We have to think about how we would teach if school wasn't compulsory, says a philosophy teacher for children

We have to think about how we would teach if school wasn't compulsory, says a philosophy teacher for children

Mar 15, 2021

He started as an English teacher at a grammar school. Today, his method of teaching Philosophy for Children is used in hundreds of schools not only in Britain but also in Singapore or South Africa. But Jason Buckley does not want to educate children and young people in the history of philosophy. He wants to teach them to think independently in the first place. He helps teachers think individually about curriculum and seek out the best possible way to understand difficult questions in particular subjects.

Do you prefer to talk to children or adults?

Definitely to children. I have a small group of adults, and I like to philosophize with them. But children bring a certain type of energy into discussions. Between their age of nine to twelve, there is the right period when they already have enough knowledge about the world, and they also have enough cognitive capacity to express a lot. However, they haven't built yet barriers that teenagers and adults have, so they are very well to work with. You don't even have to try that hard, they have a natural interest in the things around them, and they keep a certain degree of openness. Adults tend not to talk about things they think are obvious, and that's why it is sometimes difficult to develop a conversation with them. Adults think ahead and don't want to be embarrassed. It is essential to get adults to think more like children.

The first thing written on your Philosophy for Children website says that you develop confident and independent thinkers in collaboration with schools. How do you do this?

We assume that self-confidence in expressing is related to self-confidence in thinking. Some children are introverted and thoughtful at the same time. It is enough for them to think about things themselves. Then, they're able to bring very well-thought-out suggestions and thoughts. Probably, this is because they have sufficient capacity for internal dialogue. What others need to do by talking to others, they can solve on their own.

But more often, we discover what we think in the right way while speaking. That is why we try to give children self-confidence in talking to others because it will give them self-confidence in the thinking itself. We use various methods to teach them this skill, but in principle, it is a matter of talking, facing others, and entering into dialogue. At first, let it be about silly topics and gradually ask yourself more and more serious questions.

Why should schools teach children to philosophize?

The philosophical conversation subject is to debate questions to which it is difficult to find clear answers. Different people express different views and perspectives. Some are focused on detail, and some are very creative and imaginative. But it is essential to be open for a discussion. And when you're among people observing their behavior and different ways of thinking, you can draw from it to your own thinking. You can gain access to a vast repertoire of mental processes. This community aspect is crucial to me, and the opportunity to draw from the community and, conversely, bring something new to it.

Do teachers themselves need to be able to think deeply about difficult questions to teach it their students? What is their role here?

I think there are different roles that a teacher can have in the classroom. The ideal situation is when the teacher becomes a facilitator and tries to push children to think independently.

How easily do teachers learn this approach from your experience?

It's quite complicated. Sometimes I'm pretty surprised how often people tend to come with their experience and knowledge and cannot leave children some space to discover things themselves. It also happens to those who have undergone our training and have been using our method for a while. Teachers can't help themselves - they teach while they should lead and listen. It is essential not to be frustrated because children don't answer questions as we expect them. If you do not change this mind-setting, you cannot give children room for developing themselves.

How does it go together - the encouraging openness of thoughts and the school system's tendency to evaluate everything children do at school?

Most schools' evaluations are focused on mastering the individual contents - children understand particular key events of this and that period, etc. But in "philosophy for children," we want to initiate a real discussion. And it can go in different directions. It means you have no plans for where you want to go or what you expect to hear. If you have such a plan, it is not a real dialogue; instead, it is a monologue divided into individual stages. When it comes to meaningful evaluation, you should focus on assessing skills development, such as developing self-confidence in verbal expression.

Video: Introduction to Philosophy for Children (English with Czech subtitles)

The experience of home education will have an impact on the whole system

Can the Philosophy for Children method change the school system?

It is proven that "who speaks" is essential for learning. Therefore, teachers must pass the responsibility for learning on children; this is necessary. There is also a need to encourage children not to be afraid of their doubts and be willing to talk, even if they are unsure. Only in this way some progress and development can take place in the classroom. You need to try to find answers, even if you are not quite sure, and go through the process of discussing them. There is no point in asking children questions about things they already know for sure. And it can be practiced in any subject.

Do you think that a pandemic will affect the way we view education?

Yes, I think so. In Britain, schools are based on values the rest of society doesn't require anymore. Pupils still wear uniforms, and teachers are called "sire" or by their surname. But people don't need it any longer in their social life, except perhaps in Buckingham Palace. In schools, all children are expected to have the same knowledge at the same time. But this is totally different from how the major society works. I don't think children will be able to follow easily the same way when they return to school, and I don't even believe that teachers will. Questions will arise: Why are we doing this? Why should I do what you are telling me while it hasn't been like that for the last few months?

