Children becoming Socrates

Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne reports from the BPS webinar ‘More thought in education’ led by Peter Worley, co-founder of the Philosophy Foundation.

The alternative title for this webinar, taken from Worley’s book, was ‘Corrupting youth’ – which is also Worley’s aim when he holds philosophy sessions in schools. But it’s not as alarming as it sounds. The intention is to encourage children to question, teach, think and learn, to challenge and question authority in the interests of the group and society.

How do we go about corrupting youth? Worley’s approach is to ‘question them to have them question’. If a child says, ‘birds fly’, we might be tempted to point out that penguins don’t. Instead, Worley said we should prompt the child to reflect on their statement by asking, ‘do birds fly?’ to which they are likely to respond, ‘well not all birds fly’. This is the essence of Worley’s approach. It works best in groups because if one child doesn’t respond, others will.

Worley uses what he calls the philosophy triangle to guide group discussions – the three things that can be done in response to a question, which are think, speak and listen. They can be done in any order, though the first rule of philosophy club is ‘don’t think too much’. Children are encouraged to give their intuitive answer. The questions that are posed are grammatically closed but conceptually open, such as ‘can you step into the same river twice?’ or ‘is a Kindle a book?’ or ‘do statues do anything?’.

Through these questions the ‘dialectical effect’ occurs. There is an initial response, a search for alternatives, the emergence of a paradox or problem (such as, ‘you both can and cannot step into the same river twice’), an attempt to resolve the paradox (for example a disambiguation such as, ‘for those who step in the same river, ever different waters flow’), and a continual navigation between the concrete and abstract (children may step back and think in more general terms, with statements like ‘the universe flows like a river’).
Even nursery children will engage with this approach, Worley said. They will share their views on whether it’s fair that big ted gets more cake than little ted. Children who are exposed to these philosophy sessions (Worley recommends little and often) will start to engage in dialectical processes internally, without needing input from others. They will ‘become a Socrates to themselves’.

The evidence around the impact of philosophy brings up an interesting paradox that Worley has tried to solve. On the one hand, there is evidence that philosophy increases confidence. But ‘on the other hand, if we’re doing philosophy properly, we should start to doubt ourselves’. Worley has proposed a model of two kinds of confidence to resolve this paradox. There is social confidence which allows children to speak up in front of peers, and there is cognitive confidence in beliefs and ideas. Worley suggested that philosophy builds confidence in the social sense, but brings doubt to our belief systems. Together this leads to a confidence to admit fallibility and ultimately this results in intellectual humility.

While he is on a mission to show that philosophy is for everyone, Worley worries that if his approach with The Philosophy Foundation was rolled out to all schools it would become a tick box exercise with specific criteria for students to meet by the end of each lesson. What makes it so valuable is being outside of the centralised system, with no focus on the extrinsic reasons for doing philosophy. There is evidence that it can improve academic outcomes, but Worley stressed that these sessions have intrinsic value. ‘We want to give children a place and a space to think for the sake of thinking.’

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