A cheap shot?

Michelle demonstrates through her article what she states in her final paragraph as the benefit of involving children in philosophical enquiry. She says, “We get children thinking critically, rigorously and sceptically, so that they’re less likely to succumb to ill-founded beliefs or be duped by self-deception, spin or rhetoric. We help children develop their reasoning, so that they become more adept at building logical arguments and rationally defending their views. We encourage children to question the assumptions underlying different points of view, enabling them to challenge dogmatic beliefs. And we cultivate deep and deliberative thinking – often neglected in traditional schooling, which tends to focus more on getting ‘the quick right answer’ – so that children have a chance to explore the nuances of complex ideas.”
Who could disagree with that?

The Philosophy Club

The New Yorker has disappointed me again, this time by its recent coverage of a series of children’s philosophy workshops at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Rebecca Mead’s article, ‘When Kids Philosophize’, reports on the Tilt Kids Festival’s philosophy workshops – billed on the Festival website as an opportunity for children, aged 6 – 12, to “explore some of life’s biggest questions” and “engage in deep conversations about … key themes in philosophy” with acclaimed philosopher Simon Critchley and some graduate student guests.

On the face of it, ‘When Kids Philosophize’ offers a light-hearted glimpse of what went on during three of the short workshops. But the article’s mild humour has the unfortunate effect of trivialising the important the task of engaging children in philosophical discussions.

I personally found little to smile about in the volley of random questions, irrelevant observations, unsubstantiated claims and juvenile distractions that were…

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42 thoughts on “A cheap shot?

  1. D. Avery @shiftnshake

    Well, that’s a deep post. I think, as so often happens in education, it’s sometimes the naming of things that start the disagreements and confusions. (Your post has probably already started the big companies scrambling to have boxed basal philosophy programs, also available on-line.)
    Critical thinking and rigor can and should be embedded in the same old three Rs, reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies. That rigor and critical thinking should be developmentally appropriate and should enhance, not replace a child’s sense of wonder. Curiosity and wonder are nurtured, not taught. Balanced and curious people will grow into and discover philosophy, and this growth can be nurtured, through their other studies and explorations.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for your thoughtful response, adding your wisdom to the discussion.
      I don’t like the thought of a boxed basal philosophy program. It makes me shudder. But you are probably right. Someone’s out there trying to do so now. I hope they realise that philosophy is an open rather than closed box.
      The P4C (Philosophy for Children) materials are excellent, and do just what you suggest. They teach philosophy through other aspects of the curriculum, but they are more focussed in the way children are encouraged to think and participate in discourse. I think they are very effective and wish they were more widely implemented. Are you familiar with them?

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  2. roughwighting

    Great article and thought provoking for us all. We are not raising smart children unless we teach them to think critically and respectfully. It reminds me of the way my guy and I made sure we had dinner time together as a family every night. We brought up a question about world events or current events or something going on so that we could then discuss the rights and wrongs of what was going on. I truly think that our children learned more at the dining table sometimes than in the classroom.

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    1. Norah Post author

      I have no doubt about the correctness of your final statement! What a wonderful practice your and your guy set up; a practice that is too often replaced by dinner in front of the TV or on laps with alternative screens elsewhere in the house. It doesn’t do much to develop relationships, communication skills, or general knowledge and understanding.

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  3. Marsha

    Wow, this is a thought -provoking article for adults to ponder. I think children who are raised by parents who question and engage them in thoughtful reflection tend to raise children like themselves. It’s amazing to me that in some high school social studies classes many children parrot what they have heard adults say, much like non-reasoning adults spout political rhetoric on either side of the spectrum. I think most adults do not know how to reason and debate very well. Therefore, their children/students would probably not do a great job of it either. There are programs that teach students how to do this. One of the best is We the People. Students have to prepare for a Congressional hearing on a specific issue. The high school students who participate in this program are some of the most profound speakers I have ever heard.

    Although I taught elementary school, I did not have children. In class, we regularly had discussions that could be quite deep. In math, we taught them to explain their problem-solving. We talked about school and personal problems and how to solve them.

    Children do reason differently than adults. Their brains are not fully developed to think abstractly, but that does develop in time. If they are not challenged to develop that aspect of their brains, I’m sure it retards them, but I wonder if all children ever do mature into philosophizing adults. In college, I remember learning about the levels of reasoning maturity that people go through and continue to mature throughout their lives. Interesting article, Norah! 🙂

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for adding so much wisdom to the post, Marsha, with your very thoughtful comment. I’m pleased you enjoyed Michelle’s post, and that it got you thinking too.
      I agree with you about parents encouraging their children to think critically and discuss deeply.
      I like the sound of your program We the People. It sounds like it prepares students for informed and participatory citizenship, which I think is essential in a democratic society.
      I love the sound of the discussions you had with your elementary students. I’m sure they learned many powerful lessons which will enrich their lives. “reasoning maturity” – that is definitely something we all need and continue to develop. Thanks so much for reading and joining in.

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      1. Marsha

        It’s my passion! You’re welcome. I thought most children were raised as I was, some encouragement, lots of conversation and reading, but not really taught how to debate. My dad could not take anyone disagreeing with him, and mom just backed off. I would get upset and cry silently when my dad shut me down. Fast forward 40 years, when I’m working with some of the most talented educational consultants in our state. One of them told me that at her family dinner table when she was a child, her father, who did not speak English well, assigned each child in the family a news article to argue. They could pick out the one they wanted, then they had to share about it at the dinner table. What a rich background she had. Her wisdom and insight was unmatched on our consultant team. Was she just more brilliant or better parented?

