Saturday, July 02, 2011

Doing Philosophy With Children 4

Thinking Beyond The Visible World

A different perspective, Mont Souris Park, Paris, June, 2007
This is the third of Professor Robert Fisher's ways of engaging children in philosophical discussion. In short, I believe that this is the world or wonder and imagination, fancy and fantasy.  At this stage in my life, I believe religion fits in somewhere in this realm.  Let me explain and elucidate my point further here.  Children naturally respond to stories of magic and mystery, monsters and myths.  They like to be both entertained and scared.  They encounter, read about, see on TV all the myriads of ordinary and extraordinary things that actually happen in the world and also about all the ordinary and extraordinary things that happen in the world of the imagination.  Now we're getting into the stuff of philosophy    where does the so called "real" world end and the "imaginary" world begin?  Indeed is the imagination not as "real" as the "real" world?  What does "real" mean anyway?  What does "imaginary" mean in fact?  Some questions one might ask children or have them ask:

  • How do you know you are not dreaming at this moment?
  • What does it mean to dream?
  • Are dreams just that - random stupid imaginings of the mind asleep?
  • What is the mind?
  • How does the mind differ from the brain?
  • How do we know the mind exists?
  • How do we know the brain exists?
  • What is the difference in the answers to the two foregoing questions?
  • How do you know when something is true or not true?
  • Is an apple dead or alive?
  • Is it right to eat animals?
  • Are we not animals?
  • Why is it not right to eat other humans?
  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What is the difference between pretending and lying?
  • Why do people lie?
  • Why tell the truth?
  • What is the truth?
  • What is the difference between a real person and a robot?
  • Can we construct a human being?
  • Can computers be said to think?
  • What is thinking anyway?
  • Can animals think?
  • We know they have a brain, but do animals have a mind?
  • Is it right to tell lies?
  • Can you really like someone who does something really bad?
  • Who might love a murderer? Why?
  • Which is better, to be found guilty until proven innocent or innocent until proven guilty?
  • What are the valuable things in your life?
  • What makes them valuable?

    1. The Sense of Curiosity and Wonder:
        Striking light - Ionad an Bhlascaoid, Nov. 2005 
        It has long been accepted that a spirit of curiosity and wonder is at the very heart of creativity whether that be in the World of Arts or in the World of the Sciences.  All discoveries and inventions begin in curiosity.  Indeed, as a teacher of some thirty years standing, curiosity and wonder are essential qualities of a good teacher because children have those qualities naturally.  However, those qualities will fade quickly under the weight of academics and examinations to be sat, unless the teacher actively promotes them to prevent their demise.  That's the saddest thing I have found in all my years of teaching, that the natural instinctive wonder and curiosity in children can be killed off so quickly by a dead and deadening curriculum.  Indeed, I firmly believe that there is no such thing as a boring and deadening curriculum as every single area of study can be enlivened by the thought-provoking and curiosity-promoting approach of teachers, lecturers and professors.  It was one of my old primary teachers who was nearing retirement that influenced me to become a teacher - simply because even at sixty-plus years of age he was still young at heart, still curious, still enthusiastic, still asking questions, totally inspiring.  It is lack-lustre and uninspiring teachers who kill the native wonder and curiosity in our children.  Indeed, I find that the kids keep me young at heart as not alone to I promote their curiosity and wonder, but I actively listen to their stories and most importantly, their questions.  One of the best ways of rewarding and positively enforcing a child is to say something like: "John or Michelle or whoever, that's a very good question!"

        Let me quote a few of Professor Fisher's concluding lines by way of concluding these short musings here:

        .... a child needs a home and school where they can question and discuss contestable ideas, where people are interested in what they think and feel, where it's alright to challenge others and ask "Why?", and where it is all right to change one's mind where there are good reasons for doing so.  Here, philosophical thinking can flourish.  As Beth, aged ten, said, philosophy happens in a place "where people let you take out your mind and share it with others." Philosophy Now, May/June 2011, p.8)

        Thursday, June 30, 2011

        Doing Philosphy With Children 3

        Thinking about the World

        Listening to our Guide: Glendalough, May 2011
        This is the second of three ways that Professor Robert Fisher recommends as good for engaging children in philosophical discussion (See Philosophy Now, May/June 2011, 6-8).  This article can also be read online here: RF Phil Now.  In a sense one can use "thinking about the world" in practically every class from Literature, History, Geography, Languages right across the whole spectrum of subjects, not just in a Philosophy class.  With this heading in mind I am brought back to Socrates' famous saying that "the unexamined or unthinking life is not worth living."  There is also an interesting reversal of this saying which I believe is equally valid, viz., "the unlived life is not worth exploring/examining."  There is truth in both sentiments, indeed.

