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Oslo Metropolitan University professor Beate Børresen:
In philosophy with children, be ready to learn from them
It’s usually called “Philosophy for Children” but I noticed that you use a different terminology.
Right, we don't use ‘P for C’. We call it ‘Philosophy with Children’ or ‘Philosophy in School’ because ‘P for C’ is directly connected to Matthew Lipmann. In Oslo, we are inspired by Lipmann and we use his material, but we don't use the term ‘P for C’ because it's directly connected with him.
What’s the point of the whole thing?
The point of philosophical inquiries or philosophy with children is to understand. It goes back to the antiquity, when the old philosophers wanted to find something true, good, or beautiful. Then, they had to use reason, and you use your reason by thinking and talking. But one person's reason is not enough; you need other people, also. So, you need to work together with other people to understand better. That's what the philosophers found, and that's what we are working on. That's also central in modern pedagogy. So, the point is to help the children talk in a structured, calm way to understand better.
How does it work in a classroom setting?
Imagine if the teacher gives you, the students, a problem, or you have a problem of some sort. You try to solve that problem or find a good answer, a possible answer, or the answer, if there is one answer, by working together with your classmates, friends, parents, or whoever you're talking to. And you do it in a structured way: You present the problem, think by yourself, use your own reason, write your ideas, and then, work together with the other people by listening to them, and you take one statement at a time. If one person has an answer, we write that down, and we find out if that is a good reason or not. Then, we go on like that. Finally, we sum up in a ‘meta-talk’, as we call it: What was difficult? What did we learn? What do we have to do next time to get better? And things like that.
What if the child comes up with an absolutely unacceptable idea, a racist idea for example?
Well, it depends if you are in the inquiry itself with a teacher, the students, or a parent. Of course, you cannot correct, or else you kill the inquiry if you just tell them the truth. If the child is racist or has racist ideas, or if you want your child to believe in God and the child tells you that he doesn't believe in God, for example, then you cannot make that child a non-racist or a believer in God by just telling. You have to understand. You have to be aware and ask, “What am I doing now? Are we really discussing this or am I educating this child?”
If you are discussing it, you have to listen. You have to ask the child to explain, “Why do you think that? What reasons do you have?” And then, of course, you can come up, not with the correct answers, but with other possibilities, “Have you thought about …? What about …?” And if there are other children there in the classroom, you ask the others, “What do you think?”
You can also divide the class. For example, if it is a question about black people being more stupid than white, women being more stupid than men, or things like that. you can divide the class, and say one group has to find arguments for black people being more stupid, women being more stupid, or God not existing, and the other group has to find arguments against it. Then, you make lists on the board, and look at the arguments. In that way, you take a distance from the problem, calm down, and don't point at one person, saying more or less directly that they are stupid, wrong, or something else.
Then, it’s about being calm and charting the path together.
Right. you calm down because the only way you can turn a racist into a non-racist is by experience. You have to get them to reason and not be attacked. But then, as a teacher, you are also obliged, since the curriculum and the state have given you a task, to raise non-racist, non-sexist, and perhaps also God-believing children. You have to teach them that, not by pointing at them but in a calm way by telling them, “This is the reason for that, and this is an idea and why.”
That's also for the parents. Sometimes, you are in a dialogue with the child. Then you listen, ask the child to explain, and come up with examples that can help the child to think better or think in another way. But in another situation, you have to raise the child and say, “No, I don't accept that.” For example, if the child is unfriendly or behaving badly to a friend, saying racist things, or acting in a racist way, then, of course, you say, “No, I don't accept that, and I can explain that for you later. We don't have time. You're upset.” So, you have to know what you're doing.
Therefore, it's very important to understand that you do not change a person by being angry at that person. You just make that person, perhaps a child, afraid of you. The child would just be quiet. Also, of course, as an adult, a teacher, and a parent, you have to be open to the fact that you can learn something from the child. If you don't have that openness, then you can't do this. You have to accept that you might be stupid yourself.
What are the concrete benefits of doing philosophy with children?
It's a very long story. We have research that says if students have philosophical inquiries at least once a week for one and a half years, then they get better at different things. They become better listeners, they talk more precisely, and they get better at different school works like reading, mathematics, and language-related things. We have research that tells us that if you're a good listener, it means that you are open to other people.
We have this idea of ignorance that we talk about in philosophy. It means that I might not know everything, but I might learn from somebody else. You can learn that, but it takes time. It's like learning a language. A child does not learn to speak in the second year of his life. It takes many years. It's the same with philosophy. You don't get results at once.
Well, in the classroom, you get the result very soon, in the sense that they become better listeners. You can teach them very quickly to argue better by using shorter, clearer sentences. You teach them the three criteria for a good argument, which are clarity, truth, and relevance. So, they learn that, and they get better at that.
But philosophy is a life project, and it's hard. Philosophy doesn't make you happy. It might, but there is other stuff. It is a way of living. It's a way of attacking the world. And it's the same for parents. Of course, as a parent, you always worry that your child will be very different from you or that your child would choose beliefs and ways of living that you don't accept. That's the chance you take when you have a child. You can of course force it, but it's not good. It won't make you happy if you force your child to be like you, for example.
