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Live philosophy session on radio

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on October 27, 2011

Primary school philosophy live on the Philosophy Now radio show, with children from All Saints School, Blackheath, years 4-6 (ages 8-10). Run by Peter Worley, interviewed by Grant Bartley from Philosophy Now.

Available to listen to here: (Show number 13)

This paper was written to aid our trainees. This is a document of techniques, hints and tips and good practice by The Philosophy Foundation, written whilst listening to this podcast. Particularly interesting contrast between Peter, using the PhiE method, and Grant who hasn’t had any experience or training in doing philosophy with children.

For more on the PhiE method and techniques for doing philosophy with children and developing higher-order thinking buy The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom by Peter Worley. Available here:

‘The best book of its kind currently available, an invaluable resource for teachers wanting to try out some philosophy in their classrooms and a significant contribution to educational theory. Buy it!’ Michael Hand, Reader of Philosophy, London’s Institute of Education.

NB: some of the techniques mentioned here (‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’), all fully explained in The If Machine, but for a quick overview you can download Peter’s paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’

First discussion

  • Notice the clarity of the opening question to the children.
  • Repetition of stimulus and Task Question (TQ): TQ – Talk Time – TQ repeated.
  • Encouraging divergent answers (‘Lets see how many different answers we can find.’)
  • Because of nerves Peter’s responses are slower at beginning because he is taking the time to make sure he is actively listening (‘playing back’ in his head) – this is important to remember in the classroom, particularly when you are first starting out, nerves can be a problem – focus on listening very carefully to the children.
  • Peter reminds them of the hand/finger rule.
  • Trying to develop dialectic / controversy as soon as possible through the use of ‘fingers’ (responses) and Right-to-Reply (See The If Machine).
  • A few ‘echoes’ (repeating exactly back what the children have said) and paraphrases (ask questions – ‘is that right Charlotte?’ – to make sure the paraphrases are exactly what the children mean). Echoing gives everyone time to think about the last comment, and to make sure everyone has heard it.
  • Peter aids Carter and Luke in linking their ideas.
  • If-ing (a technique to encourage hypothetical thinking) with Carter (difference between the pencils) – ‘either-or-the-if’ and then ‘anchoring’ back to the TQ (See The If Machine for more on ‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’).
  • Gave Carter ‘time to think it through’ (Peter could see that he was nervous).
  • Clarification question (‘could you explain what you mean?’ with George).
  • Linking, with the use of ‘Tension Play’ (playing off ideas that disagree with each other to develop thinking, see The If Machine) George and Luke (pencils count as one thing).
  • George’s ‘Norway example’ providing a counter-example to Luke & Ellie’s idea that there was just one thing there.
  • Ellie (things / objects) – Peter could have if-ed ‘objects’ rather than correcting her about the question.
  • Jack and Ellie – (she asked him a really good question).
  • Clarification question used for Charlotte to understand atoms.
  • Peter makes sure they have a concept of ‘atom’ that they could work with. He avoided telling facts about atoms and molecules – more interested in a ‘working concept’.
  • If-ed to test and clarify Ellie’s idea of the number of atoms (‘if we had one atom… if we had two atoms…?’).
  • Heather –  Peter’s question: ‘Why are they different?’ (Justificatory questioning.)
  • Charlotte – ‘1006 things’ Aristotle, “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” – Charlotte seems to be moving towards this idea. If appropriate Peter will bring in relevant philosophers and their ideas later on in a session, see the Sibelius Model in his paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’ available to download here:

Second discussion

  • Charlotte takes Jacks ‘1000 atoms’ and ‘ifs’ with the idea perfectly well, as do the others. (Advanced hypothetical thinking.)
  • Peter refocuses the question by quoting Charlotte more accurately than she did herself.
  • Looking for agreement with Charlotte (‘Who agrees with Charlotte?’ – Response Detector, see The If Machine).
  • Peter allows Charlotte to respond generally.
  • George ‘But…’ (dialectic is developing nicely here, and naturally) this is because Peter is staying out of the discussion.
  • Peter seeks the less frequent contributors (this gets Luke to put up his hand).
  • New TQ (‘Emergent Question’, i.e. a question that has emerged from the discussion and therefore from the children) is introduced: ‘if we took the thousand atoms away, what would we be left with?’

