Guest blogger Michelle Sowey shares what it’s like to do philosophy with children.
Tell us a little about the workshops you run. Why did you start doing them?
My workshops are all about kids immersing themselves in big questions and exploring a universe of ideas together. I use theme-linked stories, multimedia and creative activities to spark philosophical dialogue.
I started The Philosophy Club because I thrive on the wonder, the exchange of ideas, the creative freedom and the critical rigour of philosophical enquiry – and I wanted to share this passion with children.
You've worked with a variety of age groups. Which aspects of learning philosophy change as children get older, and which aspects stay the same?
The developmental changes I’ve noticed are related not so much to the children’s ages as to their level of experience in doing philosophy in a collaborative group. More experienced children are generally able to express subtle ideas more clearly. They tend to display sharper thinking and reasoning skills. And they have a more sophisticated philosophical awareness – in other words, they’re more attuned to the philosophical significance of what they’re saying or hearing.
I think that kids of all ages share a common appetite for provocation: they’re endlessly curious and eager to encounter new questions and puzzles. They seem to have an ongoing capacity to generate imaginative ideas, unconstrained by the inhibition and self-criticism that plague many adults.
What's the most "out there" question a child has asked you? How did you and the other learners respond?
"If we found life on another planet, we’d need to think about this: Are THEY the aliens, or are WE?"
I was pretty dazzled by this question. We were having a discussion about how humanity should respond if an alien spacecraft were to rapidly approach Earth, emitting signals that we couldn’t decipher. I thought the kids would want to explore the ethical dimensions of the situation – like whether we should launch a pre-emptive strike – but to my surprise, they leapt into a range of questions about metaphysics, language and meaning. Here’s what they said (without any input from me):
- “Are THEY the aliens, or are WE?"
- "We’re probably alien to them."
- "To French people, English is a really odd language. And to us, French is a really odd language. But I can never think of English being an odd language, because I’ve grown up with it."
- If we wanted to talk to the aliens, how can we translate their thoughts into our words so we can understand them?”
- “I would send the friendliest people on earth to go and greet them. Our friendliest people could say ‘We come in peace’.
- “But if they don’t understand the word ‘peace’, they might zap us.”
- “We could make a peace sign out of flowers…”
- “If we give them a flower, how do we know they won’t think it’s a weapon?”
How do you see programs like yours impacting children in the long-run? How will they grow from them, both academically and personally?
I think that programs like these are hugely empowering for children. They develop three major skill-sets that help children flourish both in their school careers and in other areas of their lives.
Firstly, philosophical enquiry helps kids improve their thinking. It gets them thinking more critically, rigorously and sceptically, so they’re less likely to succumb to ill-founded beliefs or be duped by self-deception, spin or rhetoric. Philosophy develops reasoning skills, so children become better at building logical arguments and rationally defending their views. It also encourages kids to question the assumptions underlying different points of view, making it possible for them to challenge dogmatic beliefs. And philosophy cultivates deep and deliberative thinking – often neglected in traditional schooling, which tends to focus more on getting ‘the quick right answer’ – so children get a chance to explore the nuances of complex ideas.
A second set of skills relates to children’s personal development. By engaging in philosophical discussions, children develop independent thinking, the confidence to speak their minds, as well as a sense of responsibility for their opinions and actions. Philosophy also raises children’s awareness of the ethical issues that touch their lives, and gives them tools to begin developing their own values and principles.
A third important skill-set is social. Since philosophical enquiry is practiced in collaborative groups, children are working together to consider questions from diverse points of view. In this way, the children develop greater respect for difference and deeper empathy for other people’s experiences. They also become more attentive to each other, more fair-minded and more skilled at cooperating and negotiating.
I’m convinced that these three skill-sets – good thinking, self-development and productive collaboration – are foundational for anyone who wants to succeed as a student, as an active citizen, or simply as a thoughtful person who hopes to lead a meaningful life.