Archive for April, 2010

Philosophy and Critical Literacy

April 30, 2010

With all the discussion of teaching Critical Literacy skills to children, I thought it would be timely to draw attention to an item from The Philosophers’ Magazine. The article – ‘Get ’em while they’re young’ – goes into some depth, and I have provided lengthy extracts below. One of the main points is that there are multiple advantages to doing philosophy with children, including the ‘incidental’ development of critical thinking skills, i.e. these skills are acquired implicitly as part of the process, rather than explicitly taught.

It is important to note, however, that philosophy is not merely the acquisition of thinking skills. As noted in one of the comments after the article, there is a connection between ‘mental skills and self (critical) monitoring of thinking processes, together with the social aspect of thinking together’. I would add that philosophy also has its own history and subject matter, and children can be introduced to these things as opportunities present themselves.

This naturally leads to a point of debate in the article: whether philosophy should be taught by specialists. My own answer to this is: ideally, yes, but it would be difficult in the primary school, and we expect primary teachers to teach a whole range of subjects, without necessarily being a specialist in any of them (though it is a bonus if they have some particular expertise). Some teachers will find they have an aptitude for philosophical thinking, just as others have an aptitude for art, music, maths or literature.

A related blog that touches on these issues can be found here.

There has been anecdotal and scientific evidence that exposing children to philosophy at a young age can have lasting academic and social benefits but, although there does appear to have been a steady growth in the subject’s popularity over the past 20 years, philosophy is far from being a mainstream subject in primary schools.

“There are many reasons why thinking hasn’t been at the forefront of the way teachers teach,” says Lizzy Lewis, Development Manager at the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), an educational charity dedicated to promoting the use of philosophy for children and communities throughout the UK. “A huge emphasis has been on assessment, on SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), and on literally memorising information and knowledge for tests. So there hasn’t been much time or thought given to how children learn and enabling them to really deal with problems or issues or to really work things out for themselves.” But Lewis says there is a growing backlash to this content-based approach. “Particularly in the last five years there has been more awareness of thinking skills approaches. And this is why we’ve had more and more demand in terms of training in schools: this is what teachers want, it’s what children want and, to some extent, it is what the government is saying is needed.”

Research by East Renfrewshire Psychological Services in 2006 found that under-achieving 11-year-olds exposed to GSD [Guided Socratic Discussion] significantly increased scores in areas including problem solving, generating alternative solutions and decision-making. Another 2007 study from Dundee University suggested an average rise in IQ levels of 6.5 points in students who had been exposed to philosophy at a young age. Another report, also from Dundee University, also showed that an hour of philosophical enquiry each week in primary schools very effectively promotes emotional and social developments as well as increasing cognitive ability, critical reasoning and dialogue skills. The study stressed that although such developments can take place in mainstream classes of 30 pupils lead by teachers with little previous philosophy experience, the role of the teacher would have to move away from being an “expert instructor” to instead being a “curious facilitator”.

[Peter Worley of The Philosophy Foundation] argues that for children to do philosophy properly, it is important for the facilitator to have specialist knowledge. “It’s not just subject knowledge – philosophy is a kind of tricky thing to identify, it’s not easy to know when philosophy is actually being done and what kind of thing philosophy is, it’s quite subtle,” he says. “So if you want to be able to get a group of children moving towards more philosophical kinds of discussion as opposed to just sharing ideas and discussing what they think about stuff, you need to have someone there who is able to identify when that starts to occur or who is able to ask the right kind of questions to bring it about.”

Worley says that attendants of The Philosophy Shop training course are required to have a philosophy degree but not necessarily any teaching experience. The two-day intensive training course focuses mainly on the pedagogical aspects of delivering a philosophy session to children and this is followed by a period of observation and assessment in classrooms. “We don’t hide the fact that our prospective consultants have a good deal to do before they can feel confident in front of kids, but our training does include working with real children in real schools while being observed, and other philosophy with children programmes don’t do that. In short, the lack of teacher training can be an obstacle but it can also be very liberating as they don’t have lots of habits to un-learn.”

Lewis argues that demanding that teachers have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy would vastly restrict the number of teachers who could get involved, and that a good knowledge of pedagogy is equally important if facilitators are to engage children in the subject. SAPERE offers a two-day Level One course that is designed to introduce philosophy to teachers who may never have come across the subject before, and to provide class materials so teachers can begin to facilitate philosophy sessions in their schools. The content of SAPERE’s Level Two and Level Three courses is increasingly philosophical, but Lewis says many teachers become very interested in the subject and also go on to complete further academic philosophy studies elsewhere. “I think if we did it the other way around and required that everybody had some philosophical training, we’d get far, far fewer numbers of people coming. I think we make it less intimidating and much more accessible doing it that way and it does seem to work.”

