Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Philosophy in Schools - Interview with London philosopher and teacher, Peter Worley

Increasing numbers of schools in the UK now offer philosophy and philosophy-related subjects such as critical thinking as part of their curriculum.
The momentum for philosophy with children has grown since research in Scotland, which demonstrated an IQ gain of over 6 points for primary school children who had done philosophy with children.
But philosophy with children is happening a lot closer to home than Scotland and is being developed in innovative ways.
Peter Worley, 34, is a philosophical practitioner who for the last four years has been developing his own successful approach to teaching philosophy to London primary school children. I caught up with Peter recently to find out exactly what happens when you mix philosophy and eight-year olds ...
London-based philosopher and teacher Peter Worley

If I was to attend one of your "Philosophy in Schools" classes, what would I see?

I think the best way to illustrate a session is to describe one. For example, I’ll describe this morning’s session at Sandhurst primary school, a state primary school in South East London. It was conducted with 8-9 year olds (year 4) with the full class and their usual teacher present. The tables had been moved to one side and the chairs organized to form a horseshoe shape so that all the children could see each other, the board and myself. The teacher sat with them and became a co-enquirer.

We usually start with a short focusing exercise to help get them in the right state of mind: one of calm concentration. This is done with their eyes closed so that they can focus their minds on one thought for a minute or so. This focusing exercise is followed by a short discussion of what they have just been thinking about.

The next part of the session is a puzzle of some kind. This was my second session with this class. In the first session I asked them to spell philosophy in English. This week’s task was to translate "philosophy2 from ancient Greek into English. The idea of being able to read and write in a strange new language excites the children.

So far they have done a variety of thinking exercises, though one could argue that it is not strictly philosophy. The next part of the session (which is about half of it) is designed to address this. This is the part of the session that I would like to describe in more detail.

I began this part with another short puzzle. I wrote a complicated looking sum on the board:

12 x 9 x 6 x 14 x 4 x 7 x 22 x 0 = ?

At first the response is of consternation with comments like “that’s impossible!” But it was not too long before somebody said that the answer is 0.

I bring their attention to ‘zero’, then I ask them to try another short exercise:

“Sit once again in the focusing-exercise position. Now, I want you to try to think of nothing.”

I leave them for a minute to do this then we stop the exercise. The next question I ask them is: “Is it possible to think of nothing?”

This stimulated many thoughts from them, many of which come from responding to each other.

For example, one person said, “Yes, I just think of black.”

Then someone responded immediately with, “But if you think of black you are thinking of something.”

From this someone else concluded, “It is impossible to think of nothing because you have to think of something.”

For anyone familiar with Parmenides’ thinking on this, they will recognize a similar move. So, after this has been discussed for a while, I then introduced them to Parmenides (and we have some fun trying to pronounce his name). I then presented a simplified version of his argument on the board and I asked them if they recognized anything they themselves had said. This has the effect of identifying them with the material and they consequently read it more carefully.

Here’s the argument:

The early Greek philosopher Parmenides (c. 515-445 B.C.) tried to think about nothing and also about the word “not”, which we often see in ordinary sentences.

But Parmenides reasoned that, if we think about nothing then nothing becomes something.

Why? Because nothing must become something otherwise we would not be able to think about it.

So, if nothing must become something in order to be thought about, then it seems that we cannot think about nothing.

Therefore, Parmenides concluded, nothing does not exist at all.

(This is a simplified version of the argument as it is presented in Philosophy For Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder…About Everything by David A. White)

On this occasion several of the children recognized their own or someone else’s comments in Parmenides’ argument. The bit they recognized is highlighted in green. I suggest to them that if they were thinking the same things as a famous philosopher then that makes them philosophers. This is empowering for them.

parmenides Parmenides (c. 515-445 B.C.), a Greek Philosopher who attempted to prove that nothing does not exist. Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy fans may recall that Douglas Adams invented a character who proved that black equaled white and then got run over at the next zebra crossing. He was probably a distant descendant of Parmenides

In order to try to take the discussion to a deeper level I then asked them that although we may agree with Parmenides that we are not able to think of nothing as we must turn nothing into something in order to think about it, does that mean that we agree with Parmenides that nothing does not exist? (This is of course a more complex question, and I would only venture this sort of further depth if I judge the group to be capable. On this occasion I did). One girl responded with, “ ‘nothing’ is just a word so it must exist.” But then a boy made an important distinction: “ nothing ’is not just a word. For example if I take the word ‘monkey’, the word ‘monkey’ does not climb off a page and go up a tree. So it’s not just a word.” There was a mumble of astonished agreement, as they begun to understand the point. This boy had touched upon an important philosophical distinction between the ‘sense’ of a word and its ‘reference’. This is a distinction that was made by the philosopher Frege. If I hadn’t run out of time I may well have introduced Frege to the children.

