Stephen Walshe points out that philosophical discussion might not be what you would expect to find in an early years class room. We might assume that 3-6 year olds are intellectually incapable of engaging in a serious enquiry and lack the focus and discipline necessary to have a meaningful discussion.
At this stage in a child’s life we might be more concerned about, say, developing independence; from learning how to take on and off shoes to being responsible for belongings and behaviour.
But why stop there? What about developing independent thinking and encouraging responsibility for thinking?
If you believe that children are most curious during the early years and are in the process of constructing meaning from the world around them, then these formative years, when children’s minds are most flexible is the perfect stage to begin channelling this curiosity and wonder in the direction of intelligent enquiry and, as a result, cultivate meaningful learning.
Philosophy for Children (P4C) promotes children’s natural curiosity by providing a safe, secure space for children to raise questions that they feel are of importance to them and to begin the process of discussing these questions in a respectful community of enquiry.
During discussion, children generate ideas, agree, and disagree with each other, build on the ideas of others, provide reasons for their thinking and in the process come to a deeper understanding of the question under discussion. Children will try to answer the chosen question, so engaging in P4C not only facilitates the development of language, logical thinking skills and conceptual understanding but also helps children understand complexity in a simple way.
Developing early thinking skills
In order for children to participate in dialogic enquiry, they need practice with specific skills such as careful listening, taking a position, respectfully agreeing and disagreeing and knowing how their thinking is the same or different from others. Moreover, children need to learn how to work with concepts and develop criteria. A simple activity or discussion on “Friendship”, “Real and Not Real” or a sorting activity related to these concepts, allows children to engage with these concepts.
Learning how to listen is essential. Children need to know what they are agreeing and disagreeing with and what reasons have already been given to support or challenge the argument. One of the problems that people, not just children have, is that as soon as their hand goes up they stop listening and stop thinking about what comes after they put their hand up. Therefore, patience and careful listening have to be developed.
Practice and preferences
In Pre-K (3-4 year olds) classes we begin with simple activities to allow children to make choices and give reasons. Pre-K children begin to develop the language to express their preferences in relation to their immediate environment. Teachers scaffold much of the learning experience and language by providing children with a list of reasons to choose from after they make a choice, which children will view as a game to be played rather than “philosophy”.
In both K1 (4-5 year olds) and in the first semester of K2 (5-6 year olds), classes are divided into small groups for the discussion phase of the enquiry. Teachers organize independent small group activities and groups rotate from independent activities to engagement in P4C discussion; one to two small groups working independently while the Chinese and English teachers facilitate two separate discussion groups. As the year progresses in K2, groups become larger and finally the discussion phase becomes a whole class activity.
The reason we move from small groups to whole class over the course of the K1 and K2 years is to focus on skills development and, just as importantly, to create a caring environment for children to expose their thinking to the group; children are less intimidated to speak in small groups.
The purpose of discussion in P4C is to help children articulate their thinking. The articulation of thought; putting ideas into words, is a cognitive process that helps children to think about their own thinking. Once children do this, their thoughts are available for the group to examine. The group can now begin to agree, build on or disagree with the speaker.
Once dialogue is started, our job is to keep it moving forward while keeping it focused. However, we must understand that we are working with young children and diversions will take place where the dialogue may wander. Do not worry about these little wanderings; enjoy them. Let them wander for a while – you never know it might prove productive. However, if the wanderings do not prove productive, then steer the children back gently: “So, let’s go back to our question, Is it okay to be different?” or by asking, “What is the question?” or “Are we answering the question?”
When children begin to agree and disagree with others, you will find that they give similar if not the same reasons that have already been given. In the beginning, there is no need to worry about this – at least they are giving a reason. However, as the year progresses you will need to gently challenge this; beginning with: “That’s the same reason that Mary gave. So you agree with Mary.” And progressing to “That’s the same reason Mary gave, can you think of another reason?” and finally, “We already have that reason. We would really like to hear your thinking, Can you think of a different reason.”
Independence and responsibility
P4C therefore encourages the development of intellectual independence, exercised in a responsible way. Perhaps this can be seen as a natural corollary to the development of social independence and responsibility, which, after all, is an accepted goal of every good Early Years classroom.
Stephen Walshe Co-Principal – Fortune Kindergarten, Shanghai
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