Philosophize With Your Children

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Note from the Editor

Philosophy for Children is suitable for youth groups, social clubs, and families. James Nottingham, author of Encouraging Learning, shares some ideas for encouraging children to create and explore questions in response to stories, films and pictures. The ideas strategies cater for small groups but the ideas for questioning and discussing can be used by parents talking with individual children.

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PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN (P4C) has a number of principles (e.g. being open-minded, questioning assumptions, and searching for truth), but there is no dogma to the process – that is to say, there is not ‘one’ way to do it. So please treat the following steps as a guide to the typical approach to P4C rather than rules that must be adhered to.

After the guide, there is an growing collection of examples you could try out with children. Some begin with a resource (such as a book or video), whereas others begin with a concept (such as happiness, fairness, truth). Again, these are examples from which you can pick and choose.

1. Sit in a circle

If there are more than just two or three of you, make every effort to sit in a circle. This will support the reflective, collaborative nature of inquiry.

2. Read, watch, or listen to an interesting stimulus

Philosophy begins in wonder. If you can find something that has no obvious answer, no particular moral, or something that is baffling in some way, then it will probably prove to be a good starting point for philosophical inquiry with children. For example:

3. Draw out the main concepts

  • A concept – eg, justice – is a general idea that groups things together according to accepted characteristics. Important concepts that children would do well to understand, include:
  • Arts: beauty, art, imagination, reproduction, real, copy, meaning.
  • Citizenship: rights, duties, justice, fairness, freedom, welfare, community, enterprise.
  • Design: purpose, economy, value, elegance, simplicity, effectiveness, originality.
  • Humanities/social studies: justice, globalisation, nation, interpretation, history, truth, cause.
  • ICT: knowledge, entertainment, game, reality, legality, morality, social media.
  • Literature: love, democracy, fairness, justice, goodness, power, anger.
  • Religious education: belief, faith, truth, morality, tolerance, customs, rites.
  • Science: science, experiment, evidence, knowledge, theory, fair test, proof, cause, reaction.

4. Create philosophical questions

There are an almost limitless number of philosophical questions and these can be created from almost any concept. If you, or your children, select a concept and then precede it with one of the following question stems then the chances are you will create a thought-provoking, philosophical question worth investigating.

Useful Question Stems

  • What is … (eg What is love?)
  • What makes … (eg What makes a friend special?)
  • Would you be … (eg Would you be the same person if you had a different name?)
  • How do we know what … (eg How do we know what courage is?)
  • Always or never (eg Should we always obey the law?)
  • What if … (eg What if people had never learned how to tell lies?)
  • Is it possible … (eg Is it possible to be normal and different at the same time?)
  • When … (eg When is happiness a bad emotion?)
  • Who … (eg Who decides what art is?)
  • Can we … (eg Can we ever know someone else – or even ourselves – completely?)
  • Why do we say … (eg Why do we say ‘seeing is believing’?)

5. Choose the best question

To begin with, it is enough to encourage your children to pick their ‘favourite’ question. If you are working with a group, this can be done in any number of ways, such as:

  • Single vote: Each person gets one vote. The question that attracts the most votes is chosen for further discussion.
  • Omni-vote: Each person can vote as many times as they like (although it is worth reminding younger children that if they all vote for all the questions, there won’t be one that stands out!) The omni-vote is generally the best method of voting for groups that are new to P4C.
  • Multi-vote: Each person gets a set number of votes – say, three – which can then be spread between three questions or placed onto one or two questions.

Whether you are choosing questions as a group or with an individual child, it is a good idea to help them learn how to pick the ‘best’ question. To do this, they will need to create some criteria – you will find some suggestions in Encouraging Learning.

6. First words

This stage is all about encouraging children to share their first responses to the chosen question. Whether you are in discussion with one child or a whole group of youngsters, we recommend the following:

  • Pause and reflect time
  • Feasibility language – phrases such as ‘perhaps’, ‘maybe’, or ‘I was wondering’ promote a sense of open-mindedness and exploration – which is something that is vital for inquiry.
  • Thinking – remind children that the most important thing is to think about the question. So long as everyone does that, it is up to individuals whether or not to share their views with others.

7. Build and challenge

Once children have shared their first thoughts, begin building on, and/or challenging, the ideas expressed.