        I am also reminded of T.S. Eliot's oft-quoted lines from The Dry Salvages (Number 3 of "Four Quartets") where we read the memorable words: "but the sudden illumination— We had the experience but missed the meaning."  There is a lot of depth in these words.  That is, it has long been a notable mark of wisdom in anyone that they reflect upon the significance of their experiences.  In such a fashion, they learn from their mistakes.  Hence, if we want the children we teach to be and to feel responsible  for what they think and do, then we must encourage they to take an active interest in the world.  There is much controversy to be found in the news media, both printed and broadcast.  All news stories, even say about soccer and other sports, offer the would-be philosopher (or thinker, if you wish) much grist for his/her mill where can pose hard, sharp and pointed philosophical questions like some of the following:

        1. Is it acceptable that player X or athlete Y behaved the way they did? 
        2. Why should sportsmen and/or sportswomen be paid so much? 
        3. Why should CEOs of major companies be paid such high salaries? 
        4. How should we punish our criminals? 
        5. What should the penalties be for larceny, for flaunting the rules of the road, for drink driving etc? 
        6. Is the prison system really working?  
        7. Does rehabilitation work?  Or is it an airy-fairy notion?
        8. Are addicts really responsible for their behaviour?   
        9. Is it correct to say that "The law is an ass?"   
        10. Is there any truth in the old chestnut that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor?" 
        11. Why is their evil in the world?
        12. Where does free will come in?
        13. Is religion a good or a bad thing?
        14. Why do wars happen?
        15. Why is there terrorism?
        16. Was it right to assassinate Osama Bin Laden?
        As you can see, there is a veritable legion of philosophical questions one can ask merely by casting one's eyes over the newspapers or listening to the broadcast media.  Outside of current affairs, children, as well as adults, are faced with a host of challenges about how to conduct themselves?  How we treat others is a central and important ethical and moral question. 

        1. What is justice?
        2. Why is it wrong to be prejudiced or racist? 
        3. Why is it wrong to disrupt a class?
        4. Why is co-operation so important?
        5. Why is it so important to listen?
        6. What are good manners?
        7. What are bad manners?
        8. Why can't I do what I like?
        9. What is wrong with swearing?
        10. Is it right to eat animals?
        11. What's wrong with cheating?
        12. Why is it wrong to shout in class?
        13. Why is it right to behave properly, to show respect? 
        14. Why is it wrong to steal?
        15. Why do we look after school property?
        16. Why do we not deface school books or furniture? 
        17. Why is it wrong to bully? 
        18. Is it possible to be a pacifist at all? 

        Books - the love of my Life.  One of my very many bookshelves!
        All these questions surface practically on a daily basis in any school.  Now I have tried to ask the positive questions as well as the negative ones above?  From years of practice I have long believed in a balance of both positive and negative questions, because that's the way life is - a mix of the good and the bad!  I have also found it impossible, if not unrealistic, to phrase everything in a positive way all the time!!   In doing all the foregoing, we as teachers encourage children to reflect on their experiences and thereby avoid missing the meaning as T.S. Eliot has implicitly advised us in the above quoted lines.  Also, in this way the more we discuss why things are right or wrong, the more our children will have a chance to think about their choices and indeed be prepared to accept the consequences of those choices.  I have long used that argument with my students over the years, and it will work with the majority of youngsters - the lesson being that we all have to pay the price of our actions.  In this way, through good questions and through good thinking, our young people will be better prepared when they are faced with the inevitable difficulties life throws our way all too often.

        Tuesday, June 28, 2011

        Doing Philosophy With Children 2

        The Earlier a Child Starts the Better

        ASD class trip to Glendalough: May 2011
        As an erstwhile teacher of languages (Irish for the most part, and some litle Italian) I have long believed that the earlier one starts to learn a language the better.  A friend of mine who is married to a Parisienne is obviously bringing his little girl up bilingually in English and French.  I have known many parents here in Ireland who have chosen to bring their children up in Irish and English.  All these children learn both languages well and very naturally, and indeed they will proceed to learn futher languages with ease.  I believe the same can be said for any subject, philosophy as well - the earlier you srtart, the better. 

