Listening, Juggling and Travelling in Philosophical Space

Joanna Haynes
Karin Murris

The main section of the piece of writing that you are about to read consists of a dialogue conducted, via email, over a period of three weeks.  This dialogue developed as we prepared for our joint keynote presentation (Haynes & Murris,1999) at the Fifth International Conference on Philosophy in Practice entitled ‘Thinking through Dialogue’. Given the theme of the conference, it occurred to us to adopt dialogue as the form for our presentation. Email dialogue seems to have its own distinctive features. It is emerging, rather than established, as a genre and therefore offers considerable freedom to the writers.  Participants can choose to respond spontaneously or to dwell on the email contents and formulate a reply. The dialogue format is challenging to the listener or reader, deliberately so in a way. It’s a bit like eavesdropping - boundaries of private and public conversation are blurred, there are pieces missing. We hope that the style and form deliberately chosen for this piece will enable the reader to focus on the kind of thoughtful work that we believe parallels the effort to be made by the adult and children in Philosophy with Children.  There is some obscurity and issues remain unresolved.  This happens when 'following a thread', when building on each other's ideas. The structure of philosophical enquiry is unlike that of an academic essay. After all, 'dia' means 'through' and following David Bohm (1996) we understand dialogue as "a stream of meaning flowing among and through us and between us" (p.6). The structure of dialogue seems most appropriate to philosophically reflect upon philosophical enquiry in the classroom: homogeneity between form and content. 

During the period leading up to our Email dialogue we had both been reading the work of Gemma Corradi Fiumara. The few paragraphs that follow try to give a flavour of some of the influence we were digesting in the time leading to our presentation.  These are only morsels, not a three course meal!

Exploring a philosophy of listening
What does it mean for us as adults to listen and to hear the contributions that children make in philosophical enquiry? Do we expect to be changed by young children’s philosophical perspectives? Does listening to children make particular demands on our thinking? In ‘The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening’, a work that draws on philosophy and psychoanalysis, Fiumara suggests:

 ‘Listening actually impoverishes us from a ‘rational’ point of view because if we seriously engage in paying heed we may even come to a state of helplessness and disorientation’ (Fiumara, 1990:43)
Fiumara does not reject rationalism but seeks to move it forward by counterbalancing its capacity for closure and generalisation. She argues that rationalism is responsible for:
 ‘the disappearance of the multiplicity of relationships which had previously tied (concepts) to particular circumstances, and to their substitution with generalized relationships'. (Fiumara, 1990:12)

In a chapter on ‘inner listening’ Fiumara also relates the dominance of rationality to a certain impoverishment of receptivity and self-knowledge, in spite of a culture that appears to exalt the individual and celebrate individuality. The use of intuition and the ability to remain with ambiguity are seen as essential to invention and new thinking:

 ‘creativity can be linked to that paradoxical capacity for knowing how to use our cognitive coordinates and, at the same time, knowing how to abandon our rational ground by not  using it.’ (Fiumara, 1990:142)
Building on the exchange between Socrates and Theaetetus in Plato’s Dialogues, Fiumara develops the metaphor of philosophical listening as midwifery.  She talks in terms of the midwife’s role in attending births and in terms of their reputation for wisdom as matchmakers, knowing what (in Socrates words) ‘unions are likely to produce a brave brood’.  To undo the metaphor (as far as it is possible to do such a thing) a good listener is able to bring thought to birth and to make the best connections between thoughts. If the listener pursues the maieutic method, she must be guided both by her experience of assisting at other ‘births’ and by observing and responding to the unique and urgent features of the birth in hand, however difficult or awkward.

The significance of metaphor
‘The Metaphoric Process’ (Fiumara, 1995) explores metaphor as an interaction between life and language, a process that shapes our reasoning and grasp of experience. Metaphor bridges the segregated categories of body and mind and the traditional distinctions of rational-versus-instinctual, often in highly personal ways:

 ‘Through a metaphoric appreciation of language, knowledge is seen not so much as the task of ‘ getting reality right’ but rather as the enterprise of developing linguistic habits for coping with whatever reality-in-the-making we may have to confront.’ (Fiumara, 1995:72)
Such a perspective challenges the firmness of the categories of knowledge that some philosophers take as binding and as oppositional dichotomies: cognition and empathy, thinking and feeling:
 ‘a maturational approach emerging from an awareness of metaphorical processes proposes instead that those realms constitute but complementary and reciprocally indispensable polarities to be instrumentally identified within our evolving rationality.’ (Fiumara, 1995 p.73)
Fiumara’s threads
Woven into our conversation are some threads that we have pulled from Fiumara’s handwork: listening, as a process that can close down or open up our thinking; limitations of rationalism and dualism; the possibilities revealed through her perspective on the metaphoric; creativity, imagination and new knowledge. These have both philosophical and pedagogical implications.

