Reflections on ICPIC & SOPHIA 2017 Part 1

On empirical questions, exposition and voting 

By Pieter Mostert

What happens to notes taken during a conference? Usually very little, at least in my case. This time I decided to do it differently – after the ICPIC conference in Madrid and the Sophia Network meeting in Aveiro – and pushed myself to structure and unfold my notes into short essays, representing my ‘inner dialogues’ on a number of topics. Here is the first of 3 blogs on my reflections.

You can find some of the presentations that were given at SOPHIA on our resources page for members.

On empirical questions

Are there empirical questions? I doubt that. I doubt whether the ‘empirical’ is in the question. It’s more likely that how we plan to deal with a certain question determines whether it is ‘empirical’. Example: there are religious communities which deal with the question whether God is good as an empirical question: can we see that God is good? There answer is: yes, because look at …. Personally, I would not consider this an empirical, but a highly philosophical question, but that’s not a dispute about the nature of the question. The question is what it is, the difference is between me and this particular religious community.

It is not necessary to draw a sharp distinction between empirical and philosophical questions / questioning. In some cases, it is evident which way to take the question (“Which way is Central Station?”), in other cases it is more of a mix, where we participants can decide which way to take the question, or how to combine both ways. There is no reason why one could deal with a particular question (like: ‘How many colours do you see here?’) only in one way, either empirical or philosophical. One can do both, in the same enquiry. And the sequence is open. It is not necessary to start empirical and then turn philosophical.

‘Empirical’ does not mean that one needs to do empirical research to answer such a question. When we do a Socratic dialogue on the question whether what X did was an act of bravery or of foolishness, we consider a large number of empirical ‘facts’. Without a thorough enquiry of ‘what actually happened’ such a dialogue would remain empty. But the empirical facts don’t decide for us, we have to do that. Example: in the case of The Netherlands, Amsterdam is considered to be the capital, but this is a title without any meaning, because the government (and the king) reside in The Hague.

Enquiring empirical questions is an established didactic method of making students aware of their knowledge, its quality, its gaps, its inconsistencies, etc. I can ask students questions like “Why is it that when it’s winter on the northern hemisphere, it’s summer on the southern one?” or “You’ve all heard about the invention of the printing press, what was actually invented?”. Such an enquiry is a critical examination of what we think we know, which – quite Socratic – may lead us to the conclusion that actually we know very little. The argument that there is only one correct answer to these questions and that that very fact makes these questions un-philosophical is short sighted, because the philosophical enquiry is not about finding “the only one correct answer”, but to assess the quality of our circumstantial knowledge (and of our knowledge in general). Empirical questions are most beneficial for such assessments.

On exposition

In Socrates’ dialogues exposition plays a major role. In some of them, like ‘Symposion’, it is the only thing that happens: seven speeches in praise of love. Nevertheless, we experience little hesitation to call this dialogue philosophical. So, exposition and enquiry are not in opposition, similar to a point I’ve made previously at several occasions, that debate and enquiry are not in opposition. In a fruitful debate both sides challenge each other and give space to be challenged – and that keeps the enquiry going.

In the German tradition of Socratic dialogues, as initiated by Leonard Nelson one of the rules is that participants are not allowed to deliver such expositions. I’ve always appreciated that rule: it encourages the participants to thinking instead of lecturing and to speak briefly, not at great length. But how about the facilitator? Should (she) refrain from exposition, from telling the participants: “now listen, I’ll explain a few things first, because I’m sure you can make great use of them in your enquiry on the question we’ve selected”. It reminds me of the day when I observed a Socratic dialogue among adults and saw + felt how the participants were struggling. The facilitator noticed the same and decided to say: “it looks like you are confusing ‘equal’ and ‘equivalent’; I recommend to use this distinction”. Within minutes the agitation reached a new height, when the participants turned to the facilitator: there was no confusion, just disagreement + such a distinction would complicate matters even more, while they were looking for an answer with some simplicity. A long tea break did help. The participants decided to return to the enquiry at the point where they left it, before the exposition by the facilitator.