        Many scholars and educationists believe that the great philosopher Plato called it wrong when he stated in his great book The Republic that in his ideal state people would not study philosophy until they were at least forty years of age, because by that time they wouuld have enough experience of the world to do philosophy at properly.  That is surely a foolish approach to education in any subject.  Imagine if we had said that to an aspiring poet, musician, mathematician or linguist.  Wait till you are mature enough to handle complexities of metrics, arrangements of orchestral pieces, differential equations or the subjuctive mood.  This certainly shows the stupidity of Plato's argument.  Okay, you say, but surely the ancient Greek philosopher was speaking about lived experience of life which takes years to achieve.  That, too, my friends, is to presume that one learns the wisdom of living in a linear and progressive fashion.  I believe we do not necessarily learn wisdom in a progressive fashion.  Certain people can be gifted with a depth of wisdom and knowledge beyond their years.  We learn from our experiences and by reflecting on them and by living life at a deep level (some choose to live at a surface level only, refusing to tackle their own demons, to use a metaphor.  I know several people who have taught school for over twenty years but basically never learned much about their craft at all as they lived one year's experience multiplied by 20 plus times.  In other words, they chose not to reflect on their approach to teaching, did very little CPD and kept repeating their mistakes.  I'm speaking about people who have long since given up the profession or found another one when the light began to dawn.  Thankfully there are and were few of these wretched souls in the teaching profession but they were there.  Nowadays the inspectorate and CPD offer on-going assistance to such teachers.  I merely offer this as an example to underline the error of Plato's argument.  Mere linearity of living does not give experience or reflection on experience per se. 

        Likewise, another argument I can think of versus Plato's view is the fact that most scientists and scholars achieve their greatest discoveries when young rather than when older.  A lot of creative artists also produce the greatest work when younger. 

        One of the boys beside a early medieval sink at Glendalough
        Still another argument that surfaces in my mind as I type these letters is the comments I have heard over the years at funerals of people who have dies far too young.  I do believe that there is much wisdom in the preacher's or priest's words where it is said that "it is not the amount of years lived that's important.  It's the quality of life that counts, the depth of experience, the sheer living of it." To this extent I was bowled over, transfixed, deeply moved and inspired by the words of an Irish-American father this morning on the life and death of his young son Lieutenant Michael Murphy, U.S. Navy Seal who perished in Afghanistan.  This young man was obviously a most inspiring young man, with high ideals, a keen intellect and, most especially a deep desire to help others.  That this young man might not be able to do philosophy would be a travesty, indeed a lie.  The very depths and heights of humanity - intellect, courage, care, love, loyalty, patriotism in the best sense of the word and wisdom beyond his years - are palpable in this young man's life.  As I say, I was moved by his father's words and then searched out some accounts of his life on the net.  See the YouTube link here and be inspired - Lieut. Mike Murphy.  

        The last point may seem like a digression, but to me it is not as it shows philosophy in action, to my mind - a philosophy of life lived with sheer authenticity and self-sacrifice, the absolute opposite to the gung-ho type of silly bravery one sees in Hollywood movies. Now back to some stories that could be used in class:

        Another Story: A Fable from Aesop

        The Dog and the Wolf

        A gaunt Wolf was almost dead with hunger when he happened to meet a House-dog who was passing by.

        "Ah, Cousin," said the Dog.  "I knew how it would be; your irregular life will soon be the ruin of you. Why do you not work steadily as I do, and get your food regularly given to you?"

        "I would have no objection," said the Wolf, "if I could only get a place."

        "I will easily arrange that for you," said the Dog; "come with me to my master and you shall share my work."

        So the Wolf and the Dog went towards the town together. On the way there the Wolf noticed that the hair on a certain part of the Dog's neck was very much worn away, so he asked him how that had come about.

        "Oh, it is nothing," said the Dog. "That is only the place where the collar is put on at night to keep me chained up; it chafes a bit, but one soon gets used to it."

        "Is that all?" said the Wolf. "Then good-bye to you, Master Dog."

        The moral of this story is obvious, and it goes something like this:  "It is better starve free than be a fat slave." or "The price of freedom is often a high one."