In my opinion, the experience of home education will have an impact on the whole system. Everyone is surprised when they find out there are other ways of educating children than the classic factory way we have. I spoke to a psychologist recently, and she said: "All children who have problems in the family are scared, and those who have problems at school are cured". Schools will be pushed to change education to a less formal way.

So is education being democratized?

Children have found that they can learn on their own, some will not want to return to school and some will, but they will not want to continue in the same regime as before.

In addition, some children are completely disconnected from education and do not participate in online education. Sometimes, they don't have devices or connections, but many don't see the point. Before, they were forced to attend classes, but now the pressure is gone. I think it will be difficult to re-socialize these children and make them re-submit to the authoritarian practices that many schools operate. It will no longer be possible to apply that artificial discipline.

The term "lost generation" appears in the Czech debate. It is connected with the fact that children don't learn and spend their time playing computer games. Do you think the "lost generation" is really growing up here?

I think we have finally noticed that some children are "lost". In Britain, we have around twenty percent of children leaving the education system after many years without any sign of qualifications and acquiring the necessary competencies. And it is caused by the fact the education system works. From an educational point of view, these children were lost long ago. They were physically present at school, but they were absent-minded. And you can see it now, these children do not even show up in online classes, so it is impossible just to tick them off in the class book. The fact that they are lost is only more obvious.

You are expected to do everything like everyone else

Why is it like that?

One of the reasons why children stay disconnected from education is the signals they receive at school. Unlike playing a computer game at home and progressing level by level, at school, they get into situations where a group of children keeps raising their hands and answering questions, but this child never gets a chance to respond. He or she gains repeated experience that someone else answers the questions and doesn't even get to think about them properly. It deepens the feeling: "This is not a game I'm good at."

It's like climbing a high mountain with a group of thirty people and telling you that you all have to stick together all the time. You don't like hikes, but you have to keep up with everyone else. This is the basic experience of the education system. You are expected to do everything like everyone else, at the same pace, at the same age. Because it's so non-individualized, many children say to themselves, "This is nothing for me" whether they are ahead or behind the others.

So is it a question of curriculum concept?

The curriculum is aimed at an average that may suit many children, but then there are also many children to whom it may not. In home education, it can't happen. And it cannot happen in educational models that are much more focused on individuality - where the teacher leaves it up to the children to do more work - and the teacher's job is to find the right thing for each child to do. But you can only achieve that when children are interested and involved in learning. Online education opens these questions. Because whatever you are interested in, you can find on the Internet and often in good quality. Then, it is difficult to compare it with the fact that you have to go to school, where they just tell you what and how to learn. It is no wonder that children choose not to participate in such education.

Can we take something positive out of this situation in the future?

If people can imagine when schools reopen completely, that children won't have to attend either, just as they did not have to in online teaching. If the curriculum focused on how to teach if children did not have to attend school, what we would teach if school was not compulsory, may bring exactly the type of change we need in education. If we do not do so, there is a risk that in the future, there will be a widening gap between children whose parents will force them to continue to meet the expectations associated with school attendance and children who will simply fall out of the system. This, of course, will have further effects on their economic activity and the stability of society.

Jason Buckley is a former teacher who has been fully engaged in philosophy for children for the last ten years. He provides children with space to develop independent thinking through physical activities and questions to which there are no clear answers. His other activities include the management of Outspark, an outdoor learning organization, and GIFT, which specializes in training for gifted students. Jason lives on a houseboat in Cambridge. 
The Philosophy for Children method (shortened to P4C) began in the 1970s in the United States and today is applied in more than 60 countries. Thanks to our courses, this method is used by more than 400 teachers in nursery, primary and secondary schools across the Czech Republic. We also work with students of pedagogical disciplines at universities.

The ability to express one’s own opinion, support it with arguments and act confidently in a group influences the future social and economic success in the life of children, resilience against manipulation and disinformation. Moreover, research conducted in the United Kingdom shows that the method has the greatest effect on children who are disadvantaged in some way. More info here.

The interview took place within the project ACP4C - Being a Citizen. The project was supported by the OSF Foundation under the Active Citizens Fund program, which aims to support civil society and strengthen the capacity of non-profit organizations. The program is funded by the EEA and Norway Funds. The text was published on the website of the educational magazine Eduzín.cz.

Author: Kateřina Lánská, Varianty Education Programme