11 reasons to do philosophy with children

1. Philosophy helps students to reason confidently and not be taken advantage of

The purposes of public education are varied, but we might say that one of the most important is the creation of engaged citizens who know enough not to be taken advantage of. Journalists have a special role in this respect, but more broadly in a democracy it is vital that everyone has the ability to reason for themselves so that they are not (overly) swayed by charisma, cheap rhetoric, and unsubstantiated claims. In philosophy children are not given prescribed answers to difficult ethical and political questions. They need to come to their own conclusions on the basis of reasons and evidence that can be used to defend their views to others. The facilitator encourages students to think for themselves by using others’ views as counter-weights to students’ own views.

2. Philosophy plays a key role in cultivating students’ curiosity by highlighting ‘known unknowns’; things that we know we don’t know

According to the psychologist George Loewenstein, curiosity arises when we acknowledge a gap between what we don’t know and what we could know that we want to fill. The first part of engaging our curiosity is acknowledging that a gap worth filling exists. The former US secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld once said that ‘There are known knowns, thing we know we know. There are known unknowns, that is to say there are things we know that we don’t know. There are also unknown unknowns, things that we don’t know that we don’t know.’ We might say that a large part of philosophy consists in moving from things that we don’t know we don’t know to things that we know we don’t know. In philosophy we often begin with questions that appear unproblematic. During the course of our discussions students come to acknowledge the problematic nature of their world; they come to see puzzles that they didn’t know were there. For example, a discussion on thoughts often leads to a discussion of whether the mind is different from the brain. Prior to the discussion students may not have known that they didn’t know the relation of mind to brain. By the end of the lesson some will have come to the conclusion that they know they don’t know (or, at the very least, are aware that a puzzle exists that demands resolution).

3. Philosophy encourages people to find out what they really think, rather than what they think they should think, or what they are told to think. It is a powerful tool for self-discovery

Some students find school an alien world. The subjects they study, and the knowledge they acquire, is ‘out there’; something foreign and imposed. In philosophy, students are encouraged to think with their own experiences, intuitions, and judgements. This requires a shift of responsibility for self-correction and evaluation from the teacher to the student. An authority figure will not step in to evaluate their views or correct them. Rather, they will need to justify their views and give an account for their reasons in a company of their peers. The opportunity to air their views in a public forum has an additional advantage for the self’s recognition of itself. The German mystic Jakob Boehme claimed that ‘nothing is revealed to itself without opposition.’ In philosophy students are presented with opposition to their own views. This means that they see their view as their own; not as the definitive view that everyone has.

4. Philosophy enables students to look beyond what the truth/the answer is, to see how we can show it is the truth and what makes it the truth

It is a common refrain in philosophy enquiries; but what is the answer, Miss? If we point to the whole answer, we make the answer the whole point, which it isn’t. Of any answer, even in supposedly answer-focused subjects like maths at primary level, we can ask what makes it the answer and how we can show it is the answer. If you can’t give a reason for your answer, then there’s no reason to say it is the answer! Philosophy helps us to shift our preoccupation away from the destination to the process of arriving there. The destination by itself doesn’t tell the story of justification, and indeed correct answers can be arrived through faulty justification. Philosophy shines a spotlight on this process we take to arrive at our conclusions. It encourages us to show our working, in the fullest sense of the term.

5. Philosophy provides an educational setting in which critical thinking is both acknowledged and encouraged

There are a number of critical thinking moves that philosophy can help to encourage and promote. The following are some examples:

– Asking questions

– Agreeing/disagreeing

– Giving reasons

– Offering a proposition, hypothesis or explanation

– Making inferences

– Making distinctions

– Making comparisons

– Reevaluating

– Giving an example or counter-example

– Entertaining multiple perspectives

– Classifying

– Making analogies

– Offering definitions

– Reasoning syllogistically

– Identifying assumptions

– Re-stating others’ views

6. Philosophy can help forge links between seemingly disconnected, disparate subjects

Philosophy, according to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, is ‘not a body of doctrine, but an activity.’ It might best be considered not as a subject in its own right but as a critical method of examining the assumptions and presuppositions that underlie all other subjects. In philosophy sessions we might alternate between discussing questions about value, art, science, mathematics, and religion. This crisscrossing approach encourages students to make connections between areas of inquiry that are commonly considered separate. The writer Robert Twigger points out that between birth and the age of ten or eleven, a part of the brain called the ‘nucleus basalisis’ is permanently switched on. This contains a large quantity of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which means that new connections are being made all the time. In early childhood, children are learning all the time and combining their experiences in creative ways. Philosophy can help to nurture this natural polymathic tendency in young people before the brain becomes more selective in later teenage years.

