Iffing: inferencing

On a recent TPF Stage One course, we were doing the usual Day Two ‘troubleshooting’ section where we look at likely (and some tricky) student contributions in order that the trainees consider facilitator moves, including the application of strategies introduced on Day One. The following slide was up:


Task Question: Is the mind the same as the brain?

Student: The mind is inside the brain.

Facilitator: ?


We were considering whether the best strategy would be to ask the question again, what we at TPF call, ‘anchoring’ (‘So, is the mind the same as the brain?’) or, to ‘if’ then ‘anchor’: this is where what has been said by the child is put into the antecedent part of a conditional question and linked to the main question under consideration in the consequent part of the conditional question (‘So, if the mind is inside the brain, then is the mind the same as the brain?’). Anchoring is simpler and seems to achieve the same as iffing and anchoring, so the point was raised that iffing may simply be superfluous here (though it may still have useful application in other situations such as ‘either-or-the-if’ or ‘if-the-fact’). It got me thinking back to my own use of the iffing strategy in classrooms and I had a sudden insight about how I use it in similar situations that might clearly show why one may if in situations like this instead of using the simpler anchoring strategy. And it’s to do with inference and modelling.



One of the key intellectual moves that philosophical consideration includes is the drawing of inferences and the consideration of whether drawn-inferences are justified. When doing philosophy with children, one of the aims of a facilitator will be to encourage inference-drawing and to find ways to model its use. One way to do this is for the facilitator to draw inferences in the appropriate way to show ‘how it’s done’, but this approach to teaching inference-drawing contravenes the absence principle at the heart of TPF’s approach. So, is there another way for facilitators to encourage inference-drawing in the students and to model it without doing the intellectual work for them?


To return to the example above, in most cases anchoring will be sufficient for the child/student to consider how what they have just said bears upon the question under consideration; anchoring invites the children, implicitly, to draw inferences. However, with some students (particularly younger ones), they may not follow the implication or see that there is a necessary implication or entailment to what they have said. In a case like this, when one anchors, the child may take this to be a separate question, not seeing the link to the claim they just made, and, on occasions, I have even seen children go on to contradict what they have just said. Here’s an example: at an earlier stage of a discussion a child says in answer to the question ‘Is it better to be a happy pig or an unhappy human?’, ‘It’s better to live a short happy life than a long unhappy one,’ then, at a later stage when answering whether they think it would be better to be a happy pig or an unhappy human they say, ‘a human.’ Of course, it’s not clear at this stage that they have necessarily contradicted themselves, but it is possible. It might be that they have forgotten what they said earlier or it might be that they are being inconsistent, or it might be that there are qualifications or explanations that would show that their answer is not inconsistent with what they had said before (e.g. if they had understood, for whatever reason, that the human would be happy, after all). Here, the facilitator might decide that a more explicit move is needed than merely anchoring: ‘So, if, as you said earlier, it is better to live a short happy life than a long unhappy life, would it be better to be a happy pig or an unhappy human?’ One essential condition for the correct use of this strategy is that the facilitator must be in an ‘open question mindset’, in other words, the facilitator must be open to possibilities here rather than questioning simply to ‘nudge’ the child towards the ‘right’ answer, or the answer the facilitator thinks is necessarily implied by the logical conditions (see ‘Ariadne’s Clew’ on the JPS website for more on this).



By iffing and anchoring here (not simply anchoring) one explicitly invites the child to consider the implication or entailment and to thereby draw an inference about the main question, from the point they had introduced. And, by structuring the question in such a way that the child is brought to drawing an inference, the facilitator models a particular intellectual move by 1) using only the content provided by the children (ownership condition) and 2) leaving them to either make the move (in this case, to draw an inference) or not (autonomy condition). P4C practitioner, Jason Buckley (‘The Philosophy Man’), who was present on this course, described this as ‘micro-modelling’ and he said that this particular explanation of iffing and anchoring led to something ‘clicking’ for him with regard to its usefulness and application. It also occurred to me that, though I (and others at TPF) had been using iffing in this way for some time, nowhere had I written about this particular, and quite central, rationale in sufficient detail.


So, in summary: when in the classroom, one will probably do more iffing and anchoring (explicit inferencing) in the earlier stages of a class doing philosophy, and particularly with younger children (approx. ages 3-7), while with older students, one may do more straight anchoring (implicit inferencing), resorting to iffing and anchoring when necessary (e.g. if a child doesn’t seem to have considered the – or recognised that there is a – relationship between contribution X and question Y).

For more on the techniques of 'iffing', 'anchoring' as well as 'iffing and anchoring' take a look at Pete's article, 'If it, anchor it, open it up: a closed guided questioning technique' on his Academia account: https://peteworley.academia.edu/

Posted by Joe Tyler on 16th May 2017 at 12:00am


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