0706 GMT October 04, 2022
“Philosophy” might sound like a sophisticated thing, a realm of deep thinking and grandiloquent wordings exclusive to senior, aloof, and usually spectacled seniors of the society.
But proponents of the Philosophy for Children Movement, which was founded by Matthew Lipman in early 1970s, argue that children at very young ages are capable of some sorts of critical and philosophical thinking. Moreover, the movement, known as P4C, encourages parents and teachers to nurture seeds of deep thoughts and questions in the young children.
The movement has gained much traction in Iran, as well, and received cautious approval and encouragement from officials, which was not surprising after all, because a precursor of sorts had been established in Iran in 1965, i.e. the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, which, among other things, has tried over the years to procure cognitive and critical development tools for Iranian children. And right now, many ‘special’ schools across the country pay due attention to ‘unorthodox’ educational methods, including P4C.
As everything else about the delicate being of young children, however, the work of P4C should be done properly with utmost care. There are pitfalls to be avoided, misunderstandings to be cleared up, and best practices to be followed. More specifically, there are less or more legitimate concerns about the whole idea of working philosophically with children that parents or educators might have.
In an exchange with Robert Wilson, professor of philosophy at the University of Western Australia who has extensive experience in the field, I raised some of the pressing issues in regards to the P4C. His insights into the matter are published in four consecutive parts in Iran Daily from May 14 to May 17, 2022.
IRAN DAILY: What is Philosophy for Children (P4C) essentially about? What is its significance?
Robert Wilson: I think what's especially important for parents about the Philosophy for Children program and the methodologies that it invokes is that it provides a way for their children to develop their curiosity in a very natural way while becoming members of these communities of inquiry, and seeing themselves as having ideas and capable of developing them, together with others, in ways that matter to them. Once they've got that idea, which in some sense should be happening in classrooms and throughout children's lives very naturally but often doesn't, they can transport that into all sorts of areas: How they read novels, how they approach mathematical problems, and how they look at scientific experiments.
So, it's quite a general set of skills that you develop if you get used to this kind of dialogical mode of inquiry. This makes it always okay to ask why, to expect that others will engage you, and to be interested in their ideas and why they think about things maybe in the same way or maybe in different ways. Why does this sort of evidence count? How does what was going on here connect with something else? Each individual will make their own connections, and having that free space, your kids can do this. It's a matter of creating spaces and inculcating confidence in them.
There is a concern among some parents that having young children do philosophy might be overwhelming or otherwise exhausting for them.
Yeah, I don't think so. Because I think this kind of curiosity that you build on is very, very natural. So, it's very student-focused. I think where kids can feel too much pressure is when they're confronted with something that feels very alien and is imposed on them. So, if they had to do some abstract mathematics or they have to read a complicated piece of reading, which might be relevant but they can't see the point of it because it's a bit removed from their experiences, that's where kids can freeze up, I think, and feel a little overwhelmed.
But crucial to the kind of methodology that we have in building these communities of inquiries is to have it very student-centered, but also to make it not egocentric, so that it's not focused just on them. Rather, it's getting them to realize that they're part of a community and they have got to be sensitive to other people's ideas. They have got to be as inquisitive about others as they are about themselves.
What about the concern that such a work might be “too mature” or “too challenging” for the kids? What if the kids lose their interest in such intellectual endeavors altogether?
I don't think I've really seen that. What I see is kids coming out of these classrooms or other informal settings where this methodology is employed, being incredibly enthusiastic, realizing they've got much more potential than they thought. They're excited about the ideas. They can see applications in their real lives. They can become quite challenging, and sometimes parents are surprised, “What did you do to my kid?” Not that they'd say that in a bad way, but more like, “Wow! They've got all sorts of stuff inside of them. I just didn't realize.”
