Natural Born Philosophers

Research has shown that children from as young as four years old can engage in philosophical dialogue. Many people shy away from the idea of doing philosophy with kids, but they are actually the perfect candidates. Philosophy is all about open mindedness, enquiry and being genuinely intrigued by the world. Children are naturally like this—hungry to know more, have very few preconceived ideas and constantly ask questions. In other words, they are natural born philosophers.

Eight months ago, I was introduced to Philosophy for Children, a 10 step guided inquiry framework. The basic principle is straightforward. Students start with warm up thinking games and are then exposed to a thought-provoking stimulus (a book, an image or a film). The students identify the major concepts in the stimulus and then they take some thinking time to devise their own questions about these concepts. The class chooses a question that interests them and, with the teacher facilitating, the class discuss it together. At no point does the teacher impart any knowledge. The students share and learn from each other while the teacher’s role is solely to monitor their speaking and listening skills, record their thinking and to use this opportunity to assess student understanding.

The improvements in my students after incorporating philosophy into their learning have been striking, these included improved: thinking skills, conversation skills, conflict resolution, vocabulary and independence. Let me share an example, our current unit is about migration and after watching a refugee share her story, these are some of the key concepts my class identified in the film: resilience, belonging, luck, commitment, home, wise, open-minded, love and separation. As surprising as this may seem, this is all student-generated vocabulary, which has been built through our units in Grade 2. In the same session, some of the students’ questions included: How does being resilient affect your life? Do global companies hire resilient people on purpose? How do refugees communicate? How do people know where they really belong? Are all refugees risk-takers? Sometimes, I still can’t believe the nature of the topics discussed considering they are 8 years old and how thought-provoking their questions are.

The nature of these philosophy sessions encourages children to examine the world from perspectives other than their own and so help children to develop empathy. It is not surprising that social and behavioral improvements go hand-in-hand with these democratic student-led discussions. By regularly learning how to discuss each other’s diverse opinions, my students are now better able to deal with disagreements on the playground.

Using this philosophy framework regularly has made me reach a new realization. Adults need to value the questions our children ask and to engage them with higher order thinking, because what they have to say is interesting and because our future generations need to know now, more than ever, how to think critically, creatively and empathically to solve many of the world problems which they will face as they grow up.

So how can adults outside of school help children develop their thinking skills?

  • Encourage children to be curious. Rather than avoid that dreaded “Why?” phase, help children to form and test theories in order to try to understand how the world works and to instill a love for learning.
  • Teach problem-solving skills. When dealing with problems or conflicts, it is important to have the child identify the problem and to brainstorm their own solutions. They will use critical thinking in the process of finding solutions to problems.
  • Learn from others. Gain multiple perspectives and seek out the answers to your children’s “why” questions using friends, family or the internet.
  • Help children evaluate information. We are often given lots of information at a time, and it is important to help children to think about where or who the information is coming from, how it connects to what they already know and why it is or is not important.

Giving children the opportunity to have open conversations, both inside and outside of school, are vital in shaping their abilities to think critically and to discuss ideas and solutions with compassion.

BIOCatherine Brown is a Grade 2 International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program (IB PYP) teacher at the International School Ho Chi Minh City. She has a P.G.C.E. and M.Ed. from the University of Cambridge.

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