Some parents or educators think that they should somehow serve as a buffer between the children and the cruel realities of the world, protecting them from all the evil out there, because it might be overwhelming for them or even risking their mental integrity. What’s your take on that?
Yes, I agree. I think parents, adults, and teachers shall protect children from evil, and you shall not discuss everything with children. But if the child wants to talk with you, then you have to talk about it. But you shall not present war, poverty, famine, or racism to the child if the child is not interested. When you have a small child, and you're a teacher or a parent, you shall make that child strong because when it gets older, you cannot protect it from these evil things. So, you can make that child stronger through art, music, and stories, for example. It can be stories written by authors but also your own stories, your own history, your own dreams, films, television, and religion, of course. Religious stories are a way of understanding the world.
So, you give the child different concepts, ideas, and persons to stretch towards, and you make the child see that there are different ways of living. I might have problems with some. I might be unhappy, but these stories, pieces of music, and films show me that I can fight that. So, you give the child, in a way, the belief that it's possible to manage when you are unhappy. A small child will be happy, of course, but then when the child gets older, you cannot protect that child. It will read things in newspapers or on the Internet. Then, you have to be prepared to talk to the child. For example, if the child says, “Will war come here?” you will tell the child, “No, it will not come here.” You have to say that. If the child asks, “Are we going to starve to death?” you have to say, “No, we are not going to starve to death.”
But also help the child to see that you can do something about it. It depends where you are and what situation you are in. You might give money to someone or invite someone in for dinner. You have to help the child or the young person to find ways of doing things and also talk about it. You can give them a task to write down three things they’re worried about and ask them to read that up to you so you talk about those things in a quiet, calm way. You can say, “I am also worried about that. And I do this and that. And if this happened, you can make a plan on what we will do if these things happen.” If they ask, for example, “What do we do if I get sick?” you can say that they have a grandmother, perhaps, or an uncle, and you can sell the house and go somewhere else. But only if the child asks or presents the problem itself. Do not present problems like that to a child who is not interested or not worried.
But of all the bad things out there, death seems to be one fact of life many children have to deal with at very young ages. And it gets them worried. What can a parent or an educator do about it?
Well, first of all, to be worried about this is something human beings have been doing for thousands of years, and it's all over the place. The child is a human being and, of course, is worried about dying or losing someone in death. So, if it is a, what you may call, normal death like an old person dying and if the child knew that person, you have to accept that he would be in sorrow, of course. He's longing for that person and missing that person.
Then, you have to tell the child, “I am also very unhappy because of this.” But then, it depends. You have to ask, “What do you want to know?” Some children want to know what physically happens when someone dies. Then, you have to tell them, and if you don't know, look on the internet. In Norway, we have children's books about what physically happens when a person dies but also about all the practical things. For example, what happens? Where do they take the dead body? How do they do the funeral? You know, things like that. What small children especially want to know is, “Does it hurt to die? Is it painful?” You have to answer that question.
And then, there is the question of what happens after death. None of us know that, but we have hopes. So, you have to say, “I believe that, and many people believe this.” You could debase your belief on that, “It's not dangerous to believe that you are going to heaven, for example. It’s just rather depressing to think that you're going to hell, or someone you love is in hell.” I wouldn't talk about that too much to a child. But some children are very worried about that. There are a lot of books, at least in Norway, about how to talk about what happens after death.
I and a colleague of mine had a group of 12-year-olds for the philosophical inquiry every week in their spare time in the afternoon. The first time we asked them to write down a question they wanted to know about, and they wanted its answer. We've asked that many times after that, and we always get the same question from them, “What happens after death?” They also want to know if the space is without borders. That's another thing they want to know besides what happens after death.
If you, as an adult, have lost someone close to you — for example, your parent, husband, or wife — then you should not be the one talking to the child. You have to ask someone to help you, “Please, talk to my child about what's happening.” Later, you can talk about your own worries.
But you cannot avoid it. It used to be like that. There was a time when you didn't talk to children about death, but we know that was not good for the children. For example, when I was a child, we would never talk about death, even though we worried about it a lot. You were worried about dying, about where people were, and about what happened. The point is that, you cannot avoid worrying about death, even if you’re a child, but don't let them worry unnecessarily.
Some Iranian parents I’ve talked to are specifically worried that doing philosophy might somehow interfere with their “normal” upbringing. What would you say to them?
Well, these Iranian parents are just like Norwegian parents. They have the same worry, “Will my child lose their faith? Will my child be too worried? Will my child be a cynic?” There are some philosophers in Norway who are against philosophy with children because they think it will make the children cynical or very quarrelsome, as they will quarrel about details. But we have no experience with that. They don't become like that.
Rather, they become open. They reflect better. Their language is better. But some find it very boring: They think it's very slow, “Oh, I want faster.” And some say, “I don't want to think about the answer myself. Please, give me the answer. Tell me the truth.” Some children and some people are like that. We don't want to do the work. We want other people to do the work. In general, however, doing philosophy with children, in my experience, helps them become better versions of themselves.
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