That's why I think it's actually really good for kids who often feel quite excluded from normal educational classroom processes because they are shut out. They have felt overwhelmed or they felt challenged but not in the right way. So, I guess the way to put it is that the thinking is challenging but challenging in a way that's very accessible, and every individual has got the ability to run with this. Particularly, when there's this social value associated with being a member of the community of inquiry in the classroom. So, you're a part of a team. That really helps a lot.
Some critics argue that the whole P4C program is ideologically laden, in the sense that it promotes certain worldviews. What’s your take on that?
I think it's a good and perfectly fair question to ask whether it's ideologically laden. One natural response for somebody from within the Philosophy for Children movement would be, “Well, what do you mean by ideology laden? What’s ideological for you?”
Certainly, there are values that are important to the Philosophy for Children program. For example, respecting the individual opinion, the need to provide reasons and evidence for your views, and certain flexibility and the ability to change your mind.
Now, you might think, “Well, all of these themselves are a part of some kind of false consciousness,” if you want to use Marxist terminology. Or, “It's part of an ideology,” right? Or, “That's this kind of Western capitalist view” or something like that. But I think you could actually challenge that. Why do you think that? Why do you not think that people should have opinions and that they should develop their own views in a way that connects with their abilities? Do you think that they shouldn't respect the opinions of others? So, I think that one sort of response is to open a dialogue about what kinds of values are important in education, what sorts of abilities we want to try and cultivate in people in learning environments, and open a dialogue about that. In fact, you actually invoke the ideals that, in some sense, you're trying to defend by using them in practice.
Now, of course, people can always shut that down. But then, what I would say is, “Well, who's being ideological, in the relevant sense? Why can't there be a free and open discussion about these kinds of things? Is that something that’s off the table?”
Q: What if they refuse to engage in a discussion by referring to some sort of intellectual authority?
Well, you'd want to ask, “Well, why is that? What's the basis for that?” But you can see how there could be ultimately some incommensurability in perspectives where they're just not willing to do that. It often comes up in a religious context, say, within a Christian religious context where you have certain traditions in Christian thinking which are much more hierarchical and authority-based. But that's not true of all, and we know that exists within different religions of all sorts of traditions. So, for example, Jesuits within the Catholic tradition are much, much more open and engage much more philosophically in the relevant sense. I'm sure that's true in other religious traditions as well.
What are the fundamental things which P4C aims to teach?
I think one is inquisitiveness, respect for inquiry, and the cultivation of curiosity in a systematic way so that, say, if you're with your peers or whether you're an educator, part of your job is to try and cultivate their own sense of making sense of things around them, whether it's, again, a tech experiment, a mathematical equation, their peer relationship, social standing, and things like that, and be happy with that.
So, it's not dictating a particular value so much. There are substantive particular values that I've talked about just a moment ago in the background. It's not telling people what to think, but it's giving them the opportunities to figure those things out themselves.
What if one criticizes it for being too individualistic?
Of course one might say, “Well, that's very individualistic,” getting it to go back to one version of the point about ideology. There, I think we can have a discussion about that. It doesn't have to be thought of as being so individualistic because I often think that one of the fundamental values is the sense of belonging to a community that itself has a set of values that you might have to give up your own individual desires and self-focused life for. That itself is a live issue that can be talked out in this framework.
So, I think that's important, but it's not just about individual self-fulfillment or community belonging or something like that. It's actually tied pretty closely to the development of a whole range of critical thinking skills, things like being able to distinguish between good inferences and bad inferences. Some of these can get coded up in strict logical systems that could get developed within formal systems of logic. But others are a bit more informal thinking about counterexamples. Providing objections to claims and getting a sense of the depth of some of the issues that are involved.
Then, what’s the practical benefit of doing P4C?
For one, these things are important in education because they carry over into the practice of science: When you're setting up experiments and thinking about what controls you do; when you're thinking about how to collect the evidence; whether it's a representative sampling; or whether it's social sciences, biological sciences, or physical sciences. These are all skills. And there's actually often quite a tight connection between the practice and the kind of thinking that goes into scientific thinking and philosophical thinking because of the role of evidence, reasons, logic, inference, things like that.