Grant takes over (NB: Grant has not done philosophy with children before, so this is a brave move on live radio! Many of the problems Grant experiences are something that philosophers new to doing philosophy with children experience.

  • His objective is definitional.
  • He challenges the children personally and thus risks ‘blocking’ them.
  • This is essentially an eristic dynamic (eristic = ‘combative’ in contrast to dialectic = ‘collaborative’).
  • Adult / child disjunction (two conversations happening: Grant’s agenda / children’s limited understanding of that).
  • Discussion dries up in places due to the eristic dynamic.
  • Honeycomb dynamic – each child responding directly to the adult, rather than each other (no dialectic).
  • Grant shows some exasperation because he has an agenda and the children are perhaps not fulfilling his aim.
  • Putting words in their mouths: (the ‘so you’re saying…’ principle)
  • He’s doing all the talking (fear of silence – even worse on radio).
  • He has to keep rephrasing his questions until a child responds.
  • Children are no longer talking to each other but each one to him.
  • These kids are particularly good at dealing with his questions but many other children would simply dry up under this pressure.
  • Grant flicks from one idea to the next where the children are not sure of the rhetorical value of having done so (e.g. body / ghost questions) – because they don’t ‘own’ the conversation it is not clear that they understand it synoptically (the conversation as a whole) even though they understand each isolated exchange with Grant.

Third discussion

  • ‘Can you say a bit more about that?’ – Peter tries to get Carter to say more about his idea. Remember in a philosophy session to always go deeper: ‘why?’, ‘can you say more?’, ‘what do you mean by…?’
  • Corrected Eli’s ‘minicules’ without correcting her directly, merely by using the right word (although ‘minicules’ is lovely!)
  • Anchoring them to Charlotte’s challenge – more advanced level of focus here than at the beginning. ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’
  • ‘Can anyone answer Charlotte’s question?’ – ‘Anchoring’
  • George and Charlotte have started to take the discussion to another level
  • The discussion is touching on identity (‘is water identical with H2O?’) – this is one possibility of where to go next with the next session. An emergent discussion – the children are deciding on the direction rather than the facilitator, the facilitator keeps the discussion within the realms of philosophy, and uses techniques to deepen thinking and reasoning.
  • Anchored them again and again to Charlottes’ question ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’

Final question to the children: ‘Why do you like philosophy?’

  • Heather: I like speaking about what I think is right, but I also like finding out what other people think about it.
  • Luke: Philosophy is mainly all about thinking and I really like thinking because I think all the time.
  • George: We do questions which are hard. It helps you understand the question and be more open-minded. If you think about something quickly you’ll get the answer but it helps you to think: ‘is that exactly the correct answer or are there more?’
  • Ellie: There’s never just one answer – and there’s never a wrong answer. So, let’s say if I said something and Heather said something different, we’re both right in our own opinions.
  • Max: I just like solving the questions. I just like trying to ‘work’ it. Trying to get the answer.
  • Carter: I like when we finish the discussion and solve it and we have loads of different answers. I like it because it’s really a fun way of thinking about things.
  • Charlotte: It makes you think really deeply. And once you get really deep into the question there’s even more answers.

With thanks to all the children who took part in the programme, from All Saints School, Blackheath: Heather, George, Ellie, Max, Carter, George, Luke, Jack & Charlotte.