This approach also enables teachers to apply P4C-style approaches in classes beyond philosophy sessions. “Teachers in schools talk about it transforming how they teach, transforming how the children question and transforming the kind of dialogue that happens. We don’t promote it as a subject, we promote it as a way of learning and teaching,” Lewis says. “So if a teacher is using P4C in one session a week, it changes the teacher’s approach and you start to see philosophical questions and philosophical inquiry throughout the curriculum, and that’s one reason it is so effective because it’s transferable. So the skills the children use – if they’re increasing their reasoning or they’re challenging assumptions and they’re practicing that on a weekly basis – then that’s going to come out in their science lesson, that’s going to come out in their geography,” Lewis says.

Lewis says that SAPERE is more concerned with the skills that children can learn through philosophy than it is with the subject of philosophy itself. “It’s primarily about promoting thinking skills – critical thinking – in children, enabling them to be more aware of how they learn and to foster good questioning and more independent thinking, as well as the philosophical skills of reasoning, making judgements and reflecting on their thinking so they’re much more aware how they think,” she says. “We’ve never really thought that P4C should be another sort of government-packaged initiative in schools. Our aim is to make it as widespread as possible, but I think P4C is much more a way of learning and teaching rather than a particular subject, and that’s where the distinction is between Philosophy for Children and philosophy as a subject.”

Worley agrees that philosophy is the ideal subject for children to learn thinking skills because rather than being taught a set of skills for thinking that must be memorised, philosophy allows children to practice good thinking skills without being taught them. Another bonus is that philosophy allows everyone to participate and practice these thinking skills regardless of any prior exposure to the subject: “Unique to philosophy, certainly in the Socratic tradition, is that one does not need knowledge of the subject in order to do it; one does need a good guide in the form of a facilitator but knowledge of the subject is not necessary to engage with philosophical questions,” Worley says. “Teaching thinking skills would be different; one needs to know how to apply them to be able to do it successfully. In philosophy a more implicit approach can be used to teach thinking skills: it reverses the direction of fit so that a consequence of doing philosophy is that one learns thinking habits (skills) rather than learning thinking skills so that one can think better.”

Worley says that because it is the ideal subject for learning thinking skills, philosophy is a foundational subject in the way that the Three R’s are. “We’re arguing for the Four R’s,” he says, “reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning. We want to try to argue for the importance of a good thinking program in the national curriculum because of the sense in which the Three R’s depend so much on that which underlies them and that would be concepts. Because concepts are the framework on which the three R’s are built, I argue that a good thinking program is essential as part of a national curriculum program.”

McCall agrees: “Philosophical reasoning and wondering is difficult; it isn’t easy but it’s fundamental almost to being a human being,” says McCall. “These questions are age-old questions and they still have tremendous value to consider, to inquire into, today. I think this kind of thinking supports and even underlies many other disciplines as well. In terms of education we know from the development of children that the ones who have been through sustained Philosophy with Children improve in almost every other academic area. So it’s a fundamental basic really,” she says. “Philosophers are traditionally asked awkward questions and to come up with alternative answers, and it really breeds independent thinking. If we want a generation of people who will begin to tackle and solve the problems we have, we need people who think for themselves and who think differently.”

Catherine McCall
The Philosophy Foundation

Philosophy in the Primary School

April 17, 2010

This article – The Examined Life, Age 8 – was published in The New York Times on 8 April. Here are some snippets:

“A lot of people try to make philosophy into an elitist discipline,” says Professor Wartenberg, who has been visiting the school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, since 2007. “But everyone is interested in basic philosophical ideas; they’re the most basic questions we have about the world.”

He is not the first philosopher to work with children. In the 1970s, Matthew Lipman, then a professor at Columbia University, argued that children could think abstractly at an early age and that philosophical questioning could help them develop reasoning skills. It was the Vietnam era, and Professor Lipman believed that many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.

Professor Lipman’s view opposed that of the child-development theorist Jean Piaget, who asserted that children under 12 were not capable of abstract reasoning. He and others, including Gareth Matthews, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, concluded that their curiosity and sense of wonder make children ripe for philosophic inquiry.

“The world is new to them and they want to figure things out,” says Professor Matthews, who has written extensively about children and philosophy. “Young children very often engage in reasoning that professional philosophers can recognize as philosophical, but typically their parents or teachers don’t react in a way that encourages them. They might say, ‘That’s cute,’ but they don’t engage the children in thinking further about whatever the issue is.”

“Our current educational system is about standards and efficiency,” says Joe Oyler, programs coordinator for the institute at Montclair State. “[Philosophy is] not fast and it’s not clean. We help children become comfortable with ambiguity and responding to it, so it’s tough to fit in.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

“It’s giving kids a way to figure out what they think, support their own views and reason with one another,” he says. “So I can’t imagine this isn’t helping them on standardized tests.”

But the pupils in Ms. Runquist’s class said they liked philosophy because it involved reading good books and expressing themselves.

For a comprehensive bibliography on the research into this topic, see here.

The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) can be found here.

The article has also been discussed in this blog.