7. Philosophy encourages intellectual stamina; the persistence needed to deal with difficult problems

Darren Chetty argues that ‘philosophy requires comfort with discomfort.’ Many of the most intractable puzzles in philosophy stem from discomfort with how things, concepts, and ideas fit together. The philosopher is often confronted with confusion and doubt in their attempt to understand the world. Instead of dispelling doubt through dogma or a defeatist relativist attitude (‘I guess we must all be right then’) philosophers sit with their doubts as long as necessary and work to resolve them patiently. As children come to understand the puzzles of philosophy the facilitator encourages them to identify what is puzzling, identify possible ways of resolving it, and then see if these work. This can help develop intellectual stamina and resilience; the willingness to stay with the problems longer.

8. Philosophy prepares children for the future of work by encouraging them to view the world as something open for innovation and improvement

In a widely circulated video on YouTube, the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs talks about the secret of life as he sees it. He says, “when you grow up you’re told that the world is a certain way and your life is just to live within the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, get a little money. But that’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader than that once you discover one simple fact, that everything that you call life was made up by other people who are no smarter than you and you can change it…That’s maybe the most important thing; to shake off the erroneous notion that life is there and you are you just going to live in it versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark on it.” Philosophy with children can encourage students to view “the world” not as something given but as something which is up for negotiation and improvement. Philosophy dissolves the fixity of the real by encouraging us to think of alternative ways of living and of thinking, and examining the suppositions that underlie the “real world.” As Jennifer Morton notes, ‘Philosophy allows us to question how things are and, often, to realise that how things are isn’t how they have or ought to be.’ It is a critical antidote to complacency and a naïve realism that views the contingent factors of history as necessary.

9. Philosophy encourages children to view education as an end in itself, rather than simply as a means to an end

Many frameworks for education’s value are instrumentalist; its value is perceived to lie in something outside of itself, in some projected future value. If we say that education is valuable in so far as it helps children to integrate into society, or prepare for working life, then education is valued only if it accomplishes those things. In philosophy students are encouraged to wonder for the sake of wondering and to think of the truth for its own sake. Plato claimed that the philosopher’s life is one for contemplating of truth, beauty, and goodness. These are held to be valuable not for some external purpose, but in themselves. At its best, philosophy with children can encourage this contemplation of the best things for their own sake.

10. Philosophy enables students to see things from others’ points of view, helping them to develop empathy

One of the facilitator’s roles in a philosophical inquiry is to encourage reasoned and respectful disagreement. After a child offers a contentious view, the facilitator is quick to seek out dissent and find a controversy that provides fuel for further discussion. This tendency to look for divergent, rather than convergent, thinking in the inquiries means that students quickly become used to having their views challenged by their peers. Students are encouraged to break out of a shallow egocentrism that sees only their own views as legitimate. In the long term, philosophy aims to internalise the missing opponent or interlocutor in a discussion so that students can anticipate objections to their own views. I have had some students from philosophy who say that they now instinctively seek out alternative perspectives on difficult questions. Philosophy can help to cultivate the disposition towards looking for problems, examining alternative arguments, and engaging with the other in a responsible way with empathy.

11. Philosophy helps children to develop a mature relationship with authority

The journey from childhood to adolescence is marked by several transitions. One of the most notable of these is the transition from relatively unquestioned obedience of authority to the rejection of various forms of authority (e.g. parents, teachers). Philosophy can help children to navigate this difficult period by affirming a middle path between these two extremes. In philosophy students are encouraged to consult their own sense of reason when faced with claims to authority. Authority is accepted if it is considered to be reasonable and right to do so, but rejected if it is unreasonable or wrong. In this sense, philosophy offers a bridge between childhood and adolescence that avoids the immaturities of both.


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