        Some Questions for Class:

        • Why was the wolf gaunt?
        • Describe the House-Dog.
        • What was the attitude/character of the House-Dog?
        • What type of attitude/character did the Wolf portray?
        • Do you think the House-Dog was free?
        • Do you think the Wolf was free?
        • What is freedom?
        • What price did the House-Dog pay?  Was it worth paying that price? 
        • Why was the Wolf not willing to pay the price the House-Dog had to pay? 
        • What eould you say is the moral/lesson of this wee fable? 
        • Are we really free as human beings? 
        • Are there levels of freedom?
        Lessons from John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873)

        Perhaps then one could go onto sharing the following quotation from the great philosopher John Stuart Mill with the class:  " It is better to be a human being dissatisfied that a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion it is because they only know their own side of the question. " 

        • What lessons can we learn from the quotation from J.S. Mill?
        • Who would you prefer to be - (i) satisfied pig, (ii) human being dissatisfied, (ii) fool satisfied, (ii) Socrates dissatisfied?  Why? 

        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.   

        Sunday, June 26, 2011

        Can Children really do Philosophy?


        Self with two Transition Year students, School, 2004
        The thoughts which follow were inspired by the May/June edition of Philosophy Now which features a special section called Doing Philosophy with Children. Well, personally I have long believed that one can, because philosophy is really a way of thinking rather than a subject.  Therefore, parents and teachers can encourage children to think in a philosophical way.  Likewise I love the psychology of learning that is based on the Multiple Intelligences approach of Dr. Howard Gardner which is surely one of the most comprehensive and inclusive approaches to intelligence that we as a culture have so far come up with.  Please refer to the following website here for a comprehensive account of this theory and its practical uses: BCM.  What impresses me most about this holistic approach to intelligence/s, and to any educational theory and practice based on it, is that among its nine or more intelligences (other scholars and researchers have added some others to Gardner's base model) is that of existential intelligence.  One could rename this intelligence as philosophical intelligence as you will see from reading the background given on the above site.  Scholars define this existential intelligence as the ability to pose questions about life, death and ultimate realities.  Come to think of it, as existentialism is a subcategory of philosophy, perhaps this latter intelligence could well be inflated to become philosophical intelligence and thereby encourage a way of asking the deep and hard questions of all philosophy.

        I love reading about those great scholars of science who end up getting Nobel Prizes for Chemistry, Medicine or Physics, not because I can claim to understand anything of what they have done, but I can appreciate their ways of thinking, their ways of asking questions, their educational and motivational background.  When I read their background I invariable see that they were all very good questioners as children, i.e., they asked the right type of questions.  Universally, I have found that in no matter what areas of study I read that the scholars and the sharpest minds are those who have a skilled and acute questioning ability or faculty.  Surely Socrates was the founder of this method?  Indeed he is practically the father of philosophy as far as this writer is concerned.   Today I wish to refer to Professor Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898 –1988) who was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but emigrated as a very youing child to America where he became a noted American physicist and Nobel laureate which he received in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance which is basically as far as I can make out in my non-scientific mind all about the nature of the force binding protons to atomic nuclei and how to measure that force.  Whether I can understand this or not is irrelevant, but what is very interesting to a philosopher is the fact that when Isodor Isaac was asked the reasons for his success, he said that when he came home from school as a child his mother asked him not "What did you learn in school today?" but rather "What questions did you ask today?"

        Teaching our Children to Question

        Part of my attic Library
        For any parents, teachers and youth leaders out there, you must begin to learn the value of allowing your charges to ask questions.  In this way keeping your child's questioning spirity alive can be one of the keys to success in learning and indeed in life.  One could say that in so doing you are training them to be young philosophers.  The great Greek philosopher Socrates operated by questioning the so-called knowledge-brokers of his day, the rhetoricians.  By doing so he got down to the very motives of these people and revealed anyone who was immoral or superficial or inauthentic as being just hypocrites.  Here is what Robert Fisher (Professor of Education at Brunel University, Uxbridge) writes in the current edition of the above named magazine:

        There has been quite an upsurge of research into discussing philosophical ideas with children over the last fifty years, providing much evidence of its benefit to children's verbal reasoning, language skills, self-esteem and school achievement.  Philosophical discussions can help develop children's intelligences, and give them the skills and confidence they need to become active, thoughtful and effective citizens.

        We cannot force our children to be philosophical, but we can help to provide the conditions at homa and school where questioning, thinking and discussion can flourish.  So how do you provide the conditions for your child to think philosophically?  The following are three ways of engaging children in philosphical discussion:

        • Thinking through stories.
        • Thinking about the everyday world..
        • Thinking about other worlds, including spiritual and religious beliefs.  (Philosophy Now, May/June 2011, p. 7)