We continue to be concerned with some of the problems of listening that arise from the desire to structure and shape what we hear in the struggle to make sense of it. Attention to the particular detail of an experience that is offered as an example is vital to the pursuit of practical wisdom. Our experience of enquiry with young children leads us to believe that creativity and imagination may be impeded by over direction by an adult.  We feel that the direct experiences from their lives that children bring to philosophical enquiry also give a personal significance to this learning that is developmentally appropriate. The adult needs to understand and work with these dimensions of enquiry that fuse the emotional and the cognitive. The use of metaphors and analogies offers a particularly valuable space to engage in ambiguous play with ideas, feelings and experience. Children in philosophical enquiry offer new ideas and new problems for philosophy (Kennedy, 1999).

As our dialogue unfolds we explore aspects of listening in the classroom; children’s power and authority in philosophical enquiry; safekeeping and risk-taking as aspects of thinking and discourse; and what’s involved in ‘changing one’s mind’. We present the need for the facilitator of PwC to cultivate a particular kind of effort, attention and presence in listening to children’s contributions and in sensing the direction of the emergent enquiry.

We begin by responding to an extract of video in which a group of 9 and 10 year olds are evaluating their philosophical enquiry. (Part of the children’s evaluation was broadcast on British television in Channel Four’s ‘Class Action’ in November 1994.)

In the episode that prompts our dialogue, the children are talking to a journalist about their most recent session and about what they get out of doing philosophy in the classroom.


Claire: I hate maths because…you’re not allowed to talk at all when we’re doing it, in philosophy you can talk anytime apart when someone else is talking, but like in English and things, I enjoy writing and doing art and everything, but philosophy is one of my favourite subjects to do it in.

Journalist: But don’t you come to school to learn, to listen and not to…?

Claire: Well you are learning.  Well, it’s like a lesson, but just different – not writing or drawing or anything.  The only time you’re drawing it is when you’re drawing it in your mind.

Lucy: I think maths is just as hard as philosophy, because, hum…you might think maths is really hard and philosophy is really easy, because you just have to say things, but you have to use your think, you have to use your brain.  Well both of them really, you think a lot.

(Channel Four Class Action, 1994)

What really strikes me is the journalist’s question: Don’t we come to school to learn and to listen?”  Would it be reasonable to assume that she means the children should listen to the teachers, that is, the adults? 

I'm not sure we can assume that the journalist means that children should listen to the teacher/adult but in her question to the children there is an implicit notion of what listening in school usually means. Does the ‘we’ in the question include the teachers? Do teachers also come to school to listen and to learn?
Listening is central to any educational enterprise, but what this means remains hidden. As teachers we know very little about the conditions that make listening possible in school. What exactly do we intend when we plan for the development of children's 'listening skills'.  Comparatively little attention is paid to the development of 'speaking and listening' in either initial or continuing training for teachers. When training addresses classroom discussion this often entails teacher-mediated discussion and emphasis is on the conversion of children's contributions towards the teacher's objectives for a lesson.  It is rare for the emphasis to be put on teachers learning to hear what children say or learning to achieve a diffusion of listening among a group.
Teachers frequently implore children to listen. Often this means: listen so that you will know what to do or listen to follow some instructions or rules of behaviour. Do we usually work on the assumptions that listening requires considerable effort, that listening somehow costs the listener, and that children find it more difficult than adults do?

My tentative answers to your questions are that listening does require considerable effort, that listening costs the listener and that children do not find listening harder than adults, on the contrary.
However, I would like to claim that listening is not just a necessary condition for thinking, but listening IS thinking. I don't just mean that in order to think well I have to listen to the Other (i.e. hear what someone says), or listen to myself, (i.e. what I say and how I say it). The kind of listening involved in dialoguing is more like paying "thoughtful attention" to use one of  Fiumara’s phrases (1990 p31). I interpret this as: an openness when paying attention to the Other thoughtfully, and this takes a great deal of effort. Fiumara explains that listening is only an effort when 

"both accepting and critical, trusting and diffident, irrepressible and yet consoling" (p90).
Recent research in philosophy with children (Dyfed County Council, 1994) suggests that more than half of the teachers involved in the project resisted the central idea of children setting the agenda for discussion and the idea of allowing the children's enquiry to take its own course. Resistance to authentic listening to children is crucial in this, I believe.

