The art of clear thinking

14th September 2007 at 01:00
If a group shares the success of a few, what about mistakes? It's simple philosophy, writes Adi Bloom

gareth spilt paint on the floor at the end of an art lesson. His teacher did not see him and he did not own up to the accident. After spotting the mess, the teacher decided to keep the whole class inside at break time to clear up.

One of Gareth's classmates responded with the plea: "But Miss, it's not fair to punish everyone."

Such moral positions can be used as a means of introducing philosophy to primary pupils, says Michael Hand, of London University's Institute of Education.

In a paper presented this week at the British Educational Research Association conference in London, Professor Hand suggests that young children are capable of debating conceptual questions.

By discussing crying over spilt paint, a teacher is actually inviting children to debate two concepts: fairness and punishment.

Is it always fair to hold people responsible for their actions? What about the actions of others? If a group is entitled to share credit for the achievement of its members, is it also obliged to share the cost of their mistakes?

Is being asked to clear up the mess a punishment? What is the difference between a punishment and an unpleasant task? If the teacher kept the children indoors purely to clear up the mess quickly rather than to punish them, is it still unfair?

The aim of such questions, says Professor Hand, is to demonstrate that classroom philosophy lessons need not deal with abstruse topics, remote from pupils' everyday lives.

"Philosophically interesting concepts are deployed on a daily basis in the ordinary exchange of classroom life," he said, "in the judgments made by and about children, in the questions they ask and in the questions we put to them."

He argues that children are not, as is sometimes claimed, natural philosophers. While they may ask questions that appear to be philosophical ("How do we know that everything is not a dream?"), this does not equate with philosophical skill.

"Children are continually asking questions about the past, about how things work, about right and wrong," he said. "But we do not say on the strength of this that they are natural historians, scientists and ethicists."

Rather than taking in the full breadth of philosophical enquiry, he suggests that teachers focus on conceptual analysis. This can be done by isolating the conceptual elements of a question and recognising that different words can take on different meanings, depending on context and user. Pupils can then analyse the underlying motivation for a question, as well as the meaning brought by context. And they can examine the broader consequences of choosing to use a particular word in a particular way.

"Conceptual analysis is not the whole of philosophy," Professor Hand said, "but it is an indispensable part of it and one that is accessible to children."


Techniques for conceptual analysis

Isolate the conceptual aspects of a question.

Recognise that words can mean different things to different people.

Identify cases that are definitely instances of a particular concept.

Identify cases that are definitely not instances of a particular concept.

Examine related but distinct concepts.

Consider cases on the borderline of a concept and ask what makes them borderline.

Investigate the social context in which a question is asked.

Investigate the underlying anxiety or concern that motivated a question.

Consider the immediate practical consequences of using a word in a particular way.

Consider the broader linguistic consequences of using a word in a particular way.

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