Thursday 17 October 2019

Thinking time. . . how philosophy can enable children's imagination to flourish

Statue of Plato at the Athens Academy (Greece)
Statue of Plato at the Athens Academy (Greece)

Philomena Donnelly

Philosophy has had a very small but significant presence in Irish primary schools since 1989. It is often viewed as an abstract and complex subject. This is the argument for having it in primary school. Children who do well in our education system are good abstract thinkers in both creative and critical processes. From the age of four or five, children are involved in learning and applying symbols of sounds through the alphabet, conceptualising abstract forms of number and dealing with time and space within a subject curriculum.

Aristotle maintained that philosophy (a love of wisdom) begins in wonder. Children are full of wonder and questions. They are happy to develop possibilities, to imagine hypothesis, to follow an inference and are not weighed down with the ego of adulthood.

In the early 1990s while participating in a philosophy session (Thinking Time) with a class of six­year-olds on the rights or wrongs of keeping animals in zoos, differing opinions were expressed, with one child, Andrew, arguing that he would never be able to see an elephant if there was no zoo. Another child opined that such practice was cruel. When it came to Andrew's turn again he reflected "when Sarah said what she said I think she is right. That means I disagree with myself now".

The point is important. For philosophy to exist, one needs to surrender to the topic and the dialogue, to enter into conversation with openness, to listen to the thoughts of others and refine, develop or change one's own thinking accordingly or not. The process involves wondering, musing, listening, asking questions, reflecting, thinking and participating. There is no place for winning the argument. It is not sophistry, rather making and finding meanings.

Often there are many understandings at the end of a session and children learn that many questions have no one 'right' answer.

Topics for discussion can be based on children's own questions and curiosities: why can't we live forever? Was there a time before time began? What are beauty/ happiness/goodness? How can you be sure something exists if you haven't seen it? The list is endless and often stories, poetry, works of art can all be the stimuli for a philosophy session.

The teacher or parent takes on a Socratic role by encouraging, supporting and modelling thinking and dialogue through the use of such phrases as I wonder, is it always so? I'm not sure, I agree with, I disagree with (agreements and disagreements are with the thoughts not the person) I have a question, maybe, because, although, perhaps.

A useful book in starting philosophy with children is David A. White's Philosophy for Kids (2001).

The questions are common to what children often ask and importantly each one is connected into the thinking of major philosophers such as Plato, Kant, Sartre and de Beauvior.

Philosophy gives children an opportunity to think and talk within and beyond the curriculum and could form part of the oral strand of the language curriculum. Importantly, children are now recognised as citizens with their own rights in our constitution. Having a voice is part of citizenship. George Berkeley once said "all men have opinions but few think".

Philosophy complements and extends the good work already happening within Irish primary schools to educate children to have and express opinions based on deep thinking, dialogue and shared understanding.

  • Dr Philomena Donnelly is a former director of the graduate diploma in education (primary teaching), St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. She and teacher Marie Finn and teacher educator Joan Keating will participate in a discussion 'Thinking Time: Teaching Philosophy in Primary Schools' at this weekend's Laurence Gilson Summer School, Oldcastle, Co. Meath.

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