Teaching philosophical thinking through children’s literature

Children as young as four can practice philosophy through children’s literature, according to educator and UNESCO Chair/University of Nantes Chair for the Practice of Philosophy with Children, Dr Edwige Chirouter.

The thinking behind the teaching

The renowned teacher educator and education researcher, who has written a practical book on the subject, will be holding free sessions for teachers in Auckland and Wellington, supported by a minor grant from the New Zealand National Commission for UNESCO.

This is part of an educational response to global terrorism, with the backing of the United Nations and UNESCO, initially developed after the terrorist attacks in France in 2015.

“Unfortunately this is all too relevant to New Zealand now, following what happened in Christchurch recently,” says education consultant Dr Ray Genet, who is organising Chirouter’s visit.

“The thinking behind this teaching approach is to promote humanitarian values, critical thinking and empathy, which enables children to overcome dogma and extremism,” says Dr Genet.

“Edwige’s project is to use children’s literature to help young people think about the world and the human condition. For instance, Frodo’s possession of the ring of invisibility in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ lends itself to interesting philosophical questions such as ‘What would you do if you had the power to become invisible?’ ‘Would you steal if nobody knew it was you?’ and so on. A response from an eight year old boy during a philosophy workshops in France was, ‘No, because you would know’.”

The teaching method involves building up a library of children’s books that contain philosophical themes and reading them aloud to the class several days before a workshop. The class is divided into two groups – debaters and observers who critique the discussion, noting how the debaters responded to questions and whether they listened to each other. The learners then create a poster about the ideas in the book and create a presentation in groups to talk about the issues raised. Each student is encouraged to record what they think and feel in a personal journal.

“The teacher acts as a facilitator in the spirit of Socrates’ belief that real knowledge and wisdom can only come from within, and is accessed through reason by the teacher asking questions,” says Dr Genet. “It takes skill for a teacher to ask the right questions, at the right time. But when you do, the results are always amazing.”

As well as learning how to form logical arguments, students learn how to manage themselves. There are a number of ground rules. “They must never interrupt, mock the ideas of or insult anyone else. The discussions must be calm and measured, and respond to what people are saying rather than trying to push a particular point of view.”

Common themes drawn from the books include friendship, love and difference (e.g. what is a friend? does being different mean that you’re not equal?); growing up, growing old, dying (what is a grown up?); art and beauty (e.g. why do we love stories?); ignorance and knowledge (e.g. why do we have to go to school?); and work and money (e.g. what is it to be wealthy, and what does advertising want from us?).

“The technique is ideal for getting senior language students to practise listening, reading, speaking, and writing skills,” says Dr Genet. “Also, when students engage with compelling ideas it is at those moments that they acquire language.

“Children are naturally philosophical. They ask deep questions and expect answers. Parents will often pass the buck or say ‘wait until you’re older’, but they are able to understand, discuss and critique the answers we give them. When this happens they feel listened to and valued.”

“For Edwige Chirouter, philosophy is about learning how to think rationally and with humanity. It isn’t about displaying intelligence,” says Dr Genet. “Schools should be places for the development of enlightened global citizens able to think critically, doubt, understand the world is complex, show empathy, listen, and accept disagreements and our own vulnerability. And this can be done with one hour of philosophy per week.”

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