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Peter Worley

Peter Worley runs The Philosophy Shop in London with his wife Emma. Rick Lewis asks him about teaching philosophy to kids.

What is The Philosophy Shop? What do you do?

‘The Philosophy Shop’ is the trading name of educational charity The Philosophy Foundation. We have been teaching philosophy to children and adults for nine years, and we train philosophers in doing philosophy with children as young as four.

In The Republic Plato said that in his ideal state people wouldn’t study philosophy until they were forty, by which time they’d have some experience of the world. Why was he wrong?

As the philosopher Simon Glendinning once said to me, when teaching children maths or music, you don’t wait until they’re old enough to do it well – you begin teaching them while they are not able to do them well. Inability is not a reason for children not to start learning. However, I have regularly seen children do what could arguably be described as good philosophy. Philosophy can provide children with a kind of mental playground to exercise their thinking skills. This should be done from a young age so that when they get to forty the kind of thinking skills needed for philosophy have become second nature.

What motivates you to teach children philosophy?

The fun and excitement the children derive from doing it is almost motivation enough, but there are other reasons too. Very many of the core aspects of our philosophy sessions, such as autonomous thinking; dealing with uncertainty and inconclusiveness; collaborative thinking; making the children’s ideas the centre-point for discussions, and assessing one another’s arguments, are all aspects the children themselves say they simply do not get in other lessons. In this way, the philosophy sessions highlight huge holes in the current education system. So a motivation for me comes from knowing that I am giving them an antidote to the content-driven, test-based environment they – and teachers – find themselves in day to day.

Your new book The If Machine describes your approach to doing philosophy with children. What is it?

A facilitator provides a group of children with a stimulus – often a story with a question – to get them started. The discussion then unfolds naturally, by children either responding to previous speakers or by making independent contributions. There are many techniques the facilitator can use to help the children identify controversies and pursue philosophical issues, as well as to introduce them to philosophy and philosophers, and to encourage them to explore their own questions and concerns.

The facilitator is there to help the children navigate themselves around a philosophical topic, but tries to be absent from the process as a personality. In other words, the facilitator is not there to express his or her own views or to challenge the children personally. I like to compare facilitation skills to being a good waiter: a good waiter knows exactly what you need when you need it, but they do not stand over the table telling you their life story. Paradoxically, a good facilitator is ‘present but hidden’.

According to Michael Hand, Reader in Philosophy at the University of London’s Institute of Education, the most distinctive thing about my method is the ‘Teaching Strategies’. These are the many techniques I use for getting the children to use thinking skills without having to be taught them, but rather, to simply begin adopting them as habits. For instance, the ‘Imaginary Disagreer’ is a way to get the children used to searching for alternative points of view. It involves asking a child, once that child has come up with their own opinion, what they think someone else would say if they disagreed with them. Once they have come up with a disagreement, the next step is to ask what reasons for a disagreement they think their imaginary disagreer would give. Sometimes children change their opinion because of what they themselves have come up with on behalf of their imaginary disagreer. This is the kind of ‘silent dialogue’ I want children to develop in doing philosophy, because this is probably one of the most useful tools they will ever learn, since it will play a part in developing their critical evaluation skills. I also have techniques for helping children draw distinctions, search for necessary and sufficient conditions, falsify rather than confirm, construct and express formal arguments, consider hypothetical situations, and many more thinking skills.

Hand has said that the 'big idea' of the PhiE (Philosophical Enquiry) method is If-ing. This is the explicit use of conditional questions of the form ‘If… then…?’ to side-step factual considerations in order for children to engage in the purely conceptual content of the discussion and so get them thinking more deeply about a variety of issues. This is more of a pedagogical technique than a specifically philosophical one, but it has been developed explicitly from the uses philosophers make of conditional questions.

Please tell us how you negotiate a path between academically teaching the great philosophers and simply discussing questions.

Hand described the PhiE method as a genuine ‘middle way’ between two current models of doing philosophy. One is the ‘Great Books’ model, where students learn philosophy by reading and analyzing the works of the philosophical canon, and the other is the ‘Circle Time’ model, where children are given the opportunity to explore ideas for themselves by generating their own questions around a story or other stimulus in a relatively unrestricted way. The first of these models is very difficult to do with young children as it is very content-heavy and text-centred, which is a problem when children can barely read yet. The second is a better forum for children to do thinking, but has the consequence that the children often can – and do – choose to discuss questions with no philosophical merit or content (eg ‘Where did the cats go?’). Hand said that my method achieves a balance between these two models, taking what’s best from both – the student-centred autonomy of the ‘Circle Time’ model, and the focus and rigour of the ‘Great Books’ model. I am pleased that he identified this, because this was very much my aim. I wanted to give the children an opportunity to think autonomously and for them to learn thinking skills, but also to connect them with the community of philosophers and canon of philosophy, through stories, thought experiments, puzzles and poetry. I hope to provide something like a synthesis of the two approaches.

How do you choose what you discuss? Which is your favourite story to use, and why?

When preparing a session I will be looking for a story or other stimulus that has philosophical content. One good way of providing this is to construct a story around a thought experiment or famous philosophical puzzle or question. An example of this in The If Machine is ‘The Prince and The Pig’ – an original story framed around a question derived from John Stuart Mill: ‘Is it better to be a happy pig or an unhappy person?’

Another way is to take a classic story, but retell it with the philosophical aspect highlighted. An example of this would be ‘Goldfinger’, where I tell the story of King Midas, but where the role of the wish itself has been singled out in order to get the children thinking more carefully about the use of language. I also use films like Moon by Duncan Jones to get children thinking about identity and cloning. The key is to stop the story at the point at which the controversy or tension has been made clearest, but where it has not yet been resolved. This is a good way to engage children with a philosophical problem, as they have to try to solve it for themselves in order for the story to continue.

Currently my favourite story is ‘The Cyclops’ from the Odyssey. Children love this story, as it is full of suspense and surprising ingenuity. Now, here’s a question for you: how many eyes does a Cyclops have?

Can parents also use your techniques?

They can, but they may find it difficult with just one or two children. It is best done in groups of children numbering 6 to 30, of similar ages, where the discussion is primarily between the children in the group and not between the children and the parent or teacher. As long as they stick to this advice, and read the book carefully, then parents should be able to do this just as well as teachers. But, as my wife would eloquently put it, the best advice to heed when facilitating philosophy discussions with children is, “Just shut up and let your children think!”

Thanks a lot, Peter!

• You can join The Philosophy Shop’s campaign to get philosophy in schools by signing the ‘The 4th R’ petition on their website: www.thephilosophyshop.co.uk.

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