One experience is no proof, but afterwards the facilitator told the participants that he had seriously underestimated the complexity of the relation and communication between facilitator and participants. It’s delicate, to say the least.

But there are more considerations a facilitator should take into account – whether it is with adults or with children – before deciding to ‘help’ the participants in their enquiry by delivering some kind of exposition.

First, teachers are tempted to overestimate the impact of their expositions, no matter how clear they are, no matter how often they have asked the students “is this clear now?”. In the language of a Bloomian taxonomist the exposition should be followed by a variety of ‘exercises’ in which the students can experiment, try and learn to apply the content of the exposition. These exercises must be carefully constructed and the teacher must give clear feedback to the students about their performance. This cannot be properly done as a part of an enquiry, because it would turn the enquiry into a teacher-led exercise. There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with a teacher-led activity within philosophy for children, but it’s simply something else.

Secondly, when the teacher takes the role of a facilitator, (s)he is not one of the participants. Should the facilitator step in at a particular moment and say ‘wait a moment, there’s an important philosophical distinction or argument that I want to explain and I think it is very relevant for what we’re enquiring now’, it’s like the referee joining the playing of the game. “No, I just want to show it to you, and then I’ll be back in my facilitator’s chair”. Well, it does not work like that. Some students will apply what has been explained to them in an incorrect way, others miss the relevance because they’re within their own thoughts and some will love it and run away with it. The facilitator will focus more on the effects of his / her intervention than on facilitating the enquiry as a whole.

As mentioned above, there are ‘teacher-led dialogues’, which serve as a tool of instruction. Whether as a teacher one feels comfortable with a questioning / dialogical style of instruction and whether students like it is something else, but it is an established way of teaching, which in no way is less efficient nor effective than ‘exposition’.

Theoretically, teacher-led dialogical instructions are quite distinct from teacher-facilitated enquiries. In the dialogical instruction the questioning is done by the teacher – in a rather primitive form this is what happens in that famous section of Plato’s “Meno”, in which the slave figures out how to double the area of a square – the students follow. In contrast, in a teacher-facilitated enquiry the students do the questioning, ideally at least. The daily reality, however, is different, I noticed, when I saw extracts from transcripts at the ICPIC conference: teachers in their role as facilitators tend to ask most of the questions, quite often guiding questions, like questions in which they draw inferences (“but does that mean …”), generalize what has been said (“so all … are …?), make implicit or incomplete arguments explicit /complete or relate them to other arguments (“… made a similar point, but …”), summarize what has been said so far, and so on. Here the distinction between facilitation and instruction blurs. Facilitation becomes an implicit and indirect way of instruction. I recommend keeping them separate: when a teacher decides to instruct, please do so but be explicit about it. Don’t hide it behind a veil of doing something else.

Thirdly, a facilitator has many opportunities to introduce philosophical concepts, distinctions and arguments without having to go into the mode of exposition, opportunities which harmonize better with the enquiry-style as practised in philosophy for children. Let me give three examples:

  • Matthew Lipman designed “Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery” (novel + manual) as a textbook, which would keep the students busy at least for a full year. Nowadays very few teachers use it this way, in the early years quite a few did. Section by section the students worked through it, in an enquiry style;
  • Pete Worley showed us in “The Philosophy Shop” how knowledge of philosophy helps to design ‘settings’ (in a narrative style) which guide the students in their philosophical enquiries. A teacher who takes the students through the Philosophy Shop day by day, at the same time takes them through philosophy, both historically and systematically;
  • Thought experiments have been used by philosophers throughout the ages, because they enable them to ‘torture’ a specific concept, argument or distinction until it collapses. Robert Nozick’s “Experience Machine” is – in my words – designed to ‘torture’ the commonly accepted view that happiness is a feeling (in that sense: an experience). Thought experiments need little adaptation to make them suitable for enquiries by the students themselves.

