I think therefore I learn

7th June 1996 at 01:00
Each Monday for the last half term a group of advanced writers at Grove Primary in Handsworth, Birmingham, has done masses of work on philosophy.

After discussing philosophy for some time, we came to the conclusion that it seems to be a way of thinking about all kinds of interesting questions such as:

Why does two and two make four?

How do we know green is a colour?

Is there a life after death?

As the group of nearly 30 got more confident we started more advanced work such as constructing an argument. Some people found this quite difficult because when we talked about these kinds of questions, the answers were not always easy to pin down. From the start we had to decide whether a point someone was making was really true or not. So we took a series of questions and tried to analyse them for facts or beliefs. For example, we agreed that the statement "We will die one day" is a certain fact. We were less sure about whether there is life after death, and the group's views varied from "definitely" to "definitely not", with lots of people in between.

We then took a single controversial question for much more detailed discussion: "Should naughty children ever be smacked?" The difficult thing was to decide whether a point was really a fact or an opinion. We also made distinctions between general statements, such as "Not all naughty children get smacked", and specific statements that describe real situations, for example, "Sanjiv was smacked yesterday for stealing Pounds 10."

Can we make a specific factual statement to show smacking is a good thing? We tried to find evidence that was convincing. One boy said he got smacked by his father and this had been very effective. We thought this was some kind of fact, though hard to prove. Moreover, though it might be true for Sanjiv, this doesn't mean it is true for me (Nabeena!).

Can we make a general point about smacking in principle? There was a lot of disagreement about this. Some children thought it was possible, and that smacking was definitely OK or not OK. Most thought that it depends on the circumstances.

We examined evidence that smacking is ineffective. One argument against was that in Sweden they don't smack children - and we asked if there is there any evidence that children behave any less well there.

We then wrote dialogues using the names of three famous philosophers, Plato (pro-smacking), Kant (unsure) and Socrates (anti-smacking). Here is an example:

Plato: It seems to me that the evidence is that children these days are spoilt. Why only yesterday my mum was mugged by a young boy - only 12-years-old. What he needed was a good smacking.

Socrates: That's terrible: the boy's probably been beaten regularly by his parents - that's why he's gone off the rails.

Kant: Well my dad wouldn't let me behave like that for sure, though I'm not sure what he would do if I did.

We tried to come to a conclusion - but we disagreed. Some will smack their own children, some will not.

Finally we had a test to see how well we have managed to understand the different aspects of tackling a question philosophically. We tried to write clearly, arguing one point after another and leading to a conclusion. We (Shantelle and Nabeena) chose the same question: "Teachers, doctors and nurses are far more important than pop-singers and so they should earn far more money." We asked what it means to be good at something, how do you compare "good" teaching with "good" singing, and how much is each worth? We both argued in favour of teachers, but not everyone did. Some people thought Oasis ought to earn lots of money because they are unique.

The interesting thing is trying to make your arguments very clear; we think this developed our essay writing, though we're still not quite sure whether this is a fact or an opinion.

David Winkley teaches the group. Nabeena and Shantelle (both 11) are members.

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