Give children the freedom to think

4th July 1997 at 01:00
CRITICAL THINKING IN YOUNG MINDS. By Victor Quinn. David Fulton Pounds 13.99

It has been quite fashionable in recent years to talk about philosophy for children in a way that makes such approaches appear obscure or difficult, as if there were a coterie of the super intelligent living in a world of their own. Nothing could be further from the truth when people consider the real nature of children's thinking abilities and the ease with which they can be promoted.

Critical Thinking in Young Minds is practical, readable, personal and modest. This is itself important since these principles are at the heart of the message. And the message is significant. If you listen to others, if you understand the voices of children and acknowledge their capacities rather than impose the authority of a set curriculum and a series of closed questions, then you discover all kinds of intellectual developments. Sensitive teachers working closely with children experience and understand this. But they are rarely helped in their endeavours given the Gradgrindian testing of facts imposed by the national curriculum.

Victor Quinn begins his book not with a mass of critical theory but with examples of actual lessons. While he would never suggest abject following of particular examples, he says enough to demonstrate how teachers could generate, in their own way, exciting and stimulating lessons and give children a chance to reveal and develop their thinking. In his own teaching, Victor Quinn is clearly sensitive enough to be able to indulge in playful confrontation, but what this reveals is the (normally unacknowledged) intellectual self-confidence of the children and their capacity to see what is really going on.

There are examples here of lessons that deal with fundamental questions, not so much of obscure philosophical dilemmas but of those matters that concern children engaged in real problems, normally, and officially, ignored by schools. Questions about contradictions and the nature of falsehood (understood by young children) are paralleled by questions about morality and the empirical. The way in which these lessons or demonstrations are presented makes it clear how easily they could be taken up by teachers. There is never any sense of showing off a successful technique which depends on personality, but an approach which lies at the heart of teaching - a respect for pupils and an attempt to enable them to use their talents.

For all the lightness of touch of the book, there are some very important points of principle clearly delineated. I believe these principles to be true, often proved and shared by at least the majority of teachers. One is that enabling children to think critically frees them from the "regular right answer, supposed to be orientation", the dominance of facts against which their memory can be tested. Another is that the national curriculum has put a barrier between what happens in school and children's everyday experience and understanding - hence a growing disaffection with school.

The author points out the distinction between the "academic" and the "intellectual". Unleash the latter and children begin to reveal not only their capacity but their delight in learning. He also reacts against the "over-riding tendency to deal in conclusions rather than in approaching and examining ideas". Above all, he draws attention to the critical importance of understanding what other people are actually saying, of entering into their own meaning. I doubt whether the word "decentring" captures what he is trying to say and he has difficulties in explaining it,but, as he acknowledges, this concept pervades the whole book and might not need such neat tabulation.

The learning in this book is lightly worn. It concentrates on the practical and the communicable. But it also carries some important messages. It suggests that it is better to respect and listen to teachers and pupils and celebrate their potential than use them as the cannon fodder of competition. It also suggests that many teachers are dissatisfied with the current practices of the educational system, without necessarily knowing why. And he questions the prevailing acceptance of what he calls the "tabloid culture", that inability to distinguish between truth and falsehood, or, even worse, an indifference to the distinction.

But this book is not a polemic. It is constructive and realistic. It places "thinking" rather than the regurgitation of facts at the heart of education.

Cedric Cullingford is professor of education at the University of Huddersfield


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