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        1. Norah Post author

          I identify with your being shut down. I was never encouraged (or never felt encouraged) to ask questions either. I’m so excited for you to be working with the most talented educational consultants in the state. It is very empowering to work with switched on minds. The synergy is inspiring.
          I really love the story of your colleague. What a wonderful education. If only my home could have been like that. I’m sure a good part of her brilliance is attributable to the brilliant way she was parented. Thanks so much for sharing.

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          1. Marsha

            The good news is that we can make a difference from here on out, with our children, grandchildren and others with whom we come in contact. All is not hopeless! 🙂 I’ve enjoyed this conversation, Norah!

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            1. Norah Post author

              We can, and we do! Thanks Marsha. I have enjoyed the conversation too. You have brought such richness and wisdom to the post, and extended my learning. For that I am grateful.

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  4. Charli Mills

    Fascinating read and something I’ve had an interest in because I noticed the lack of teaching critical thought in Minnesota public schools (touted as some of the best in the nation). While I don’t think I had specific philosophy training in grade school, like Robbie’s comment, critical thought came from reading and being encouraged to think critically about what was read. In high school, I joined the forensics team and learned more formal process in acquiring skills to debate or present pursuasive speeches. Early on, in Montana, I saw that teachers encouraged my children to think. But when we moved to Minnesota, the emphasis shifted to “the quick right answer” and any original thought was dissuaded. By then I had gone through a liberal arts college and studied philosophy, so I made sure my children had opportunities to go to summer enrichment at several liberal arts colleges that offered such training to grade school students. In high school, my daughters went to an alternative school that was all about hands on experience, critical thinking and scientific application. My son also pursued science in high school and had teachers who engaged him to think critically. He went on to study philosophy, economics and psychology in college. Personally, and this is just an opinion, I think suburban US schools are more concerned with national test scores and teaching conformity. I agree with Michelle that we need to take philosophy more seriously in teaching its rigor, and yes children have that aptitude for wonder, but they need to have teachers guide them in the discipline of philosophy; that it’s not a mere program for parents to ooh and ahh over Little Ones looking so cute in a philosopher’s cap. Good to know there’s an entire organization concerned with children learning critical thinking and more from philosophy. If ever there was an example of how little Americans critically think, look at who our President is.

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      1. Norah Post author

        Your phone is more articulate than mine. I didn’t notice them. Even when I checked back. What you had to say was obviously too interesting. Would you like me to go back and change any? “)

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          1. Norah Post author

            Okay. I read slowly, on an error hunt. I found and corrected five very small typos. Proves once again that there’s more to reading than meets the eye. So much of it is in the expectation. Happy days.

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              1. Norah Post author

                I could give a very lengthy reply to this, but here is probably not the place for it, and not quite what you are getting at anyway.
                Children who read word for word often lose the meaning of what they are reading, don’t realise that it’s meant to make sense, and so don’t realise there are any errors anyway.
                Sometimes, but not always, we (expert readers) notice the errors. Most times we can manage to read quite well when parts of the text are obscured or missing, or when it contains errors. Which is why some writers think it’s okay to present readers with unedited text. Maybe I mean un-proofread text. I don’t. I think it shows disrespect for the reader. Of course I’m not referring to the writer who doesn’t have the ability to write correctly. And I don’t mind the occasional typo or grammar mishap. I make enough of my own.
                Now I’ve written a rather long and jumbled answer, but not the long answer I was avoiding. I’ll still keep it for another day. 🙂

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          1. Norah Post author

            I’m not having much fun with the predictive text on mine. I find it very slow to use (I’m slow), but easier than the iPad. I don’t use it as much other than a phone unless I have to!

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for adding the richness of your experiences to the post, Charli. I fear I was taught to not think in school. P4C is a fantastic program for getting children to think. Not only that, it is a democratic process that encourages acceptance of other opinions and viewpoints, but using logical reasoning to test whether they are valid or not. As you say, critical thinking is in short supply but much needed at the moment.
      I am fascinated that you studied forensics in high school. I would have enjoyed that. As long as no cadavers were involved!
      I think a broad education in the humanities, including philosophy, is essential to be truly educated. Regurgitating facts for a standardised test is not evidence of education; it tells of a schooled rather than educated mind. I wish our politicians would just realise that.
      As you and Robbie both said, a lot of understanding is gained from reading widely. However so much of the current assessment regime turns kids off reading, so its a double whammy.
      Oh, if only we were the ones making the decisions, what a wonderful world it would be. 🙂

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        1. Norah Post author

          I’m relieved there were no cadavers!
          Sadly, yes. The assessment regime turns kids off reading and off learning. Not to mention burning teachers out and sending them out the door.

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  5. robbiesinspiration

    This is a very interesting topic, Norah. I think that the ages of the children in question would also have an influence on the outcome of such workshops. My older son is now 14 years old and he definitely discusses and debates issues of great importance with his school mates. He often comes home and tell we about such discussions and these boys often reach very logical and useful conclusions without any guidance or adult intervention. These boys are a bit older and are all big readers. Their vast reading may also influence their thoughts and ability to see a bigger picture.

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    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for joining in the conversation with your thoughtful comment, Robbie. I’m pleased you enjoyed the article. How wonderful it is to know that your children are deep thinkers and discuss important issues. I’m sure reading would contribute a lot to that, but being involved in open discussions with parents probably does more. Congratulations on what you have contributed.

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