In conclusion, for me the basic rule for a facilitator remains the following: observe the content (of the enquiry by the students) closely, but guide the students through interventions in the process (of their enquiry), not through interventions in the content.

On voting

The general problem with voting, it seems to me, is that it comes too early, in the perception of those who are going to vote. The Brexit referendum is a good example – only afterwards people started to realize things they should have considered and ‘weighed’ before they went to vote. And the Dutch – me included – who voted on March 15th are still without a coalition cabinet which takes responsibility for governing the country.

The same is true for all those enquiries in which students are asked to vote for a particular question, so that the enquiry can start. But only through participating in such an enquiry one gradually grasps a certain understanding of these questions. So how can one vote for or against a question without having explored it first? I have never understood this strategy and never applied it myself. It is my ‘ceterum censeo’ in whatever I think or say about philosophy for children: no matter what we’re discussing, I want to state that I don’t think voting is a good idea.

I had a similar experience in one of the workshops in which I had to raise or turn down my thumb in order to indicate whether I was for / against, in agreement or disagreement, in preference of A or B, etc. I felt like in a psychological test in which I have to produce judgements at a pretty high speed. It’s like Adam having to decide which animal gets which name, let’s say at the speed of 10 seconds per animal, 6 in a minute, 360 in an hour, 3000 in a day. What a job!

Such a practice of voting in an enquiry gives me the feeling that I have to dig my heels in the sand and take a firm stance. But that is not why I am in an enquiry. I am there to suspend my judgement, consider options I haven’t considered before, try out arguments or positions I have not tried out before. An enquiry is an exploration. Yes, it is more than just that, but the first part is explorative, it is a ‘lateral’ activity, as Eduard de Bono would say. It is about what we tell each other when we look at a one of those triptych paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. We point at different scenes, draw attention to some spectacular creatures, have a closer look at the faces, detect hilarious scenes, wonder about the freshness of the colours and are baffled by the contrast between the triptych and the painting which is displayed when the triptych is closed. Any judgment – thumbs up or down – would come too early. It would distract us from observing, from taking into account the multitude and diversity of what is displayed. Foster the exploration, especially when the question is controversial, like 12-year olds about “Are your parents your best friends?”.

Welcoming Talk Crete 2016

SOPHIA: opening remarks

SOPHIA Network Meeting 2nd of September, 2016, Rethymno

Meeting theme: From Ancient Greece to the Modern Curriculum, where does philosophy fit?

Welcoming address:

“Where does philosophy fit?

I’ll begin by saying: philosophy resists ‘fit’. If you look for philosophy you’ll find it where you find, among other things, aporia, confusion, difficulty, paradox. It may not ‘fit’ anywhere, but it has a role. And maybe the role is informed by its lack of ‘fit’. Philosophy is something of an unwelcome guest at a party, an awkward, difficult child in a classroom, an ugly, brutal truth at a wedding.

I prefer to talk about philosophy’s reach. In the beginning ‘philosophy’ captured all learning and included geometry, mathematics, rhetoric, cosmology, physics, metaphysics, biology and more. And though each of these subjects has become, in the classroom anyway, independent of philosophy, philosophy still secures a corner for itself in each despite attempts to shake it off. When an historian asks, ‘What exactly is an historical fact?’ or ‘What exactly is knowledge of the past?’ and ‘What is the past?’ they are asking philosophical questions. Or if a scientist asks, ‘Does the notion of ‘before time’ make sense?’ or ‘How can we represent an object such as an atom if it cannot be observed?’ and ‘Can such a representation be accurate?’ they too are asking philosophical questions. And though they may be an historian or a scientist, they are philosophising. In most if not all subjects, any student of the subject will at some point fall into a ‘philosophical hole’ that the subject has been unable to remove, fill in or cover up. So, philosophy is able to reach within all subjects though it may fit none.