I am interested in what you say, about the research on teachers’ ‘resistance’ to letting children determine the agenda for and direction of enquiry. I think this has partly to do with accounting - in the sense of justifying results and the way time is spent. All lessons are expected to have very specific pre-defined goals. The teacher is expected to steer the children towards these goals. This must have a profound influence on the nature and qualities of classroom discourse. These conditions can inhibit contemplative or meditative thinking. They do inhibit listening.  They make it difficult for teachers and for children to listen, both to one another: (child:child, child:teacher, teacher:teacher) and each to his or her inner voice. The curriculum chatters so loudly. It clamours and claims us.
When I have asked children what advice they would want to give to teachers beginning philosophical enquiry they have emphasised that teachers need to give children choice, give more time to think and  to explain things. One girl said:

“If a child has something to say, let them feel that they can say it to the teacher and not think to themselves: ‘I’d better not tell her’”
The right to this time and space seems paramount.

I believe that pupils and teachers have the right to ‘play’ with knowledge.  What we regard as ‘knowledge’ is, after all, the product of previous enquiries (but seldom conducted by ourselves) and what counts as knowledge changes all the time.  It all depends on how we perceive knowledge. If I assume that ‘our’ knowledge ‘grasps’ reality IMMEDIATELY, then it seems to make sense to try and ‘transmit’ this knowledge to our less experienced and informed youngsters.  Acquiring knowledge is then, metaphorically speaking, like putting buns (facts) in the oven (brain/mind).  However, if I accept the view that knowledge is a MEDIATED grasp of reality, a space (literally) opens up for philosophical enquiry.  After all, it is through language that we make sense of ourselves, the world and others.  To let children and adults play in this philosophical space is not just fun, but opens up possibilities we do not know the boundaries of.  It takes a great deal of effort and courage to move around in this creative space in which new language is generated and new ways of looking and listening emerge.  In my experience young children thoroughly enjoy travelling in philosophical space.
I’m not sure that travelling in philosophical space doesn’t necessarily fit in nicely with a curriculum with pre-determined objectives.  Does it depend on how we formulate those objectives? It is fascinating to observe how children resist fixed objectives.  In the children’s evaluation, for example, Claire remarks:

 …we started it yesterday and it took us ages on one questions and then we moved on – because we had to – because we were talking so long on the first question, and it was really interesting all the things that we came up with, and Lisa came up with one, and it took at least half an hour to get off the subject of what she said (extract of children’s evaluation)
Claire reports that they had to move on because they were taking too long. In all fairness to the teacher, on this occasion this move was voted for. What is interesting is that Claire experienced it in this way.

Perhaps the kind of effort (as sacrifice or self-restraint) associated with listening in the classroom is the product of resistance, by teachers and pupils, to fixed outcomes.  The teacher’s effort to steer the course and the children’s effort to conform is costly.
The effort of listening in philosophical enquiry is rather different.  The teacher relaxes her omnipotent role (in terms of the direction of learning) and responsibility is shared. Authority is assumed by all the participants. Listening in PwC is an effort, as we think ‘otherwise’, as we listen thoughtfully, as we are drawn towards new pathways of thought.  The children testify to this when they say: “It’s making my brain hurt.” 
On the other hand, I have also noticed that our work in PwC can seem effortless! This happens when the dialogue takes on a natural and flowing dynamic, because we are ‘letting’ each other think, because it is so compelling.
In these episodes, there is profound evidence of ‘listening as thinking’.  What would be the opposite of ‘thinking aloud’ – that term we use when we want to express the process of thinking through talking? ‘Thinking through the ears’ perhaps?  You can see this flickering across the children’s faces.  One obvious sign of this is the ease with which the children change their minds and the pleasure they take in it:

Louise: In philosophy sessions we do..especially this morning we had people that were disagreeing with someone, when they said something else they were kind of thinking..oh…well..actually I’ve changed my mind.  In philosophy you don’t have to stick to the same.  There’s never a time when you’ve got to stick to what you said first.  You can always change your mind.

Journalist: What is good about changing your mind?  (extract of children’s evaluation) 

That journalist’s question is interesting: ‘What is good about changing one’s mind?’

