as a group but then – perhaps more importantly – as an internal process inside the head of each student as if they had transported the whole class into their head. Dialectic is sometimes described as a ‘collaborative search for truth through discourse, questioning and reasoning’. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle thought that the best character attributes were learned as habits rather than skills, which may or may not be used. If the process of dialectic is learned at an early age both as an external and internal process then the students will carry with them a naturalised disposition towards learning that will feed their natural curiosity as young people and preserve it as older people. The students will best learn this not from books but by having these skills modelled for them by a good teacher who demonstrates these skills each time they stand before their students in the classroom.

Learning to dance

The future teacher will work towards the development of ‘a well-formed rather than a well-filled brain’, in the words of Montaigne. To borrow some more of his words: the future teacher will give the students an understanding but not content with that, she will then aim to make their understanding dance:


Take Palvel and Pompeo, those excellent dancing masters when I was young: I would like to have seen them teaching us our steps just by watching them without budging from our seats, like those teachers who seek to give instruction to our understanding without making it dance…

                                                            Montaigne, ibid

Judges Comments:

Extraordinarily insightful, a brilliant exposition of why every future teacher could do well to learn the lessons of the past’.

Far from being conservative, this essay was radical in its ideas’.

It was interesting to read a quote from the 16th century in this piece  ‘For those who want to learn, the obstacle can often be the authority of those who teach’. I would like to feel that teachers would read this piece and learn from it’.

Lovely to see the importance of the teacher in this and how the future teacher will work towards the development of ‘a well formed rather than a well-filled brain’’.

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