Food for thought;Books;Primary

5th February 1999 at 00:00
TEACHING THINKING: philosophical enquiry in the classroom. By Robert Fisher. Cassell. pound;13.99.

Practical and down to earth, this book is clearly written from considerable classroom experience of using the Philosophy for Children programme in the primary school. It is easy to read and, for teachers who have not yet helped their pupils to develop their thinking skills, it will be an ideal introduction. The final part of the book is on applying the approach across the curriculum.

Too many schools areover-concerned with transmitting factual information and measurable skills. The whole idea of teaching young people to think for themselves and listen to the views of others is frequently neglected. As Fisher says: "Research studies show that the questions teachers use most often are closed, factual type questions . . . the teacher knows the right answer and is testing recall of knowledge."

Socratic questions are held to be open questions, and this book claims to encourage Socratic teachers. But Socrates asked questions to arrive at very specific answers. He was a Platonist (indeed, most of what we know of Socrates comes from Plato, and many ideas attributed to Socrates may be those of Plato) and Plato believed in truth - truth about good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and God. Truth was not merely constructed but needed to be learned. None of this comes over in the book.

Philosophy has a long history and is much more than just "getting people to think" - it also involves getting people to think well. This includes helping them master arguments from the past and to see their relevance today, helping them to challenge their own preconceptions and presuppositions and to see that the position adopted by all members of the thinking circle may be mistaken.

Genuine philosophy is difficult. It means understanding detailed arguments and probing and evaluating their weaknesses and strengths.

This is, therefore, a worthwhile and useful book, and my criticism is not of what it does, but of its failure to recognise the need to go further. This may demand real Socratic teaching that goes beyond helping young people to think for themselves and brings them to understand, probe and evaluate philosophical argument applied to contemporary issues.

This is hard work and, yes, involves learning. Children cannot be expected to reinvent the wheel - at some stage they need to understand the arguments of great minds and then, of course, to decide for themselves if the arguments are valid.

Peter Vardy is a senior lecturer at Heythrop College, University of London

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