I hadn’t thought about this interplay of effort and effortlessness before, but I agree.  When the enquiry takes off, i.e. when the children start to build on each other’s ideas, I as a teacher, become almost invisible.  There is excitement, curiosity and involvement in the classroom.  You can see it in their eyes. You can feel it in their bodies.  The ‘only’ effort I experience as a teacher is to restrain myself from guiding them into areas of thinking I myself feel comfortable with…I’m not talking here about sensitive issues, such as sex or child abuse, but typical western philosophical topics I myself am so familiar with.  Letting THEM speak and listening to what THEY find important is effortless when I let go of wanting to control their thinking.  That includes the philosopher’s agenda too.  For example, when Lucy said, in her comments on the video: “you have to use your think, you have to use your brain. Well both of them really…” I would have immediately asked for clarification, because I ‘know’ it could lead into a fascinating area of philosophical enquiry.
The journalist’s question is an intriguing one.  But I’m not so sure that the children quoted here mean the same with changing one’s mind as what I understand to mean.  When I say I have changed my mind there seems to be more permanence to the change.  Considering ideas offered by others doesn’t mean for me changing my mind.  Do you agree?

Yes, I agree: the effort of listening in PwC for me, as the teacher, is more to do with resisting my own tendency to steer the discussion, or the effort to lose pre-conceptions about the way the enquiry might go, or the effort of giving up my own philosophical interests in favour of the children's, or the effort of worrying about whether we are 'getting anywhere'!
When the children say things like: "I think I 've changed my mind" they seem pleased with the new possibilities for thinking that this state offers them and it's as if the 'fluidity' of mind in itself is pleasurable.  The loss of certainty or continuity does not appear to represent a threat.

I agree. I am learning all the time, especially when working with very young children, especially, not feeling threatened by this loss of certainty you are referring to. The lack of boundaries, the sensation of freedom, and the confusion make philosophical enquiry with children not just a sheer pleasure, but is also intellectually very challenging for me.  I believe that making one’s self  vulnerable in this way to the Other is necessary in dialogue, whether this takes place in the classroom, the boardroom, or one's counselling practice. To have your own pre-conceptions challenged can be very painful, but it seems less painful or, even the contrary, fun for young children. 
What I find so exciting about young children's thinking is how they enjoy 'starting from scratch', analysing and defining concepts as THEY perceive them. For me, that is creative thinking.  This kind of thinking emerges in the classroom when teachers and children exercise courage, trust each other, and when teachers accept that children are their own epistemological authorities. When 'we' listen to 'them', children offer us other ways of looking and listening, but children do need the philosophical space for this to happen. 

The children's evaluations describe the pleasure of changing your mind as not being obliged to stick to your first idea. What does that conjure up for you 'STICKING to an idea’? Sounds uncomfortable! 
I have noticed that children might change their minds during enquiry and sometimes come back to an original view, having 'visited' the other possibilities - but for the duration, they will embrace those other possibilities wholeheartedly.  For example, in one of my classes, Lauren was puzzled by a toy bear that was moving in a film we watched. She said this did not usually happen. When Anna reported that her teddy bear often moved and that we couldn't be certain that toy bears don't move when we're are not watching (perhaps they don't want us to know)...Lauren fully entertained this possibility.  At the end of the first session she said she was going to be more watchful of her teddy bears in future.  When the group came back to the story again and the children were reviewing their learning, Lauren said "I don't think toy bears do move, like they do in the video". This is a powerful example because of the way, as you say, the children make creative use of the space to play with possibilities...and this is why it is a pleasure - as long as we, as teachers, do not misunderstand what is going on.

The way in which young children embrace wholeheartedly other ideas is impressive. Both or more ideas could be right, but also they seem to REALLY leave open the possibility that their original idea could be wrong, or inappropriate. Not being too concerned about making 'mistakes' is central to philosophical enquiry, I think. Or, even stronger learning through and from so-called 'mistakes' could be viewed as essential in reaching a greater understanding. This is, surely, more promising than  'sticking' to our first, possibly 'mistaken' standpoint. The more 'mistakes' we make, the more varied and challenging it is for our own thinking. 'Sticking' to an idea sounds uncomfortable - like bubble-gum on a train-seat - but at the same time it is very comfortable to stick to certain ideas, e.g. that I'll still 'be' tomorrow. I'll stick to that one - provisionally!

