Juggling and Travelling in Philosophical Space
BACKGROUND AND ORIGIN
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.
SOME INFLUENCES ON OUR THINKING
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:
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 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:
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:
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.’
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:
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)
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.
THE THEMES IN OUR DIALOGUE
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)
OUR EMAIL DIALOGUE
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
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
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:
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
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:
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.
That journalist’s question is
interesting: ‘What is good about changing one’s mind?’
Journalist: What is
good about changing your mind? (extract of children’s evaluation)
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’?
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:
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’...you might think you don't believe in them
and then a question comes up that tells you more about it, so you change
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.
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
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