Teaching Philosophy to Children

I have shared arguments for why philosophy should be made a greater part of public life, including primary school curricula. But what would teaching kids philosophy look like? Would it really be feasible for such young and still-developing minds? Freelance filmmaker and philosophy teacher Giacomo Esposito thinks it is both desirable and perfectly manageable to teach philosophy to primary school children.

A member of The Philosophy Foundation, which advocates for and facilitates philosophy courses in school, he makes his case in The Guardian, first by outlining how he goes about it.

…While the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.

The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.

And contrary to popular belief, children are far better suited to embracing and understanding philosophy than their ages would suggest. Indeed, the subject is a natural fit.

Children can be fantastic at doing philosophy. Their natural disposition to wonder at the world is given free rein during lessons. Recently I was running a session about time travel. In response to the claim that “time is a feeling”, a 10-year-old boy thought hard for about a minute and then said: “Time is different for us than it is for the universe, because 100 years passes in a flash for the universe, but seems a long time to us … so time is a bit like a feeling”.

Not only is this an incredible thought in its own right, but notice how it’s being presented as an argument for a certain position. The boy is supporting the claim that “time is a feeling” by giving an example of how it “seems” different from different perspectives, and so therefore may not have a fixed objective reality after all.

The benefits of training future generations to be clearer and more critical thinkers cannot be understated, especially in a future beset with so many problems of an existential and moral nature.

At its core, philosophy is about thinking and reasoning well. It’s about learning how to be logical, present arguments, and spot bad ones. Yes, this is often done through strange, improbable examples, which can feel removed from – and therefore irrelevant to – the real world (like the tree in the forest). But these exercises in mental gymnastics train the mind to think more clearly and creatively, which benefits all aspects of life.

I think people often mistake this general application across all fields for a lack of application in any, and so dismiss philosophy as useless. But my experience says the opposite. As well as learning how to naturally construct arguments, the children are also invited to question them – both their classmates and their own. When it seems like there’s a firm, unwavering consensus across the class, I only have to ask them to put themselves in the shoes of an “imaginary disagreer”, before a flurry of hands appears.

The more I teach, the more convinced I become that learning to question oneself is the greatest benefit of doing philosophy. By encouraging children to examine the world from perspectives other than their own, philosophy cultivates a generation of inquisitive minds that will grow up challenging the assumptions that hold us back. And hopefully, one of them might even finally settle it: does the tree make a sound?

Hopefully at least some of these kids will be able to apply what they have learned into creating a more just and ethical world. They will be better voters, better consumers, and better global citizens. Indeed, we would not have to wait very long to see the results; another Guardian piece reports on a study that suggests philosophy teaching makes for broadly better students, too.

More than 3,000 pupils in 48 state primary schools across England took part in a year-long trial as part of a study named “philosophy for children”, and found that their maths and reading levels benefited by the equivalent of two months’ worth of teaching.

A Durham University evaluation said the results showed faster rates of progress for pupils eligible for free school meals, suggesting that the technique could “be used to reduce the attainment gap in terms of poverty in the short term”.

Both teachers and pupils also reported improved classroom behaviour and relationships, as well as a boost to pupils’ confidence in speaking, patience when listening to others, and self-esteem. Some teachers said the discussions had a positive impact on classroom engagement and may have resulted in some pupils asking more questions across all lessons.

Of course, it is expecting too much to think philosophy courses in primary school will help solve the world’s problems. But no issue or society could be unbenefited by more people thinking and reasoning more effectively — especially if it is instilled at a young age.

What are your thoughts?

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