Frege for eight-year olds. I'm impressed! How, in general, how do the children respond to philosophy?

The children – on the whole – look forward to philosophy and often describe it as very different to their other subjects. It’s what they find different about it that interests me. It seems a shame to say it, but this keeps coming up as one of their reasons: that they rarely get an opportunity to say what they think about stuff. On top of this the philosophy sessions give them an opportunity to follow their thoughts through to some depth in a rigorous and controlled environment. They seem to enjoy the fact that there are constraining rules to stop bullying or over-aggression in the group. And time after time teachers comment on how certain children surprise them with their contributions in the philosophy sessions: very quiet or underachieving children in the class often shine in philosophy. Philosophy doesn’t work for everyone and there are children who begin reluctantly or are bored by it and quite clearly do not see its value. However, it is difficult to say that it is having no impact on these children and that it will not affect them positively in later life. I have seen some very encouraging transformations with certain ‘reluctant’ children who have begun with antagonism and ended with a respectful attitude towards philosophy.

I think that there is something naïve about philosophy, and this lends itself well to the naivete of children. Plato said that philosophy begins in wonder, and children have a great deal of wonder. What I hope philosophy will do is crystallize that sense of wonder so that hopefully it will never leave them. I think the description above of the session at Sandhurst School where the children came to similar insights to a pre-Socratic philosopher highlights the connection between children and philosophers and therefore children and philosophy.

The Scottish research relates specifically to the approach invented by Matthew Lipman, and indeed that is the most usual way of doing philosophy with children. I understand that whilst you incorporate some of Lipman's ideas, you try to take philosophy a bit further. Is that right?

lipman Matthew Lipman, an American philosopher who pioneered the Community of Enquiry method for doing philosophy with children. Researchers from Dundee University have recently shown that Lipman's method not only helps children think and empowers them, it also boosts their IQ.

What I am trying to do is to introduce the subject of philosophy to the children, not just provide them with a platform to think and express their thoughts. I am attempting to engage them with the philosophers and the major topics of philosophy. Not all of what I do is strictly philosophy - I do critical thinking, logical and lateral thinking, the interpretation of poetry and stories, and the playing of games, but always from the point of view of philosophy. There is a lot of overlap with Lipman’s approach, for instance, the younger the children are the more like Lipman’s approach my sessions are. I also use the community of enquiry model to conduct some of the sessions, a method borrowed from Lipman, but I use many other structures and approaches as well. Lipman’s approach actively avoids teaching (names, dates, ideas in philosophy) in favour of facilitation, whereas my approach combines teaching with facilitation, particularly with the older age groups.

Any personal experiences that stand out?

When I was at school I was a difficult child, and one of the reasons - suggested by a head teacher of mine at the time - was that it was because I was bright but not challenged enough either at school or at home. For this reason I often identify - and sympathise - with bright and difficult children and try to use philosophy to provide them with the stimulation I didn't get.

Not long ago I went into a room to run a philosophy session with a small group of year 3 children, including one notoriously difficult child, and a teacher coming out of the room whispered to me upon seeing who I was with: "Good luck!"

We did the philosophy session.

I won't pretend it was easy, but when I had finished, I came out of the room exhausted and a little disconsolate. The same teacher saw me and said, "what did you do in there, it was so quiet?" And with these words I realised how successful it had been. The child in question had remained engaged with all the activities we had followed and had made some excellent contributions (as well as some inappropriate ones). I discovered that he was a very bright child and his confrontational, challenging nature had been given a constructive platform. There was still a great deal of work to do with him but I had seen how philosophy had done perhaps what other subjects couldn't do for him.

The moral of the story is that philosophy offers that extra challenge both to gifted and talented children and children with behavioural difficulties; it goes beyond the national curriculum and addresses some of the issues that I wish had been addressed when I was at school.

How would you like to see philosophy with children/philosophy in schools develop?

I would like to see more specialists such as myself in schools, so that it becomes normal for a school to have a resident philosopher. I would also like to see more teachers using some of the techniques of philosophy and particularly Socratic questioning in the classroom and integrate philosophy within the national curriculum. It would be great for a philosophy programme to be run right through a child’s education from reception to secondary school and for philosophy to replace the traditional role of religious instruction and education in schools. I would really like to see more studies done into its effects such as the one done recently by Dundee university.

If any readers are interested in contacting you to do philosophy at their school, how can they contact you?

The best thing is to visit my website and/or email me at to find out about courses.

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