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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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The Music of Dialogue in Philosophy

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 26, 2009

Philosophy has a symbiotic relationship with dialogue stretching all the way back to Socrates who used dialogue to facilitate the philosophical process and thereby distinguished philosophy from the rhetoric of the Sophists. The latter group of philosophers applied argument in an eristic way, which is to say, in a combative mode where the two parties were pitted against one another in a battle, one of which would come out on top as victor. Socrates developed the dialectic mode of argumentation which united the interlocutors in a collaborative task to seek understanding together, challenging one another within this spirit of collaboration. To illustrate this distinction think of the concerto form in music (the word ‘concerto’ has its roots in combat and opposition): for the eristic model think of the piano concertos of Prokofiev or Rachmaninov where the instrumentalist is pitted against the full forces of the orchestra, and for the dialectic-model think of the A minor piano concerto of Schumann where the piano part is integrated into the orchestral part to produce a richer but collaborative overall effect.

To help understand the role of dialogue in the philosophical process I would like to ask you to listen to some more music. First of all, we shall listen to Beethoven’s masterpiece in disciplined, sustained thought: the first movement of the Fifth Symphony in C minor. The first thing we notice is the clarity of the opening idea: dun-dun-dun-dah (this is one of the only pieces of music where this wording will make sense). The second thing we notice is how everything that follows is generated from this single-cell idea. However, everything seems to respond in a dialogue with whatever came before. It begins to sound like people talking but always on the same topic and in direct response to each other. This is not café-chat – it is a philosophical argument. A good philosophy discussion or essay should follow a similar structure and be held together by the same discipline as Beethoven’s first movement.

However, this is the art of the philosophical expert. When learning philosophy the model is different. Before the interlocutors have learned the disciplines needed for such a taut argument they need to explore more freely but be moving toward the discipline of Beethoven’s Fifth. For this we shall turn to the first movement of Sibelius’ Second Symphony in D major. In common with the Beethoven this symphony also begins with a simple idea but in contrast it then introduces another simple idea until there are a number of what seem to be unrelated fragments rather than fully formed ideas. The fragments then spend the next five minutes or so toying with each other and restating themselves in various ways – inversions and modulations etc – interweaving and dancing with each other until they begin to find some cohesion which reaches its climax in the development section when all the ideas combine to be able to make a sustained and glorious argument which culminates with the huge brass statement. The symphony then returns to the fragmentary ideas but seen from a different perspective: all the original ideas have been in some way altered by their journey, and any good discussion should leave its participants slightly changed by the end.

Whereas Beethoven’s exposition is fully formed and stated in the first few minutes of the symphony, Sibelius’ full expression of the ideas of the opening of the symphony do not find their voice until about two thirds into the movement. This is how a philosophy discussion should be played out when it is the Socratic dialectic that is being pursued. The Beethoven is the essay and the Sibelius is the dialogue such as you would find in Plato’s works and also in Hume and Berkeley among others.

When working with children doing philosophy it is the Sibelius-model that we are looking to for the shape and form of a discussion. The facilitator provides the first theme to which the children then respond in various ways and sometimes in seemingly unrelated ways, but then the facilitator brings the fragments together and allows them to develop in relation to each other building and growing. If introducing the ideas of the philosophers (with any age-group) then allow the play of ideas to outline and intimate their ideas so that you have a context in which to then introduce them. This avoids arbitrariness and engages the students with the philosopher’s ideas, as they will resemble the ideas of the students themselves. 


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“Life’s not fair.” Discuss.

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 17, 2009

As someone who works in Schools – and many of them primary schools – I often come across teachers who explicitly teach the children the following well-worn lesson: “life is not fair.” I wonder whether it is fair to tell the children that this is how the world is. Preparing children for an uncertain world is one thing, instilling cynicism is quite another.

One of the philosophy sessions I do with primary school children is an exploration of the nature of fairness – a topic very close to any child’s heart, and one of the first things the children will say, if you ask them what we mean by ‘fair’, is that fair is ‘getting what you want’. However, it is not long before they start to see how this conception conflicts with other conceptions that they offer, such as, ‘fair is equal share’ or ‘equal treatment’ or ‘fair is’ based on ‘who needs it most’. It is a very important insight for the children to realise that there are often greater demands on conceptions of fairness than desire-satisfaction.