But when I talk about critical thinking skills, I don't think about them in this narrow way. There are certainly some that are more formal and connected to logic and scientific inquiry. But a lot has got to do with, for example, how do you understand a text? How do you comprehend a complicated set of perspectives represented in a novel, for example, or in a historical report? You have to have those range of critical thinking skills to be able to put yourself in the position of the author that you're trying to grapple with or challenge or extend the insights on. So, it applies to sociological work or historical work, and that's why these skills are so important.
So it adds to the repertoire of skills one needs to do critical thinking.
Right. Sometimes the way people in the Philosophy for Children movement describe it is that we think about the three Rs that people use, in at least the Western canon, to describe reading, writing, and arithmetic, but we don't have reasoning, as a fourth. Reasoning in this broad sense, again, is really important to set a range of critical thinking skills, some of which are social, some of which are more formal, but they're all important. They have this massive carry-over into all sorts of areas of education and an individual's life thereafter.
So, they're really important for lifelong learning, which has become a big buzz recently in North American education, and Philosophy for Children Alberta has actually won awards for contributions to lifelong learning. I don't much like all these grab terms that flutter around. I think they're a bit more ephemeral, and you don't want to speak to them so much. But there is this idea that learning doesn't take place just in the classroom.
One of the things that is really valuable about the Philosophy for Children approach is that you get kids coming into these classes, and they walk out buzzing and seeing all sorts of connections – even from a simple discussion about something like bullying, for example, which is a big theme in a lot of schools and peer pressure – and reflecting on that with their peers as a part of that process, and then coming to realize, “Yeah, I've got a lot to say about this and feelings about this.” It’s not just something we can bring into our discussions in the classroom. We can bring them in and we can take them out, and they make a difference in how we feel about ourselves and how we go on. So, it actually really helps us if it's done in the right way to build those connections between people, with teachers, with parents, and with peers.
There is another concern, as well, that thinking that much or that deep might not be good for the psychological health of the kids, or in plain terms, make them less happy. What’s your take on that?
Yeah, I think it's a good question about happiness. Again, there's a philosophical question about how you think about happiness. If you just had your kids, say, at least in my society, watching cartoons and playing video games endlessly be very entertaining, and there'll be a certain amount of pleasure and a certain kind of happiness, so sure. But it wouldn't really translate very directly into a whole range of a broader sense of happiness. I think one of the things that Philosophy for Children can do is it can really help cultivate that richer sense of happiness, or what Aristotle would have called ‘Eudaimonia’, where happiness isn't just thought about in terms of pleasure or some sort of short term game but really a broader set of satisfactions and a way to lead one's life that's much more meaningful, connected, integral, so that the way you approach everything now is, in some sense, more reflective and more philosophical.
You may think, “Oh, hang on. If we do too much of that, don't we get burdened down? Don't we have these existential crises? Don't we get overloaded?” And of course, there's that danger. But I guess I think that there's an easy way to control that kind of danger. You may think you're making your kids into these little eggheads who are just thinkers, but the conception of thinking here is itself a communal and social activity. It's connecting with others and so on, just as it is in science or as it is in other contexts of learning. So, there's a way to keep a check on that, and a skilled educator will be able to use that.
Extending P4C logic to the whole classroom setting might disrupt the way we currently do teaching at classes. Isn’t it frightening?
I think one of the crucial things for educators is not to feel threatened by this. What it does is that it challenges, in our classrooms, the typical classroom structure where the teacher is the embodiment of knowledge, the teacher is the expert and knows and transmits that down to the kid. Now, the teacher is actually a kind of expert facilitator at building these communities of inquiry and will gain the respect from students when they realize there's a difference between us and the teacher, but it's not your job to question the teacher, and the teacher gives the answer, and you just remember it and write it down. Now, there's more of this dialogue where the responsibility is much more with the students to come in and lead that kind of discussion and guide the way the classroom goes. So, it can be quite challenging for teachers, but in my experience, once teachers get over that initial transition, and often with the support of administrators or people higher up in education who see the real value of it so that they know they'll be supported, you can deal with a little bit of transitional chaos in your classroom.