I have been re-reading some of the evaluations I have had from children. I came across this reference to thinking and changing one’s mind:

Philosophy helps me..well, juggling things in my mind really to think about what I am thinking. Like if there is a question like ‘do you believe in aliens, don't you believe in aliens’ might think you don't believe in them and then a question comes up that tells you more about it, so you change (Justin, age 10)
Many things strike me in this contribution. I am caught by the metaphor of juggling in the mind.  How many balls can I juggle?  I sometimes drop one, stop, pick it up again. Others might throw balls to me and I can reciprocate. The rhythm changes. When I juggle it absorbs me and demands my utmost attention. 
I think the misunderstanding we were thinking about may arise in the teacher's premature desire to identify the direction of discussion in order to take the wheel and drive. My own efforts as a teacher of PwC are increasingly towards not trying to anticipate or push for direction.  I am trying to slow down to ambling pace.

The direction teachers want to steer pupils towards is that of the accepted answers. But knowledge is always based on acknowledgment! Knowledge develops and changes over time. It is a laborious process, and a relational process. Making errors are part of this process. It makes you wonder what the purpose of knowledge is. Is it to achieve certainty and control? Or, is it genuine creativity? It is not so much the answers teachers should be focusing on, but on the questions the answers are trying to answer, and on the questions that haven't been asked but should be asked.
I very much like the juggling metaphor. It describes really well how I often feel in an enquiry.
Young children are excellent at generating their own metaphors – also metaphors about 'thinking'. I worry about the lack of space given by teachers to children offering refreshing perspectives on these matters.

Teachers must find space and courage.  In the search for knowledge an 'error' marks a vital moment. An 'error' comes into existence in consciousness in the moment that the belief/idea is called into doubt by other possibilities.  It signifies therefore the moment of receptiveness to thinking otherwise.

(Dialogue ends)

Younger children often adopt an experimental and playful stance with ideas, trying thoughts out and changing their minds without worrying and without strong personal attachment to particular beliefs. They are taken up in the moment by the novelty of what they say. What can adults learn from this apparent flexibility of mind?

We have considered listening as a form of thinking and described experiences of listening with children both as hard work and as effortless. Effortless listening seems possible when there are episodes of enquiry that achieve momentum, flow and engagement with the emerging theories. We suggest that some of the obstacles to listening in the classroom include the power relationships between teachers and pupils, the predominance of rational curriculum planning governed by prescribed objectives and outcomes and doubts about children as reliable epistemological authorities. How might such obstacles be tackled?  What is the adult’s role?

Woods and Jeffery (1996) talk of creative teachers valuing pupils thinking by making room for ‘personal knowledge’ and ‘possibility knowledge’, as a counterbalance to the kind of ‘public knowledge’ embodied in an official curriculum. This echoes Fiumara’s notion, referred to in the introduction, of ‘evolving rationality’ (Fiumara, 1995). 

Certain conditions are necessary for genuine space and time to be made available for children to pursue their questions and concerns.  One of these conditions comes into being when the teacher learns to hold back and to suspend her/his interests. The teacher needs to develop a lightness of touch and an intuitive sense of how to intervene rather than depending too much on a familiar procedure. 

In her ‘Inquiry is no Mere Conversation’(1996), Susan Gardner warns against a woolly notion of ‘facilitation’ and over-emphatic claims about children’s natural tendencies to philosophise. She is critical of the idea of allowing discussion to follow its own course. She argues that students are sold short by teachers who lack the ability to maintain direction, to guide and ‘to force depth with respect to the philosophical truth toward which the discussion points’. (Gardner, 1996) She suggests that the facilitator’s own interest in the perplexity of the question may be the best guide to its philosophical potential.

We share Gardner’s concerns about poor quality facilitation. We do not feel it is necessary for the teacher to ‘force depth’ but rather to service the community. The teacher can do this by listening extremely attentively; by continuously feeding back on her perception of progress; by inviting the participants to confirm or reject this view and, in doing so, to maintain or shift the focus. We believe that letting out the reins is often the way to achieve the kind of depth, direction and clarity that Gardner rightly insists are the rewards of successful enquiry. Michael Bonnett (1995) describes a sense of truth that is not constructed by us but is ‘transcendent’. He suggests that letting pupils think is not passive but responsive and ‘open to the draw of content and learner’. Rather than relying on her own interest as a guide, the teacher often has to learn to be perplexed by what perplexes the students. 

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Channel Four Television (November 1994) Pupils from Monorbier Primary School, South Wales, speaking in the programme: ‘Class Action’
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