On the occasions when I have had an opportunity to discuss with a teacher why they feel they need to teach the children that ‘life’s not fair,’ they have often responded with words to the effect that ‘in life, you can’t always get what you want and the sooner they learn this the better.’ But, as you may have guessed from the previous paragraph, I think this response – and therefore, the lesson the children are going away with – is premised on a misconception of fairness, the very misconception the children begin with but quickly realise the limitations of.

So, it seems that many people believe that life is not fair because you can’t always get what you want. The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume said that there would be no need for justice in a world where everyone got what they wanted, and this suggests the opposite of the common view: that fairness is invoked precisely because ‘you can’t always get what you want’ (to quote the Rolling Stones). Politics, which is largely concerned with ideas of fairness in one way or another, is needed for the very reason that there are many people with conflicting interests and there is only a limited amount of resources, so, deciding ‘who gets what’ and ‘why’ is where the idea of fairness comes into being.

But, here, I will hand this question over to you: is the lesson that ‘life’s not fair’ a valuable lesson that all children need to learn?  

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Response to The Observer: What dilemma would you give a five-year-old?

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on April 14, 2009

I was very interested to read the questions – and the reasons for the questions – that four personalities put forward as philosophical questions for five-year-olds inspired by our work in The Observer this weekend.

Diane Abbot’s question reflected a current fear of youth in our society. I watched a very disturbing film recently called Eden Lake, which reflects the same fear. Her answer to the Observer’s question raises further pressing questions about moral education and some may wonder about the value of asking children to consider the nature of good and evil and whether a philosophical discussion of the topic would have any power to shape their moral behaviour especially as philosophy often remains morally neutral.

I think, however, that philosophy does engender moral mindfulness and philosophers are among the most moral people you will meet. Outside of religion, philosophy is the only context in which moral considerations are taken seriously and I think that it benefits from not having a particular agenda – children naturally kick against that which they feel is too prescriptive. The writer and philosophy-with-children practitioner, Robert Fisher, has distinguished between operational and received beliefs. Received beliefs are the beliefs that the children hear from parents and teachers and operational beliefs are those that the children hold implicitly – often formed from their own experiences and peers – that function to produce their actual behaviour. Received and operational beliefs are often at odds but philosophical discourse provides an opportunity to explore these discrepancies in greater detail and results in a higher degree of concordance between the two. On many occasions I have seen children reconsider their moral behaviour as a result of discussions they have had in the philosophy groups. Unsophisticated moral discussions, on the other hand, tend to follow this pattern: ask the children straight-forward moral questions and they will answer according to what they perceive the teacher to be expecting. All this does is provide an invisible barrier between what they will tell you and what they will do. It is much more difficult for the children to make this distinction in a natural discussion that includes motivations, contexts and real behaviour patterns and they will be less likely to want to manufacture perceived desired-answers if they do not detect judgement in the questioning.

Donald Macleod’s response I found puzzling, but, as I understood it, he seemed to be expressing exasperation at the sort of questions he gets from children. It reveals more about him than it does children. Perhaps because he is a representative of a religious perspective, he feels that he must have answers, but the key to the insistent use of “but why?” (Proof, by the way, that we are hardwired with a Leibnizian pre-disposition from the earliest of ages: the principle of sufficient reason, it’s just that children are able to spot that adults reasons are, on the whole, insufficient) from children is to properly engage them with their questioning. So, rather than answering with a definitive answer-structure, try answering the child’s question with a dialogue, an investigation or a conceptual exploration, at each point, allowing the child to answer their own question as far as they are able. It sounds like Donald Macleod is used to providing definitive answers to questions, it’s just that children uncomfortably bring to his (and our) attention the extent of his (and our) ignorance about things. The lesson? We need to learn to become more comfortable with our ignorance and lack of knowledge, especially when we find ourselves in the position of a teacher. As Socrates said: “wisest is she who knows that she know nothing.”