Students will be a little bit noisier, and you might not be heading towards these closely defined objectives, but you can rein that back in. In terms of the payoffs in the long run, there are lots of studies that show the benefits and the translation into concrete results in the schooling achievements of kids from adopting these kinds of approaches because this has been around for over 40 years now. The curriculum that is at the core of Philosophy for Children is being taught in over 60 countries and has been translated into over 40 languages.
Q: Right, it’s been adopted in many cultural settings and there is a positive view toward it in Iran. But still, it seems to me that it’s not mainstream yet.
Let’s go back to the question about ideology or cultural specificity or something like that. Of course, one can still make that claim that it's not universal, but it's had widespread uptake across a whole bunch of different cultural contexts that people have seen value. And the nice thing is that people can adapt and use this methodology with their own texts that seem important or their own other sets of readings or ideas or issues once you've kind of got this methodology, competency, and the knowledge of how to build that.
Some are also concerned that having certain discussions with kids might not be in their best interests because the reality of the world in which we live is harsher than some open, abstract dialogue might have us believe. Does P4C accommodate for such reservations?
Yes. You might have reservations in practice, or in other words, let’s suppose we're supportive of the idea but we need to take other things into consideration in practice. And the way I understand, the worry is about people's real-life practical circumstances, and I think it's certainly a legitimate concern.
Remember when kids are developing, they’re developing in a whole bunch of different contexts. There's an immediate, say, mother-daughter or father-daughter, father-son relationship, or a family relationship that that's a part of. And then there's the more extended family: There are the peer networks; there are the school networks, and so on. In every single one of those contexts, there are decisions to be made about how far do we go with this. Because you can have an idea of open-mindedness, free inquiry, courage, and curiosity if you like them. But in practice, you know that there are always limits and boundaries. I think they have to be in some sense set, and I think the people in those communities – whichever they are, whether they're pairs of people or families or school committees – have to make those decisions.
I would think the one right way to make these decisions is through the same methodology of having this more open discussion about what works and being very pragmatic about it. There might be discussions about the nature of parental relationships, the relationships between parents and children, between parents and teachers, or respect for the state. There are a whole bunch of different things where questions about authority come up, and you might set limits to those in keeping with the spirit of the program. But it’s in tension with the general goal.
The goal is really about kids being able to flourish as best they can so that they become the adults that we want them to be. Then, you have to tailor how you implement this methodology in particular contexts. So, although on some level, yeah, there's a giving up of a certain kind of authority, and there's a redrawing of who gets to set the boundaries a little bit, that process itself is still subject to, and it should be subject to, the realities of the situation. Sometimes that might come out with respect to particular topics.
So, in a particular context, it might not be the best thing to open up wide-ranging discussions about the authority of the state, religious authority, or sexuality. It just may not be appropriate. I think the ultimate decision-making power should lie with the people who are most effective with that. Hopefully, they can do it. They should think in terms of what's in the best interest of the child, and people might differ here in terms of how they carve things up. Certainly, sometimes what works within one family might not work in that school district, but that happens with all sorts of things. Like even, in some sense, more straightforward things like about how we should be learning science. It's just that here, it's potentially a little more threatening because everything, in principle, is up for grabs. But I think you can still set boundaries on that relative to the particular circumstances when you keep in mind the ultimate goal.
Another overarching concern about P4C and the way it promotes being open to others’ ideas is that it may lead to some sort of relativism.
It’s a philosophical worry: Does it lead to relativism and lack of resolution? It certainly might mean that in reaching a consensus, or answers that are acceptable – even if they're not the consensus views – you might end up with a discussion saying, “Okay. We didn't resolve this, but it looks like there are at least three different ways to think about this or three different conclusions we might come to.”
