Philosophy for a ‘thinking curriculum’

If we are serious about teaching children to think, then we need to be serious about structuring the curriculum around thinking.  This requires us to pay attention to the general thinking strategies and broad conceptual understandings that find a natural home in philosophy. By looking to the concepts and procedures of philosophy, we can help to integrate the curriculum and at the same time make children more effective participants in the process of learning.  Phil Cam   

Children are growing up in a world increasingly flooded with information, in which they will have to deal with diverse opinions and uncertain claims, and to decide for themselves what is important and what is not. It is a world in which change is often rapid and unpredictable, and there is a constant need to adapt. Society has become more complex and culturally diverse in recent years, and our country is finding its way in a region that is undergoing considerable transformation. In such conditions, the need for our children to develop into adaptive, open-minded citizens can hardly be ignored, and the general intellectual skills, attitudes and values that encourage critical and creative thinking are needed as never before.

Fortunately, many schools already have sessions in critical thinking, or something of the kind, which is certainly to be applauded. All the same, we need to confront this issue in the way that we teach across the whole curriculum. Philosophy for Children is designed to do just that. By integrating general thinking skills and broad conceptual understandings into the curriculum, it can help students to make connections between different areas of study, and help them to become more flexible, adaptable thinkers, who seek a broader and more integrated understanding of things.

Developing habits of good thinking

Philosophy is a discipline with a particular kind of focus on thinking. To use a fashionable word, it is highly meta-cognitive. It involves not only careful thinking, but also thinking about thinking. Since philosophical thinking always has one eye on the thinking process, philosophy has developed general-purpose tools for conceptual exploration and reasoning. By adapting these tools to the classroom, and teaching our students to use them, we can help them to acquire the kinds of mental habits that enrich conceptual development and promote better reasoning. This is very important. For these are the habits that make children effective participants in their own intellectual development, and it is only by being involved in this way that children learn to think for themselves.

Although philosophy has refined these tools, in a simple form they are the basis of reflective thinking in everyday life. They include such things as:

  • asking appropriate questions
  • making important distinctions
  • discovering useful connections
  • drawing relevant inferences
  • seeking better alternatives
  • giving good reasons
  • using reliable criteria
  • making careful judgments

 

Suitably sharpened, these tools are useful in almost any learning area, and those who learn to use them well will bring an intelligent approach to whatever they do. When we consider the school curriculum, we need to make provision for them. In Philosophy for Children we have an effective means of developing the skills, capacities and dispositions that are involved.

Integrating the Curriculum

Philosophy is the one form of inquiry that makes contact with every learning area. We can see this immediately from the various areas of study that make up academic philosophy, such as philosophy of science, social and political philosophy, philosophy and literature, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mathematics, of biology, of history, and so on. Philosophy is not just a Central Station through which one can travel backwards and forwards to other areas of study in all directions. To vary the metaphor, it can provide the connective tissue that would enable the different parts of the curriculum to form a more effective whole.

While the connections between philosophy and the school curriculum can hardly be conveyed in a few words, the following sample of typical philosophical questions may help to show how it brings together issues from various learning areas:

 

PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTION
What is it to be a person?What is a rule?Where do rights come from?Does everything have a cause?What is knowledge and how can we come by it?
LEARNING AREAS
Human Society and Its EnvironmentPersonalDevelopment English
MathematicsEnglishHuman Society and Its EnvironmentPersonal Development
Human Society and Its EnvironmentPersonal Development
Science EducationHuman Society and Its Environment
All curriculum areas

In an appropriate classroom setting, broad questions such as these can be a vehicle for inquiry. An example may help to give the general idea. Questions about human rights, for instance, are directly relevant to Human Society and Its Environment and Personal Development. Even so, let’s begin with our Year 5 reading program in English, and suppose that class has read a story about a ten-year-old boy named Ahmed whose community is in conflict over what seem to be people’s rights. The children in the class have been encouraged to raise questions or other matters of interest in response to the story, and the teacher has written the children’s questions and comments on the board, so that the class is now ready to conduct a discussion. In order to pay attention to the issue of rights, the teacher looks over the children’s questions and notes those that seem particularly relevant, such as the following:

Is it fair that Ahmed had to leave school when he was only ten? (Robert)

Shouldn’t Ahmed’s mum be allowed to have another baby if she wants one? (Maria)

Why do the people at the factory think that they have a right to pollute the river? (Sandy)

A discussion about rights might begin with any of these questions, and once it is underway the teacher who is alert to the issue can then work questions from the following plan into the discussion in order to give it structure and focus:

DISCUSSION PLAN: Rights

1. Ahmed has been at school for only five years. Does he have a right to more education?

2. Where Ahmed lives, there are not enough teachers and schools for everyone to become educated. Do all the children still have a right to be educated?

3. Ahmed has to sleep in the same room as his sisters. Does he have a right to a room of his own?

4. Ahmed’s mother loves his dad. Does she have a right to as many children as she wants?

5. Ahmed lives by a polluted river. Does Ahmed have a right to clean water?

6. If Ahmed’s river is to be made safe, the factory where his dad works will have to close. Does Ahmed’s dad have a right to a job?

7. Can you think of any cases outside of the story where some rights might conflict with other rights?

8. What should we do when rights conflict?

9. Do people just naturally have rights?

10. Where do rights come from?
Just as we can use the philosophical content of Human Society and Its Environment and Personal Development to set children thinking, so philosophical inquiry can be used to explore concepts and engage children in reasoning in other curriculum areas. Addressing significant concepts and issues across learning areas in this way does more than provide superficial thematic connections. It helps to supply the connective tissue that makes sense of the curriculum as a whole. So Philosophy for Children not only helps children to develop habits of good thinking, it provides them with a means of making those broader connections out of which richer and deeper understandings can grow.