Why do I have to?

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School attendance during some years of their childhood is compulsory for most children around the world. In Australia schooling is compulsory for children between the ages of about five and fifteen. Most children accept this attendance without question and, in fact, many really enjoy it! A society in which schooling was not compulsory and children didn’t want to attend would be very different from that which we currently enjoy.  So while I have some misgivings about the type of schooling on offer, I guess I feel grateful that it is compulsory and that most children are happy to attend.

Given that schooling is compulsory, I believe that a school must be a place where children wish to be; where they feel safe and comfortable, respected and valued; where their needs are met and imaginations excited; where they have some sense of purpose and control; and where they are challenged to be more than they ever thought they could.

For some children, schooling does provide all these things and, as adults, they may look back on their school days with fondness. Others become disengaged, unable to see the purpose in endless tasks and expectations that appear to bear little connection to their lives either now or in the future, as they imagine it. Reigniting enthusiasm for learning once the first flush has faded is more difficult than maintaining it in the first place, which is often challenging enough.

The study of philosophy in schools may help students understand the purposes of what they are learning, maintain their engagement with the curriculum and contribute to their excitement for learning and the desire to stay in school.

I have always had a personal interest in philosophy and philosophical discourse, though I do not claim to have any great knowledge of particular philosophers and their thinking. The “Philosophy for Children” program developed by Dr Matthew Lipman, which has been implemented in many schools throughout the world, including Australia, favours a community of enquiry and democratic approach in which students are encouraged to think; critically, creatively and reflectively. They are also encouraged to think and talk about thinking. When I was first introduced to the approach in the mid-1990s, I was not surprised to find that development of the approach had been influenced by John Dewey’s ideals of progressive education. The program not only fitted with my philosophy of education perfectly, but expanded my thinking and gave more credence to what I believed. I was pleased to receive, through use of the program, guidance for implementing these important thinking skills in my early childhood classroom.

Recently, on the recommendation of my friend and fellow philosophy-enthusiast, Glenn, I listened to a podcast “Philosophy in Education” available on the Philosophy Now website. In this podcast, three philosophers, Peter Worley, Dr Michael Hand and Dr Stephen Boulter, discussed the question “Should schools teach philosophy?” All three were unanimous, of course, and presented some very interesting and convincing arguments for the inclusion of philosophy in the curriculum.

The discussion dealt with questions about values and basic morality, what one ought to do or should do, and the reasons why. It also raised the importance of “why” questions in maths and science e.g. “Why do we know that 2 + 2 = 4?”, or “How do we know that what we perceive in the natural sciences is reliable?”

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All three agreed that the importance of the basics in education can’t be denied, but Stephen contended that if we want to improve the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic, then we need to start with philosophy. He said that secondary school students are already asking philosophical questions about the material they are being taught in subjects like chemistry and history; questions like “Why do I have to learn this?” or “Why is this important?”  (I suggest that children are asking these same questions from a far younger age.)

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Stephen asserted that these questions about the curriculum are philosophical questions that must be answered if students’ engagement with the curriculum is to be maintained.

This argument was the most compelling for me as it confirmed the importance of providing students with an understanding of the purposes for the learning they are required to undertake. Michael explained that while the basics are important in education, education is more than just that; it is for the “whole of life”. Stephen agreed, insisting that children need to know the reasons why adults force them to go through so many years of formal education. He said that although there were answers to these questions, they were infrequently given to students.

Peter agreed that children need more than just the practical reasons, for example learning to count so that you can add up when you go to the shops. Stephen maintained that students would find it easier to engage and put effort in if they saw the point of the learning, including an understanding of what it is to be an educated person. Not only that, children need to know why they should believe all the information they are being presented with in school, not just because the teacher tells them so.

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The arguments for including philosophical discussions in school, and I would suggest in all curriculum areas, are very convincing. Peter explains that philosophy is inescapable as it deals with concepts and the ability to reason and suggests that these underpin the basics. He questions whether, if the basics haven’t improved for a long time, it may be because no one is questioning what needs to be learned before these skills can be developed. Maybe philosophy and the development of reasoning and concepts is the answer.

What do you think?

How important is it for you to understand the reasons for what is expected of you?

If a seemingly meaningless task is expected of you in your role, do you more willingly accept the requirement if the reason for it is explained?

All clip art used in this post is copyright but used with permission of the eLearning brothers.

6 thoughts on “Why do I have to?

  1. Teachling

    Very interesting! I’m going to keep an eye and ear out next week for any hints toward ‘philosophical’ thinking in my class. I agree with you, that it starts young! Why, why, why…

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  2. Bec

    Hi Nor, what a great article, thank you for writing this. It is interesting to think of philosophy in education as being both the education of philosophy and the philosophy of education. I suppose that is almost in itself a testament to the relevance of philosophy throughout life. Certainly I agree with you that when curricula become perfunctory, it is difficult to allow enthusiasm, creativity and curiosity to buoy students’ interest in what they are being taught. I also see that it links back to your earlier discussions on student-focused learning, where if we could allow the student to be the ‘conductor’ of their own education, then perhaps despite not reading the “right” pages of the textbook at the “right” time, their journey through learning would be so much more full and rewarding.

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    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Bec,
      Thank you very much for your very thoughtful and insightful comment. I love your description of the students being the ‘conductors’ of their own learning. How much more joyous that sounds!
      You have made me think: perhaps if we viewed ourselves as the conductors of our own lives, rather than as slaves to be ruled by must-dos and should-dos, we would find more joy in our daily tasks. I’m going to try it.
      Thanks.

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  3. glenn

    Maybe if i had the chance in high school to address some of the existential crises’ that i went through, such as the purpose of life and the purpose of the curricula, I might not have dropped out in year ten. However i think i was better off teaching myself the lessons of life rather than pointlessly wallow in an institution that was not only bereft of formal philosophy but also void of many adults (teachers) who cared for any form of philosophical enquiry. In my experience I think that confused and inquisitive children are written off by impatient teachers as troublesome! If only I had had more teachers like you Nor, I might not be ten years behind in my education!

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    1. nco04662 Post author

      Hi Glenn,
      Thank your for your comment and support. The lessons of life vs the lessons of the classroom. We can never go back, only forward. I think you are in accord with the philosophers discussed in this article. The fact that you have returned to continue your education through your own desire for learning, initiative and self-direction is a testament to your resilience and self-determination. Who knows what may have been. What is, is good.

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