I think, to some extent, you have to be happy with that. You have to be prepared to have that as the result of your discussion because that's sometimes just where things will lie. And I think that's adjusting our ideals a little bit because that actually matches the messy reality of our personal and social lives. It’s no use in posing some kind of false consensus when it isn't really there. And again, it's not that it happens everywhere. But it happens more in science and other areas where we might think there are definitive answers, at least in our ideals. I think admitting that and getting kids to recognize it in increasingly sophisticated ways, as they go from being four or five-year-olds early in the school system through to 17 and 18-year-olds who are graduating, really equips them for university study and workplace life as they have certain flexibility in their perspectives. So, whether ultimately it leads to a kind of relativism – and I tend to think it doesn't, but that's more of a philosophical stance – what it certainly does is that it will make some of those discussions sound a bit more relativistic, in that we don't come up with these definitive answers, but that seems to me entirely appropriate for at least certain sorts of issues.
On the other hand, I think what often comes out is that there's much more consensus and agreement on what the answer, or at least the narrow range of acceptable answers are, that are sometimes surprising. And it's interesting to have those, if you like, minority answers in view. So, at least we still think, “Okay. How did they get to that conclusion? Let's keep that in mind. We don't all agree with that sort of view. But we recognize that perspective and the reasons for it now.” And that itself is really helpful, I think, in cultivating a sense of different perspectives and views and respect for them, even if you have narrowed things down. Especially if people can be brought along in that process, so that they feel like they've got a contribution to make and can realize that their view doesn't agree with everybody else's. So, to some extent, it might be relativistic in some kind of non-pernicious sense. I don't think it leads to outright relativism in a way that we should be fearful of.
It’s my understanding that besides standalone, once-in-a-while P4C classes, more comprehensive programs are being developed where kids have a kind of immersive experience, if you will, with the P4C.
Yes, and I think it's just proven to be a really powerful set of tools, and it's got a lot of flexibility into it. So, I got involved in this when I was an undergraduate in Australia – because I'm originally from Australia – and as a third-year philosophy honors student, I was like, “Yes, this is what I want to do. This makes so much difference.”
Because I was somebody who was very much an outsider to the university community. My father was a blacksmith. Nobody had finished high school in my family. I didn't feel like I was very much a part of the university community. And I saw lots of potential for this in different sorts of contexts, and so I threw myself into it pretty fully, and I believed in it, and so on. I haven't always worked on it continuously because I've gone on to do other sorts of things. I was a computer programmer for a while, and so on.
But it's struck me that one of the nice things we'd done in Alberta is that we've set up these camps for kids, this ‘Eurekamp’ – that I think you've seen the videos about – that replicate and adapt the methodology through the use of activities rather than books and more traditional learning materials. So, kids really have this hands-on experience because it's not like a book camp. They don't want to sit down and read. We have basically a science-based camp here. And we are now running similar camps at the University of Western Australia, using the same methodology.
We saw that the kids got really enthusiastic about science and scientific learning, and it was run by the University of Alberta. We thought we could do that with philosophy as well, and we've been very successful. But part of it has been going into communities that are traditionally excluded, who wouldn't even come to the university because it's too intimidating. I think that was part of the power.
I'm having a dialogue now with somebody who's interested in Indigenous learning, aboriginal cultures, and their adaptation, asking some of these same kinds of questions: Is this a Eurocentric approach? How could it be adaptable? And my ultimate answer is, “It's probably up to you guys to figure out how to adapt it, not by yourselves but together with us. And I think there's a lot of potential here, and I've seen it used in old people's homes, where there's a lot of people who are retirees and wondering about lots of things in life, and you can now provide them with these materials where together they can build this sense of community with one another. It really enriches their lives. It’s a very different context than school.” So, I'm a big believer in this.