Mary Warnock sounds to me as though she has experience of speaking with young children on philosophical matters, as what she says sounds very familiar to me: colour and robots are perennial favourites with children. “How do I know that what I see when I see red is the same thing as what you see when you see red?” Asked one of my year 5 (age 10) students. “CB [a robot friend built for a boy by his father] only has emotions because of the emotion chip inside him. So it seems like he’s got emotions but inside he hasn’t really,” said a Year 4 (age 9) girl. This point is a very sophisticated observation that the outward display of behaviour is not conclusive evidence that there is accompanying experience matching that behaviour (sometimes known, in philosophy, as ‘the problem of other minds’ and is a big question in artificial-intelligence debates.) A question that emerged from a discussion with some Year 3 children that I think Mary would be very interested in was: can you blame a chair if it breaks when you sit on it? A fittingly existential question I think.

Barbara Gunnell’s question raises some very interesting questions itself about the relationship between philosophy and the disposition of children towards asking questions. Plato said that “philosophy begins in wonder,” and, although I agree with this wholeheartedly I think something needs to be clarified about this idea. Philosophy begins from a state of wonder that children naturally inhabit but it is important to recognise that ‘philosophy’ is not the same thing as ‘wonder’. In other words, there is a difference between asking questions and doing philosophy. Just like a seed in the soil, children need the right conditions for their question-asking to germinate into genuine philosophical enquiries and this depends very much on how we respond to those questions. In a way, philosophy is about asking ‘why?’ but it is also about how to turn the why-asking into something interesting, constructive and of value. Arguably, science, learning – and education generally – has come from doing just this, so, if we can learn, both as parents and teachers to respond in the philosophical spirit we can provide those conditions at an early age, and by doing so, prepare the children to continue in the spirit of philosophy their entire lives. All the other curriculum subjects depend on it.


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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.

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Good Thinking vs. ‘The Right Answer’

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on February 20, 2009

Here’s a question for you. Imagine a teacher asks this question: “what does 2 + 2 equal?” and child A responds with, “four, because its my lucky number,” but child B counts along the number line but makes a small error and says, “five.” Which would you consider to be the better answer and why?

I was leading a staff meeting where a debate ensued following this question about the importance of understanding when giving the right answer. Some two and a half thousand years ago Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher written about by Plato, said that a right answer is not worth much until it is ‘tethered’ by good reasons. As a philosopher who works with children and teachers, I subscribe to this view and would always prefer a wrong answer with good reasoning to a right answer with faulty or no reasoning (“Four, because it is my lucky number.”)

The Cambridge Primary Review report (20th February) has voiced concerns about the shortcomings of the current ‘testing-culture’ in education, and I would like to add to the many voices by saying that I think this education approach seems to favour the right answer over good reasoning. Let me provide some examples that have come to my attention through the work that I do in primary schools.

If you were shown a necker cube how would you answer the question whether it is 2D or 3D?

I have been in discussion with primary school children where many have said that it is 3D (including many teachers) but where some have pointed out that it is 2D because… “Even though it looks like a 3D shape, it’s really only 2D because it’s flat and you can’t turn it round, so it’s a 2D drawing of a 3D shape.” A perfectly sound bit of reasoning, surely. Now think about this: what sort of answer do you think would be expected of a child in a SAT situation? 3D perhaps?

Again, in a SAT situation, when asked what the definition of a square is, which of these lists would you prefer, A or B?


  • 4 straight sides
  • Equal sides
  • 2D
  • Opposite parallel lines
  • Sides connected by right angle


  • 4 straight sides
  • Equal sides
  • 2D
  • Sides connected by right angle 

I witnessed a discussion where the children removed ‘opposite parallel lines’ from the list because they said, “You don’t need it, because if you’ve got four straight, equal sides connected by right angles then you’ve already got opposite parallel lines.” (Interestingly, it was only originally included because one of the children was ‘cheating’ and reading off a wall chart that I was unaware of).  The teacher then felt the need to recommend that they still include it to get the marks. Whether or not they really would get less marks for list B, the teacher’s concern demonstrates the kind of thinking that is preferred and therefore encouraged in the children: expected answers over clearer thinking and better understanding.