April 14, 2010

An interesting item on Preventing cyber-bullying on yesterday’s Life Matters program. Among the points made are the two ‘peak’ ages for face-to-face bullying: around 10, when social hierarchies are being established (the developmental peak); and around 12, when the hierarchy needs to be re-established on the transition to high school (the transitional peak). By contrast, online bullying tends to increase with age, probably due to access to technology. Although schools are required to have policies on bullying, there’s a big difference between having a policy and implementing it. One of the difficulties for schools is that most cyber-bullying takes place outside school hours, although it has a significant impact on school work. There are links to the Child Health Promotion Research Centre and the Bullying No Way websites.

History, philosophy, and the new Australian National Curriculum

April 8, 2010

There was an interesting discussion of history on Radio National’s Future Tense this morning. It is noteworthy that this discussion should have taken place on a program devoted to matters of the future. There is, of course, a dynamic tension between past and future, and the program title (Moving forward, looking back) captures this nicely.

The discussion centred largely on the significance of history in the formation of public policy, although it was acknowledged that history is relevant to everyone, and should be ‘part of lifelong learning’. The participants were also keen to discuss the websites for the Alfred Deakin Research Institute and Australian Policy & History, as resources for policy makers and other interested parties. The idea is that historians should be available for consultation in situations where important decisions are being made, in much the same way that, say, economists are.

Modern philosophical preoccupation with history began in the nineteenth century. Early discussion centred on the interpretation of ancient texts. It wasn’t until the twentieth century, however, that a more radical understanding of history emerged, particularly in the work of German philosophers, Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Addressing the Enlightenment notion of historical objectivity, Gadamer pointed out that there is no abstract point outside of history where such objectivity could be attained. It is simply part of the human condition to be immersed in a set of circumstances, which both forms us and which we form:

In fact history does not belong to us, but we belong to it. Long before we understand ourselves through the process of self-examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society and state in which we live. The focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of historical life. That is why the prejudices of the individual, far more than his judgments, constitute the historical reality of his being. (Truth and Method, London: Sheed & Ward, 2nd ed, 1979, p. 245; originally published in 1965 as Wahrheit und Methode, Tubingen: J.C.B. Mohr).

This notion of immersion in the circumstances of life is what philosophers refer to as the hermeneutic circle.

The theme of historical situatedness was taken up by French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur, who paid particular attention to ‘narrative’ as an organising principle that brings together disparate ‘facts’ about our existence as individuals and groups. We do not merely understand ourselves as a collection of facts, but rather in terms of a narrative that we are continually creating and re-creating. ‘The narrative constructs the identity of the character, what can be called his or her narrative identity, in constructing that of the story told. It is the identity of the story that makes the identity of the character’ (Oneself as Another, trans. Kathleen Blamey. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, pp. 147–8; originally published in 1990 as Soi-meme comme un autre, Paris: Editions du Seuil).

From a philosophical perspective, then, our very self-identity is inseparable from an understanding of our situatedness in the flow of history. In order to understand ourselves now, we must interpret our past, but we can only interpret our past according to the preoccupations and prejudices of the present. History is never simply about what happened in the past. It is never ‘finished’ in the sense of reaching a totalising comprehension, but reinterpreted over and again. This is not a relativist position, however: such interpretations must be substantiated with evidence that is discovered using the methods of historical inquiry.

If the present cannot be interpreted without recourse to the past, then neither can the future. All of our hopes and predictions for the future can only be expressed in terms of where we are now and, by implication, where we have been. This is the case at the personal level as much as the social one. As a person I exist in that tension between my understanding of my past and my anticipation of my future. What I call my ‘present’ is in fact this dynamic state of tension.

Today’s program acknowledged the significance of the appreciation of history for our future. Reference was made to the new Australian National Curriculum, which similarly acknowledges this significance. In its 2009 discussion paper, Shape of the Australian Curriculum: History, the National Curriculum Board (NCB) wrote that history ‘enriches the present and illuminates the future’ (Point 2.3), and that it is ‘a distinctive and indispensable form of understanding’ (Point 2.4).

Historical inquiry involves the retrieval, comprehension and interpretation of sources, and judgment, guided by principles that are intrinsic to the discipline. It yields knowledge that is based on the available evidence, but remains open to further debate and future reinterpretation. It develops in students the ability to recognise varying interpretations of history and to determine the difference between fact, opinion and bias. (Point 2.6)

History stretches from the distant past to the present, and provides a deeper understanding of present-day events as well as the enduring significance of earlier ones. It introduces us to a variety of human experience, enables us to see the world through the eyes of others, and enriches our appreciation of the nature of change. (Point 2.7)

Having laid down these general philosophical principles in the Introduction, the document describes the aims of the proposed curriculum in terms of students developing ‘knowledge and understanding of the past in order to appreciate themselves and others, to understand the present and to contribute to debate about planning for the future’ (Point 3.1).

Do schools kill creativity?

April 1, 2010

I’ve posted this elsewhere, and mentioned it many times! The speaker makes some very important points in a highly entertaining way.