Here are some ways to build:

  • RPC (Repeat-Paraphrase-Connect) – when a child has expressed their first idea, we can get others to Repeat word for word what they’ve said; or Paraphrase by saying the same thing in a different way; or Connect what was said to an idea of their own.
  • Meaning – a particularly effective strategy is to respond to a child’s contribution by asking if anybody else knows what the child meant. Some children will feel certain they understood – so ask them to explain. If there’s just 2 of you in the discussion then you could try explaining what you think the other person meant. Either way, make sure you then ask the first person if indeed that was what they meant. Typically it will be close but not exact, which then gives the first person an opportunity to clarify their thoughts even more. This strategy also teaches us there is often a marked difference between what someone says and how others understand it.
  • Agree – a simple (and effective) convention is to ask everyone taking part in a discussion to begin their first few responses with: ‘ I agree with … because …’ as this requires participants to listen carefully to what has been said before.
  • Questions that build – there are many questions that invite children to express themselves further and to build on what has already been said. Examples of these include:
    • Can we think of an example of that?
    • What are the strengths of that idea?
    • Why do you say that?
    • Are there any other reasons you can think of?
    • What evidence is there to support what you are saying?

Here are some ways to challenge:

  • Disagree – as with the ‘I agree’ convention, this is a simple and effective approach that aids thinking. This time everyone should begin their responses with ‘I disagree with … because …’.
  • Create Cognitive Conflict – as explained in Encouraging Learning, setting up a conflict of opinions within an individual’s mind causes that person to reflect more urgently on what it is they actually think. This in turn leads to greater engagement and a more energetic search for a resolution.
  • Critical Thinking – there are many ways to develop critical thinking, including the application of formal and informal logic, as well as judgement-making, but the following are going starting points.
    1. Ask for reasons to support the opinions already expressed. For example, if a child has said: ‘I think it is wrong to lie’, then ask them to give a reason (eg because then people won’t trust you).
    2. Develop a critical thinking ‘argument.’ This is a claim that a) is intended to be persuasive, b) has a conclusion, and c) is supported by at least one reason.
    3. Examine the quality of each claim in terms of credibility, assumptions they might be based upon, response to counter-claims and so on.
  • Questions that challenge – there are many questions that invite children to question what they, and others, have said. These include:
    • What alternative ways of looking at this are there?
    • How can we verify or disprove that assumption?
    • What would happen if the opposite were true?
    • What are the weaknesses of that idea?
    • What are the consequences of that assumption?

8. Search for truth

A common definition of philosophy is that it is ‘the search for truth.’ We might not necessarily be able to find the truth (examples of questions we might never know the truth about include: Are ghosts real? and Why are we here?) However, philosophy is not so much about finding the answer but about the process of seeking it. As Einstein said: ‘The search for truth is more precious than its possession.’

So with all the philosophical questions which you encourage children to think about, help them to persevere in their quest for an answer.

9. Construct an answer

Even if a question is patently an open-ended, philosophical one with no agreed answer, it can be constructive, particularly in the early stages of your children’s philosophical development, to help them come to some sort of resolution. Typically this involves thinking back over the ideas generated by the inquiry and sorting them. This can be done in a number of ways, including:

  • Ranking – from most important to least important. For example, if they have been thinking about friendship, your children will probably have considered such qualities as trust, familiarity, enjoying each other’s company, wanting to spend time with each other, knowing the bad as well as the good about each other, a shared history, and so on. So you could now ask them to rank these qualities from most important to least important, or most common to least common. Alternatively, you could ask them to select the three qualities that they believe are necessary for every friendship.
  • Relationships – describing the underlying concept of the question in relation to another concept often helps children to shape their ideas more satisfactorily. For example, identifying what a friend is in relation to a best friend; what courage is in relation to foolhardiness; what reality is in relation to make-believe, and so on.
  • Categorise – using tools such as Venn diagrams or Inference squares can help children distinguish between two (or more) inter-related concepts.

10. Final Words

It is often a good idea to give children a sense of closure by opting for one of these approaches:

  • Last words – give every child a final opportunity to respond to the question or to something they have heard during the inquiry. If you have been thinking together with a large group, it might be appropriate to offer the opportunity only to those who haven’t spoken, or to allow some children to pass.
  • Voting – round off the question by taking a vote. Ensure there are three options: ‘yes’, ‘no’, and ‘not sure’. Including the ‘not sure’ option emphasises that most philosophical questions are not black or white but tend to be ‘shades of grey’.
  • Questions – a phrase that captures the spirit of inquiry nicely is: ‘Not all of our questions answered, but all of our answers questioned.’ So asking all participants to verbalise the questions they still have about the topic would capture the inquiring spirit nicely.
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