And this leaves us with a question about how it’s done: should philosophy be discrete or integrated? Done in addition to everything else or done within everything else? For my part, I think there is a case for both but I don’t have time to make them here. I’ll finish with a cautionary note: my concern is that philosophy in schools is perhaps made to fit too much. By trimming it, covering its naked truth, sweetening it to better ‘fit the system’ we betray it. If we over-emphasise the collaborative aspect or its democratic allegiance, and under-emphasise its subversiveness, if we sentimentalise its power to better the world, if we reduce it to a ‘no right or wrong’ exchange of opinions, wiping away its evaluative strengths, we castrate it. We must be more careful to present philosophy to children not only as milk; philosophy sometimes has a bitter taste.

Where does philosophy fit? Perhaps its virtue lies in not fitting.”

Peter Worley, President of SOPHIA

Our resources section for 2016 will soon be filled with presentations, papers and workshops from this years presentation. You can see previous years here: SOPHIA Resources

‘Can Children do Philosophy?’

Click  to watch  Can Children Do Philosophy?

Published on 29 Apr 2016, The Battle of Ideas video includes talks from Peter Worley, President of SOPHIA and Catherine C. McCall (former President of SOPHIA). Our aim: to answer the question with “Yes”.

“Philosophy is a venerable university subject, but until recently it was much less common in schools. The ‘Philosophy For Children’ (P4C) movement aims to help children even at primary school to think for themselves using a wide variety of materials to instigate questioning and inquiry. Critics of teaching philosophy in primary schools maintain that philosophy is not just a formal way of inquiry involving dilemmas, reasons, criteria and fallacies. It also has its own tradition, a long quest for truth about the human condition and more, which would-be philosophers must engage with. Supporters of P4C insist children do not need this body of knowledge to philosophise because philosophy teaches reasoning in a conceptual way. But in simplifying philosophy, could P4C be undermining the development of genuine autonomy and creativity?

The speakers are Dr Catherine McCall, director of EPIC (European Philosophical Inquiry Centre), Peter Worley, CEO and co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, Adam Seldon, co-director of Lauriston Lights, an education charity, and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, English teacher and PhD researcher in education at the University of Cambridge. The debate is chaired by Toby Marshall, FE lecturer in social theory and PhD researcher in sociology education at UCL Institute of Education.”

(description from The Battle of Ideas)

SOPHIA 2016: Crete

We are delighted to announce that our next meeting is being held at the University of Crete in partnership with the Department of Philosophy and Social Studies at the beginning of September.

The theme this year is:

From Ancient Greece to the Modern Curriculum: where does philosophy fit?

And we currently have a call for proposals open (closing date May 1st) – for more please visit our next meeting page.

As usual we are keeping the price as low as we possibly can to make it easier for people to attend. The Network Meeting is only €15 for the two days – in order to attend you need to be or become a member for our minimum period of a year, this is €35. For more on our membership rates visit our Join Sophia page.

The dates for the meeting have been agreed as Friday 2nd September and Saturday 3rd September.

See you then!

 

Philosophy As The Missing Link

Philosophy In The CurriculumPhilosophy can play an important role in our schools’ curriculum. The question might be asked, “Why would anyone want to teach philosophy to pre-adolescent children?” but there are very good reasons why one might want to take on such a lofty task. I am not suggesting that the history of philosophy would be particularly pertinent for a young child to learn, but there is substantial evidence to support the development of an already natural tendency towards philosophical thought. Some may think that the pre-adolescents haven’t got the cognitive developmental ability to wrap their minds around such an elusive and subjective study as philosophy. However, developing this skill has shown long term positive effects. These effects range from developing critical thinking skills and cognitive ability to raising emotional maturity and encouraging the child’s sense of security within his or her world.

For years there has been an emphasis on cognitive and physical aspects of children’s development, but recently more attention is being placed on both the social and emotional aspects of a child’s development. It is becoming recognized that a child’s emotional maturity has a big impact on their ability to learn and process information. While that, at first blush, may seem an obvious conclusion there is a little more to the story. A child’s emotional maturity and self esteem has a significant impact on his or her behavior as well. An increasing number of children are being identified as needing additional learning strategies and showing challenging behaviors. Education systems are struggling to find creative methods to address these needs before the problems arise.

