Zombie Elves and Existentialism: Doing Philosophy with Children

I spent the Summer Term of 2017 working with the Yr5 class at St. Bartholomew’s C.E. Primary School in Lewisham. Alongside philosophy, we delved into the form and content of stories and storytelling. 

storytelling

In our first session, we would be discussing the necessary features of stories. Assuming the class would be unconsciously habituated to some traditional understanding of stories that I couldn’t actually put my finger on, I prepared myself to help them explore some alternatives.

The questions I had jotted down in my notebook somewhere behind me were made immediately redundant after the first answer to the question: “What is a story?” Most of the class seemed to agree with some variation of the idea that “a story can be anything, it’s just a list of words with some imagination”. As an opinion holder, my job was done. As a facilitator, consensus was growing and I was failing. I fell back on testing the children’s ideas. I took random words from random children until we had a nonsense sentence. In fact, according to most of them, we had a story. “Was it a good story?” It seemed that it was more or less a decent one. Testing the alternative, I asked the class to give me a set of words that followed from each other. We were halfway through a short story about Legolas the Zombie Elf when E damned the flow with: “MacDonald’s!” Groans and accusations of “ruining it” rose from the class. T pleaded with E: “Why did you say that!” Why had E said that? “Because everyone was saying that stories don’t have to make sense so I thought I’d show them that they do have to make sense.”

I saw the intrigued and puzzled faces that you want to see during a philosophical enquiry. Your intuitions won’t do anymore. This is when you start formulating arguments, attuning yourself to nuance, listening to others, testing your own ideas, and so on. Whilst I won’t venture a definition of the practice here, this is when you start doing philosophy. During my relatively short time with The Philosophy Foundation (TPF) I have become used to children sharing ideas that clearly mirror those found in professional philosophical debate. Children have real and profound philosophical thoughts, but this is not always the same as doing philosophy. Doing philosophy requires a cognitive graft beyond that which is necessary for having philosophical thoughts. As we all do, children need some support in this discipline.

Luminously highlighting this difference for me, the term at St. Bartholomew’s amounted to a thorough examination of my developing facilitation skills. The class found it fairly easy to find and comment on the philosophy woven into stimulus stories. However, they often struggled to do philosophy, to listen and respond to each other. E’s contribution in that first session was a gift. Some of the supporters of free form communal nonsense narrative became a little more reserved. Others bolstered their unchanged opinions with more developed arguments. Ideas were qualified and deepened. New tensions and agreements were explored in the nooks and crannies of literary theory. It wasn’t that easy in the next few sessions and I struggled to successfully facilitate their eagerness. With opinions coming out of their ears, not much could get in. At the end of one session I asked the class how they thought the discussion had gone. They thought it had been good and there was nodded consensus that it had been good because “everyone got to say their opinion”. This might be a valuable part of doing philosophy with children, but, as noted, the sharing of philosophical opinions does not amount to practicing philosophy. Our enquiry into the discussion was brief and the class had been doing more philosophy than their reflection suggests. However, there had been more opinion sharing than philosophical discussion and this needed to change.

Alongside the general aims of TPF, there were two obvious reasons I needed to improve my facilitation. Firstly, though the majority of the class were eager to share their ideas, there were a few children that were reluctant to speak. The boldness of others seemed to increase this reluctance. I focused on these children during paired talk time and tried to validate their ideas in various neutral ways. However, I also tried to dethrone confident opinion in the enquiries. I sought harder for those who wanted to talk about how they weren’t sure what to think. When a child asserted a view, I would gently help them to explore the assumptions and implications of the view. This often meant that they wouldn’t be so sure anymore. Over the term, we legitimised doubt and engagement despite uncertainty. Though it was just the beginning of a start, I feel that the quieter children became a little more confident by the end of term.

Secondly, there is a discussion concerning the desired end of doing philosophy with children, but it certainly isn’t to let them stagnate in abilities already well developed. When a shy child shares an idea with the class after six weeks, no matter what it is, there is a feeling of small success. When the sharing of philosophical thoughts is easy for a child, resting on that feels like failure. They are ready to do philosophy and they only fall short when the facilitation isn’t properly tuned.

My main aim was to get the class to really listen to each other. When they did, complex debates began to develop. Becoming stricter about low level disruption and improving my selective echoing of their ideas helped with this a great deal. As my facilitation improved, my aim changed. Instead of getting them to listen to each other, I wanted to help them see the worth of listening to each other. How the children’s interaction with one girl changed over the term perhaps shows that they did begin to see the philosophical value of listening to others.

B was always keen to speak. Her predominant mode of engagement was to share meandering tales from her home life and television viewing. These tales could be punctuated with some insightful philosophy. The problem was that sometimes she got lost in the storytelling and would forget why she had started speaking in the first place. She would call herself out for irrelevance. When she did get to her philosophical point, half the class might be daydreaming or focusing on trying not to blurt out their own thoughts. To counter these issues I tried to clamp down on any disruption during her storytelling and to always anchor her to the task question. Anchoring would invariably prompt a philosophical insight or question. One week, after confusing herself with a half-remembered anecdote from a TV show, B claimed that whatever our ‘genius scientist’ put into our ‘robot’s brain’, it would never be able to feel the same emotions as a human. I would then ask her to explain a little further. More often than not, she would explain her reasoning and then link it to the story she had just told.

In our last few sessions I noticed a change in the way some of the others responded to B getting the talking ball. Even if she herself was holding back the chuckles through a narrative, there was a patience in the room. What B was saying would be relevant, we just had to listen. When the class listened to B, the discussion would usually deepen. More generally, ideas began to be prefaced with: “I agree/disagree with X because”. This shift enabled the class to take themselves into complex areas of philosophy without too much involvement from me. In Forest Hill Library for our last session, I heard the wonderful words: “After listening to everyone else, I’ve changed my mind, kind of”. This engagement with others may only be the beginning of doing philosophy, but I hope that together we laid a strong foundation for the class to further explore philosophical thought and practice.

Returning to that which comes naturally to children, the big ideas, I will let the class demonstrate their capacity for philosophy. Back in the library, at the end of the session, I circled around to our very first question: “What is a story?”

Child: “A story is yourself.”

Facilitator: “A story is yourself, what do you mean by that?”

Child: “Well, you are a story, yourself, because you create yourself.”

Facilitator: “You are a story…”

Child: “I agree because there are different chapters in your life, you’re young, then you’re a teenager, maybe you get married, and you die at the end, there are different parts to your life.”

Child: “Yeah, it’s like writing a book, you decide what your story is going to be.”

Child: “I disagree…because if I’m a story…then I’m not real.”

Tim is a Level 2 Specialist Philosophy Teacher with The Philosophy Foundation. He is a philosophy graduate of King’s College London and Edinburgh University. As well as his work with TPF, Tim is a private tutor and bar manager.

If you would like to get in touch with Tim or hear more about this project, please email info@philosophy-foundation.org

Posted by Joe Tyler on 4th August 2017 at 12:00am