Sunday, August 2, 2015

On Teaching Philosophy to Children

There are several articles and discussions being reported about teaching philosophy to children. They largely focus on the questions should we, why, and how?

Britain has a program, Philosophy for Children (P4C), in which student get in groups to discuss philosophical issues after seeing a video or reading a story together that prompt a big question about truth, justice, reality, etc. The program is being praised because it improved reading levels.

Educator Tom Bennett suggests "the value of philosophy doesn't lie in its contribution to literacy, or indeed indirectly to any other perceived good....[suggesting it does] denies the intrinsic dignity of the activity." I agree. We shouldn't teach it to help other subjects, but for it's own benefits.

But he also makes a great point about group work in general:
"...it's a good group activity when students have a strong, solid core of knowledge at the heart of the conversation. But it stumbles when students don't have a lot to say on the topic. The usual impish pitfalls of group work appear, of course: unequal loading; invisible participants; the unready, the unwilling; the workhorses; the usual suspects at the front etc. In addition to that, it's a thin exercise to do when children are asked to talk about a subject that might be new or alien to them."
Except I'm not sure his concerns apply to philosophy quite the same way they might apply to a discussion of factual events. Without a knowledge basis around WWI, I'd be at a loss in a group told to discuss the trench warfare experience. But without previous training in "truth," I think I'd still have something to say about it. And most kids have lots to say about justice.

My concern is to what extent is reading a story, followed by a discussion of it, necessarily philosophy. He addresses that as well: "I'd challenge the view that it actually makes you any better at philosophy as a discipline when you're old enough to understand it." A class discussion on a reading doesn't always provoke a philosophical discussion regardless the prompting.

Relevant aside: This last term I actually had to explain to a grade 10 class what a class discussion is. I'd say we're going to have a class discussion on a topic, and everyone would talk to their neighbour. Then I'd reel them back in to try to take turns, and they'd say, "But this is a class discussion!" I soon realized they weren't being rude, they just didn't have any idea that a class discussion doesn't mean everyone talks at once, but everyone is actually heard, one at a time, by the entire class. There's a first for everything!  But it makes me wonder if the new structure to classes is encouraging teachers to allow so much independent work that students are losing the very concept of working together as an entire class. Anyway...

What I think is most important about teaching philosophy to children is teaching them the basics of good argumentation. Before they get to the meaty topics, they have to learn a bit about problematic arguments, fallacies (ad hominems first), deflectors, etc. But that's all entirely possible to teach young children. These guys have the right idea. One example of each and most of them get the hang of it. Others catch on as the facilitator stops any bad arguments from slipping by. Soon the kids can take turns being the fallacy catcher during discussions.

But it's also important to teach children how to support their arguments so they're not just throwing out assertions willy nilly. They have to support a thesis in English and history to a point, but philosophy makes you do it by thinking instead of plonking down quotes. It's a very different skill.

And, once we get that far, then it's so exciting to find out that there are ideas out there that you've never thought of before. We're swimming in our own ideologies to the point that suggesting "democracy is a horrible form of government" can at least get kids to look up from their phones for a minute. Thinking about why you believe what you do, thinking of opposing points then refuting them (or refuting the original position) is the exciting bit. Learning to read and listen and watch critically, with an eye for flaws in the arguments and missing premises, is vital to an intelligent society. Wouldn't it be amazing to live in a civilization where people didn't easily get scammed or sucked in by poorly substantiated claims?

I think philosophy should be right up there with basic literacy and numeracy. I'd also add a basic understanding of the scientific method to that list of essentials. We need to really work with kids to make sure they can read and add, but also to make sure they understand how to figure out if an idea is likely to be right or wrong, what makes sense, and how to clarify their ideas so we can all communicate better together. AND so we can talk about something more than just the weather.

(Except right now, because this is one crazy storm we're having!)

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