If education is about teaching our children to think, then the current model seriously needs to be looked at, if not utterly reformed when it prefers an unthinking answer to a thinking one. 

Socrates and ‘Necessary and Sufficient Conditions’

Socrates is famous for going about the market place of Athens in the years running up to his death in 399 BC, and challenging the beliefs of many of its citizens by asking them philosophical questions such as what is justice? and what is courage?

He is one of the first historical figures to have insisted that people provide clear and precise definitions of words that they are using, such as ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ in order to make discussions about them fruitful. Later in philosophy this criteria for accuracy would be known as necessary and sufficient conditions. It sounds daunting but can be translated as ‘what is needed and what is enough’. When we speak of a square there are certain things that are needed, such as ‘sides’ or ‘right angles’, but they are not, by themselves enough to say that we have a square – any rectangle will have both sides and right angles. So philosophers would say that ‘sides’ and ‘right angles’ are necessary for a square but not sufficient.

What the children had done in the above example was identify that ‘opposite parallel lines’ are not even necessary for the definition of a square when they considered what else they had already listed (equal, straight lines connected by right angles). 


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Generation Why

Posted by Philosophy Foundation on February 7, 2009

(This is a longer version of a letter that was published in the TES, Friday 13th February 2009 as a response to Tim Birkhead’s article the previous week – see below.)

I agree with Tim Birkhead (We’ve bred a generation unable to think TES Comment Feb 6th) that the education system has not been producing independent thinkers by being far too proscriptive with the learning agenda. A colleague of mine who has worked in the philosophy department of a prestigious university commented to me that the expectations of the students have become more and more consumerist with each passing year. So not content to be set an essay question and some reading they have been demanding to know what the six main points are that they need to include in the essay in order to pass. Their position being: ‘I paid for this course so I demand to know what I need to do to pass it.’ What ever happened to philosophy as a subject of inquiry and exploration? Perhaps a little like Willy Wonker in Roald Dahl’s story Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The department’s answer to this should be: ‘You have failed already by making that demand.’

There is also a climate of anti intellectualism in this country and by the sound of Professor Birkhead’s article it is worsening. Bertrand Russell celebrated the British intellectual attitude when he said, “The British are distinguished among the modern nations of Europe, on the one hand by the excellence of their philosophers, and on the other hand for their contempt for philosophy. In both respects they show their wisdom.” Unfortunately, perhaps the virtues to which Russell was referring have dissolved into vices.

I work with teachers and children in primary schools and I am tackling this problem head on by doing philosophy with children and by bringing thinking skills (including questioning and discourse skills) into the classroom. I have found that, certainly at the primary level, children are naturally very good thinkers and all they need is a nudge in the right direction. The sad fact is that all too often they don’t even receive a nudge. Terms like ‘independent learners’ and ‘learner-centred’ are common  features of teacher-speak, but there is not enough evidence that it is being implemented in the classroom.

With regard to the critical thinking ‘A’ level, it is of little use if good thinking is not being taught at an earlier level. Good thinking is a disposition, it can’t be crammed in a short time (and as far as I am concerned one or two years is a short time to develop one’s thinking), it has to be naturalised earlier so that an ‘A’ level in critical thinking is honing those skills and not trying to introduce them. It would be like expecting a student to be able to do an ‘A’ level in a foreign language without having done any previous studies in the subject. Another colleague of mine who runs the ‘A’ level in critical thinking tells me how difficult it is to run with the current thinking abilities of today’s students. Surely thinking should be thought of in the same way as we think of nutrition, it must be addressed at the early stages of a student’s formation and cannot be introduced arbitrarily at the later stages and be expected to have a significant effect. One is left wondering if good thinking/independent learning really is recognised as the value education purports it to be. 


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