It is recognized that a child’s ability to learn depends on how advanced they are at managing personal and social tasks. Their work suffers when they are incapable of coping effectively with important skills such as the ability to be aware of other’s feelings, manage relationships and be part of a social community. Encouraging philosophical thought and developing critical thinking skills in pre-adolescent children provides a foundation for cognitive, social and emotional skills to flourish.

Children continually ask philosophical questions without prompting, such as: “If I squeeze my eyes shut really tightly and I can’t see where I am, does that make where I am become somewhere else?” As adults used to navigating the world in our current understanding of reality we answer these types of questions following the strict rules of our present view, but it might be far more useful to the child to encourage examination of the question. For example an appropriate response might be, “What do you think about that?” Further discussion can take place when the child has had a chance to explore their own opinions and ideas about their physical reality, for example.

A pre-adolescent child may not move as fast and furiously through this type of metaphysical analysis as a college student but they certainly do have the cognitive ability to use this type of critical thinking to expand their thinking processes. So what is meant by ‘critical thinking’ exactly? The American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Pre-College Philosophy describes it as “…purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based…” (Facione 1989)

But for those of us looking for a simpler explanation it is essentially the ability to use reasonably reflective, focused thinking to decide what to believe and do. Children need to be encouraged to reflect carefully on their own beliefs and be encouraged to explore other points of view. Philosophy encourages children to learn to think independently as well as think and discuss with others. In order to gain the most advantage children need to be able to engage in open classroom discussions on an ongoing basis. By mastering this type of thinking the child develops deeper emotional literacy and learns to create a more thoughtful and purposeful life.

On another level philosophical discussion can be used to develop a deeper understanding of ethics. Dr. Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Heathrop College, University of London explains the skills that are cultivated in such discussions as the following:

“* reveal and question underlying assumptions

* figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view

* spot and diagnose faulty reasoning

* weigh up evidence fairly and impartially

* make a point clearly and concisely

* take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting

* argue without personalizing a dispute

* look at issues from the point of view of others

* question the appropriateness, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings”

He goes on to say, “Acquiring these skills involves developing, not just a level of intellectual maturity, but a fair degree of emotional maturity too. For example, turn-taking requires patience and self-control. Judging impartially involves identifying and taking account of your own emotional biases. By thinking critically and carefully about your own beliefs and attitudes, you may develop insights into your own character. By stepping outside of your own viewpoint and looking at issues from the standpoint of another, you can develop a greater empathy with and understanding of others. So by engaging in this kind of philosophical, critical activity, you are likely to develop, not only the ability to reason cogently, but also what now tends to be called “emotional intelligence.” (Law 2007)

In order to gain the most advantage, children need to be able to engage in open classroom discussions on an ongoing basis. As a teacher of pre-adolescent children I have had the opportunity to witness these discussions taking place spontaneously. In most instances I have been able to set aside the particular lesson that might have been planned for the time and let the free-wheeling philosophical discussion go on with minimal but well-timed guidance. Although it would have been ideal to have had time set aside on a daily basis for such discussion there is a fair amount of pressure from the already demanding curriculum, thereby restricting the frequency of these critically important discussions.

As a writer of philosophy for children, I give examples within my stories of my characters exploring deep philosophical questions in an alternate school setting as well as in every day events. It is my hope that when children read my stories they will have a sparked interest in exploring the deeper questions of life with their families and perhaps even instigate such discussions within their classrooms. I also have great hope that the educational systems currently in place will take a closer look at the benefit of adding philosophical discussions to their curriculums. This would provide an opportunity to advance the world’s development by populating it with emotionally intelligent and critically inquisitive minds.

Kimberly Wickham is the author of Angels and Horses and Summer of Magic Horses. Information available at her web address http://www.kimberlywickham.com

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