Monday, June 27, 2011

Doing Philosophy With Children 1

The Value of Asking Questions:

Beware the Man who quotes one book: Irish Proverb
The title of my last post was in the form of a question.  This one is in the form of a statement - an affirmative and positive statement.  Children can, of course be taught to think, and it follows from that that they can be taught to think in a philosophical way, to be questioners of all that is presented to them.  By teaching children to ask questions, we are teaching them a philosophical stance, a philosophical method, never to accept presuppositions, suppositions, statements of fact, unless they can prove or verify them in some way.  Questioning old certainties and old ways of doing things has long been the way to discovering new truths or explaining more fully older ones. Essentially this may be called the Socratic method which has its provenance in the philosophical questioning method used by the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (469 BC–399 BC)

The Socratic method is also known as the elenctic method and basically it is a form of inquiry or debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints, based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to eliminate false truths, misconceptions and unquestioned suppositions.  One can also call it a dialectical method in that it often involves an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another.   Oftentimes in this way of thinking/questioning, one participant may lead another to contradict him in some way, thereby strengthening the inquirer's own point.  The questioner may also lead his fellow debater to contradict himself also.  It is interesting to this writer, having studied mathematics at university, to note that Aristotle attributed to Socrates the discovery of the method of definition and induction, which he regarded as the essence of the scientific method.  A good article on the Socratic method is that found in the WIKI which may be accessed here: SM

The Power of Stories:

Students with myself: Glendalough trip, May 2011
In my last post I quoted Robert Fisher, professor of education at Brunel University in Uxbridge as contending that "Thinking through Stories" was one of three important ways of teaching children to think.  It would be a brave person who could contradict this almost self-evident method of teaching.  As a teacher of thirty years standing, I have long believed in the efficacy of stories in teaching practically anything at all on the curriculum, especially literature, poetry, plays, history and even science.  One of our foremost Irish short story writers, Bryan MacMahon has written about the importance of stories and story-telling in teaching and learning.  He had spent over forty years teaching in a rural primary school in Co. Kerry and he informs his readers that he kept his pupils interested through using story as a method of teaching/learning.  Indeed, all the great religious teachers and founders knew this simple fact also from the Buddha to Christ to Muhammad.  Their teaching and sacred texts are replete in stories and parables which all have a moral or central meaning.  I even remember one of my erstwhile lecturers Fr. Tom Hamill using his own coined term "mirables" to add further depth to the miracle stories told in the gospels  - in other words these miracle stories fell somewhere between story and fact.  This is a deep liberal Christian and scholarly thought here, one totally opposed to the literalistic or fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.  However, this discussion is beyond my purposes here as I just wish to use this point as a way of pointing up the efficacy of the story format.

Taking a starting point from Professor Fisher's article in Philosophy Now (May/June, 2011) I wish now to discuss how one might use one of Aesop's Fables as a story to teach philosophy to first year students (around 12/13 years of age.) 

Fable: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

This fable recounts the story of a young shepherd boy who grows quite bored with minding his sheep.  The fact that he is bored (almost a universal complaint, I find, among modern adolescents) should immediately appeal to the students.  Likewise, the fact that he likes playing tricks on others, especially adults, would also add to this appeal.  Basically, he shouts in alarm for several nights in a row that a wicked wolf is attacking and scattering his sheep.  For two occasions the villagers come running in alarm to help the boy.  Unfortunately, on the third occasion when he shouts "Wolf!" no one comes, despite the fact that this fateful time a wolf has actually attacked his flock.  The fable can be accessed here if you wish to distribute copies to your class: Aesop Wolf.  There is much meat in this wee story to tease out philosophical issues:

  1. Did the shepherd boy tell a lie?
  2. What is a lie?
  3. What is the truth? (Big question, but one can at least superficially treat of it!)
  4. Why did he tell a lie?
  5. What is fun?
  6. Should one have fun at another person's expense?
  7. When is it right to play a joke on another person?
  8. When is it wrong to do so?
  9. What is a good joke?
  10. What is a bad joke?
  11. Whose fault was it that the wolf ate the sheep?
  12. Why did the villagers come running the first time?
  13. Why did they come running the second time?
  14. Why did they not come running the third time?
  15. What is trust?
  16. Why do we have to learn to trust others?
  17. What doe trusting mean?
  18. Do you think this is a true story? Why? Why not?
  19. If it is not (literally) true, what type of truth is in it?
  20. What other truths are there as well as literal truth?
  21. Is there such a thing as the singular The Truth?
  22. Are there only truths in the plural - scientific ones?
  23. What types of truths are there?

As you can see from the above there is practically no end to serious philosophical questioning and the above simple fable has many many hidden depths and equally hidden heights to use a metaphor of physical extension.   

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