Seven-year-olds may not be ready for Wittgenstein, but tapping into their natural wonder about the world will help create a generation of inquisitive minds
Whenever I tell people that I teach philosophy in primary schools, the response is usually the same. A look of incredulity passes over their face as they imagine me lecturing on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to a class of dumbfounded seven year olds. The reality is quite different – philosophers themselves are rarely if ever mentioned, and long words are kept to a minimum – but still the underlying question remains: why bother? Shouldn’t children be learning how to read and write, rather than pondering whether imaginary trees falling in unpopulated forests make a sound or not?
I started doing philosophy in primary schools through an organization called the Philosophy Foundation at the beginning of this year. After graduating in the subject four years ago, it felt like a good way to put my degree into practice, especially when few obvious opportunities to do so existed outside of academia. But while the number of jobs with the word “philosophy” in their title may be limited, the skills and techniques I learned at university have continued to benefit me since I left – hence why the idea of teaching them to children appealed.
The sessions I run usually begin with a story or short “stimulus” which draws on a traditional philosophical problem, but reframes it to make it more engaging for a younger audience. The story then ends with a question, and a discussion ensues. Throughout the class, I try to take a backseat; I’m there to help draw out the children’s thoughts, but it’s really for them to decide where the discussion goes and, crucially, what they think. In fact, rather than teaching philosophy, a more accurate description of my job is “doing” philosophy with children.
At its core, philosophy is about thinking and reasoning well. It’s about learning how to be logical, present arguments, and spot bad ones. Yes, this is often done through strange, improbable examples, which can feel removed from – and therefore irrelevant to – the real world (like the tree in the forest). But these exercises in mental gymnastics train the mind to think more clearly and creatively, which benefits all aspects of life.
I think people often mistake this general application across all fields for a lack of application in any, and so dismiss philosophy as useless. But my experience says the opposite. As well as learning how to naturally construct arguments, the children are also invited to question them – both their classmates and their own.
The more I teach, the more convinced I become that learning to question oneself is the greatest benefit of doing philosophy. By encouraging children to examine the world from perspectives other than their own, philosophy cultivates a generation of inquisitive minds that will grow up challenging the assumptions that hold us back. And hopefully, one of them might even finally settle it: does the tree make a sound?
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd
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