Steven Campbell-Harris | The Kokey Hokey Method

Last week, I was in a year 7 class discussing the philosopher Heraclitus’ famous saying ‘You cannot step in the same river twice.’ One child enthusiastically agreed with the remark. ‘As soon as the water moves on,’ he said, ‘it has changed so it isn’t the same river anymore.’ Some heads nodded in assent. Moments later, a girl’s hand shot up in muted protest and I invited her to speak. ‘Of course it’s the same river,’ she pleaded. ‘Nobody would say that a river isn’t the same if you go out and back into it. Only in philosophy would you say that.’


This exchange highlights an important potential problem with doing philosophy with children (or adults!). Some children are, perhaps rightly, suspicious that the way in which we use words in philosophy is different from our everyday, unproblematic use of them. As a result, they think of philosophy as a kind of ‘trick’: a semantic sleight of hand in which we substitute the everyday meaning of a word with a specialised ‘philosophical’ meaning to create a puzzle where none exists. To be sure, in philosophy we use words in a more critical and precise way than in ordinary speech. This only becomes a problem when children feel that the ordinary and ‘philosophical’ uses are irreconcilably different. If children feel they are speaking a different language altogether, they are less likely to re-examine their everyday understanding of words and the concepts that underpin them.


In order to combat this problem of the ‘two languages’ in the classroom, I have developed an extension to Peter Worley’s ‘Hokey Cokey’ method for doing philosophy with children.


  1. Begin with a concept suitable for philosophical enquiry that is taken from everyday speech (e.g. natural, beautiful, lie, funny, thing, ‘mine’, hero)
  2. Ask children to give individual examples of that thing. For example, you could ask children to each say one thing that is ‘natural.’
  3. List a few of these examples on the side of the board. For example, you might have ‘stick’, ‘mountain’, ‘air’, ‘water’, ‘orange’, and ‘dog’.
  4. Ask the group: what makes all these things X? In this case, what makes all these things (e.g. a stick, air, and a dog) natural?
  5. Tell a story or perform an activity that challenges the class’s assumptions about the main concept. For example, you could tell a story of two aliens from a distant galaxy who have been sent on a mission to planet Earth. They’ve been tasked with bringing back as many ‘natural’ things as they can find. After stocking up their spaceship with water, air, and sticks they stumble upon some humans…
  6. Run an enquiry around a question: ‘Is Z X?’ (E.g. are humans natural?) During the discussion, you can refer back to the results of (4): the general features of X (e.g. something being ‘natural’)
  7. Near the end of the enquiry, return to the original list of individual examples. Say: ‘Now that we have discussed what makes things X, is there anything on this list that you now think isn’t X?’ (For example, after the idea that nature = no human interference has been introduced, a child might say that because humans breed dogs they aren’t natural so that should be crossed off the list)
  8. Run an enquiry around any particularly controversial cases. For example, if some children disagree about an example, pose the question: Is A X? (E.g. are dogs natural?)


This approach shares a similar structure to Peter Worley’s ‘Hokey Kokey’ method for doing philosophy with children (in brief below):


  1. Start with a concrete question: e.g. ‘Are the children (in the story) free?
  2. Move to an abstract question(s): e.g. ‘What is freedom? What is a child?
  3. Return to the concrete question, testing the concrete against the abstract and the abstract against the concrete: e.g. ‘So, if freedom is….and a child is…then are the children (in the story) free?


Both methods move from the concrete, to the abstract, and back to the concrete again. In other words, they move in, out, and then in again. However, there are three significant differences in this approach, which we shall call the Kokey Hokey method.


Firstly, this approach begins with the children’s own use of concepts in their original social context. This differs from ‘Hokey Kokey’ as the first application of the concept is not in a given text or example but comes from them. This helps with the ‘two languages’ problem; children are less likely to feel alienated from the language of a discussion if they have initially connected it to their own lived experience.

Secondly, in this method the children can use many individual cases (e.g. natural things) to abstract to general features (e.g. what makes something natural?) and this allows them to see the logical problem of abstraction more clearly on the board. The many examples allow for many potentially different ways of abstracting to the general features of a ‘natural’ thing. However, if these general accounts conflict then this is easier to notice. For example, if a child says ‘something is natural if it grows’ then that seems to apply for oranges and dogs but perhaps not for water and mountains; this is easier to see when you can refer to those examples on the board.   


Thirdly, in the ‘Kokey Hokey’ method the very first uses of the word are not intended to be in any way problematic, unlike in a selected story/activity where the first use of the concept (e.g. ‘free’) is already contentious. As Peter Worley has pointed out, enquiries often work best when children don’t think too much to begin with. When they respond intuitively at the start momentum gathers for a discussion, and we can gather material on the board that can be re-evaluated later on. At the end of the enquiry, we can see the effect the philosophy has had when we return to re-examine their first use of the concepts in the session.


Both the Hokey Kokey and Kokey Hokey methods could be used at different times depending on the situation, age and ability of the class. The former is particularly useful if you want to get to an instant immersion in controversy. The latter might be especially helpful with a class suspicious of the relevance of philosophy to real life. For instance, teenagers.

Further Reading

For Pete's earlier article on how and why to use The Hokey Kokey method, please click the link here: A Philosophical Enquiry Strategy for Up Against It Teachers

Posted by Joe Tyler on 27th September 2016 at 12:00am