Robert Wilson on Philosophy for Children:
P4C builds on children’s natural curiosity
Let’s talk about children and philosophy
“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 will be published in four consecutive parts in Iran Daily.
What is Philosophy for Children (P4C) essentially about? What is its significance? 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. What’s your take on that?
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 about 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?”
TO BE CONTINUED