Lockdown unquestionably brings significant challenges into children’s education. But it also presents an opportunity for parents and carers – and teachers – to create new, more inspiring and more freeing learning environments for children learning at home.
What is enjoyable, effective and easy to implement, while developing children’s cognitive, emotional and social skills? Philosophy. It offers open ended challenges which are fun, and which stretch those brain cells in every direction.
In order to help parents and carers initiate valuable philosophical conversations with children, the team at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy at UCL has designed a new social media campaign called “GetChildrenThinking”. Every week, a different philosophical question appears on the Centre’s Twitter Feed, followed by a mid-week prompt to further ignite and enrich the discussion. The first two are: What is fairness? and What is it like to be a bat? Bring philosophy into your home by following this link.
In my experience of teaching philosophy to primary and secondary students, I have seen how children’s imaginations blossom with creative ideas when presented with hitherto unthinkable scenarios. To make undaunted young minds question the nature of reality, I introduced Year 7s to the simulation hypothesis – the idea that our world is a Matrix-like simulation created by more advanced beings. One 12-year-old girl’s reflections went something like this: “I think we may be living in a Matrix. Climate change would make sense! It could be a very smart way to kill people off before they try to overthrow those who are running the simulation”.
This one example of daring thinking demonstrates how imaginative and creative children can get when given the opportunity to express what they think without the fear of “getting it wrong”.
It is precisely because philosophy gives space to activate and ignite young minds without the pressure of giving the “right” answer in the “right” way at the “right” time that it should be a critical part of children’s education, starting from the early years. What this example also shows is how philosophical thought experiments can open up discussions around issues bearing direct and immediate relevance to the real world. Unprompted, the child’s mind connected an imaginary scenario to an actual threat to humanity, climate change. This demonstrated not only awareness of global problems, but also a high level of creative and associative thinking, alongside rich imagination and literary penchant.
Critical thinking is an essential skill for the 21st century. The 2014 UNESCO and 2018 OECD education frameworks emphasise critical thinking as necessary for citizens to succeed, both as individuals and as members of society. This message has penetrated education systems worldwide, with a growing number of countries introducing critical thinking development as a key learning outcome intended by the curriculum.
To think critically is to think in order to form opinions and produce judgments. For school curricula, the rise of critical thinking education implies a shift from knowledge acquisition to deep conceptual understanding; from memorisation of facts to reflexive evaluation, questioning, and rethinking of what is often taken for granted.
It is a shift from knowledge-centred learning, with discrete subject boundaries, to integrated, cross-curricular learning that bridges students’ creativity, imagination, and reasoning. From the standpoint of pedagogy, it is a shift away from outcome-focussed practices towards an approach that foregrounds the process of learning and students’ experiences of it.
While many schools in the UK and abroad are keen on making these shifts, it often proves difficult in practice. Restrictive national curricula and government targets can leave little room for teachers to explore unprescribed learning paths and engage in activities whose value consists more in the process rather than the results.
While finding ways to create space for critical thinking in schools remains a matter of ongoing discussion, the coronavirus lockdown means the task of equipping our future citizens with critical thinking skills falls more to parents and carers. How can adults at home introduce more critical thinking into children’s learning?
There are few better ways than through engaging them in philosophical discussions. Research indicates that young children derive most enjoyment and benefit from activities providing some degree of structure while also allowing for the freedom of actions and decisions in the process. Discussions around philosophical questions represent an ideal combination of structure and freedom, where the question gives some initial direction without limiting where young minds might eventually wander. Philosophical journeys have no designated destination points, and the same question might lead to a different landing place each time it is pursued.
Creating intellectually and emotionally stimulating philosophical discussions does not call for specific knowledge, skills, or teaching expertise. Having an open mind and being willing to listen is all it takes to embark on thought experiments with children. Parents do not need to create dedicated learning time. All sorts of home and family activities, such as mealtimes or household chores, offer opportunities to engage children in a philosophical talk around issues of importance and interest, from human nature and fairness, to robots and AI.
Parents and carers can then create, as Eisner describes, environments in which
…more importance is placed on exploration than on discovery, more value is assigned to surprise than to control, more attention is devoted to what is distinctive than to what is standard, more interest is related to what is metaphorical than to what is literal.
Philosophical discussions have multiple benefits for children’s learning and development, with only one side effect: they are addictive!