If you are going to plan your own philosophy enquiries then it is important that you make sure that your question truly is a philosophical one.
It may be worth noting here, however, that some questions for this age group do not necessarily need to be truly philosophical. Firstly because you may be focussing on building a specific skill in a session and so it may be easier to do this with less philosophical questions. Secondly because a 3-5 year old has an entirely different view on the world, and a different bank of knowledge, to a 10 year old. For example, you could not use the question “What are clouds made of?” or “Are scary things always bad?” for a philosophical enquiry for 10 year olds. They would pretty quickly be able to Google you an answer to the first question and say “no”, possibly accompanied by a scathing look, to the second. But to a 4 year old those questions are philosophical ones.
When it comes to Philosophy for Children (as opposed to actual philosophy in the adult world) whether a question is philosophical or not depends entirely on your audience so don’t worry too much about whether the questions you choose are truly philosophical and instead base it on your knowledge of the children in your class. Some of the questions I have enjoyed using are not truly philosophical, in other words we could say that there is an exact answer that does not need debate, however for a young child who does not know much about the world it is a philosophical question.
That said it is good practice for you as a facilitator to begin to identify what a philosophical question is so here is a quick guide.
Modern philosophy contains six main branches.
Metaphysics: the nature of reality and the universe.
Epistemology: the study of knowledge and how it is acquired.
Logic: how to develop valid arguments; includes mathematical logic.
Ethics: the study of right and wrong and how people should live.
Politics: the study of government, citizen rights and political obligations.
Aesthetics: beauty, art and artistic perception.
Do you need to know these six branches of philosophy to be able to do philosophy for children? Absolutely not. Do you need to cover all branches of philosophy within the school year? Of course not. You don’t even need to know what branch of philosophy your questions fall into. Philosophy for children should be fun and focussed entirely on what YOU want to get out of it. If knowing the six main branches of modern philosophy helps you to focus yourself on what to ask then you can read more about each branch and some suggestions of EYFS appropriate questions please look in our blog archives. If not then feel free to forget it all and move on.
Philosophy for Children draws heavily on the Socratic approach to philosophy so that is what we will look at further. The man, the myth, the legend – Socrates actually did not write any philosophical works himself. What we know of his methods actually comes from the writing of his students, such as Plato. Socrates had a method of enquiry, which he referred to as "elenchus", a cross-examination approach which is now known as the Socratic method. This method basically means questioning and questioning until all possible answers have been eliminated apart from the best one. You know when a child asks ‘Why? But why? But why?’, well this should be evidence enough that a four year old could give Socrates a run for his money.
The Socratic Method looks a little like this;
1. A person makes a statement. You ask them to clarify what they mean. For example, “You should never steal”
2. Ask them for evidence or justification for their opinion “It is wrong to take something that isn’t yours. There is a law against it.”
3. Challenge their assumptions “But sometimes people might need to steal”
4. Find an exception – an example which would mean that the person’s statement isn’t true
“What if your family have had no food for a long time and someone has left the last bits of their picnic while they play on the park?”
5. Ask the person to revise their original argument “So do you still think you should NEVER steal? Or did you mean something else by that?”
6. Continue to raise objections or exceptions until the person reaches the closest to a valid statement that they can get
This method is so simple that it works with children of all ages. In your work as a facilitator keep the two roles of midwife and gadfly in mind as you encourage children to begin to question the world and coax out all of their prior knowledge and experience of being in order to form some ideas and opinions of their own (midwife) but keep on pushing them to think further (gadfly).
We all use the word ‘philosophy’. It is a word every adult knows. ‘Oh yes, philosophy’, we say knowingly, but how many of us when asked ‘So what is philosophy?’ would be able to answer? Before learning about philosophy my answer would probably have been ‘eerm thinking about things and talking about them?’ which is sort of true but if that was all that philosophy was, we probably wouldn’t even bother with having a word for it would we?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘philosophy’ is ‘the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, especially when considered as an academic discipline.’ So…. Thinking about stuff and talking about them then. In a more structured and challenging way than just a chat about what to have for tea though.
Philosophy is generally thought to have started in the 6th Century BC in Ancient Greece with the philosopher Thales of Miletus. Like many early philosophers his ponderings were of things that we now understand in a non-philosophical way – science. Other philosophers in this period were Anaximenes, Heraclitus and Anaximander. The majority of their philosophical wonderings and theories were about our very state of being and what the world and the things of the world were made of, changes of state, motion and other (now scientific) realities in the world they saw around them. They did not tend to look too deeply into spirituality or morality, focussing instead on searching for answers with more of a pre-scientific quest for knowledge.
Some philosophers paved the way for future scientific enquiries with their ponderings, for example Democritus who taught that the hidden substance in all physical objects consists of different arrangements of atoms and void. These were not scientific findings but philosophical ponderings. These, and other philosophers from this time such as Parmenides, Pythagorus (who believed that the whole world was controlled and could be explained by numbers) and Zeno of Elea, are known as ‘Pre-Socratic’, referring, of course, to one of the most prolific and well- known philosophers, Socrates. So here, already, we see people who do not yet entirely understand mathematics or science yet have an in-built need for questioning the world and finding their own answers. Does that sound familiar? Doesn’t that sound just like a child before the pesky world of adults get a hold of their brain?
In the 4th-5th Century along came Socrates and Plato. Socrates took philosophy to a whole new level, pondering not scientific matters of the earth but instead ethical matters of the mind. He cared, not what humans were made of, but how their brains worked and the decisions they made. He used critical reasoning to explore what decisions and morals were right and wrong. His Socratic Method consisted of asking questions, then more questions, then more questions until he found answers which brought him and others closer to an answer than they had been. He saw himself as a ‘midwife’, helping others to grow and give birth to their own ideas and a ‘gadfly’ nipping at and irritating the people he spoke to (and society at large) in order to take them to a higher level of thinking.
Socrates was full of questions, feigned ignorance to make others talk, refused to take “just because” as an answer and was more than a bit irritating in his persistence? Well he was just an overgrown 3 year old really wasn’t he? Interestingly Socrates never wrote a word. It is entirely thanks to Plato that we know of his methods and reports of his arguments and questions, though how much is fact and how much is Plato’s dramatization is unclear. Socrates finally annoyed far too many people and was sentenced to death.
Plato was Socrates’ student and it was through his writing, and those of another philosopher called Xenophon, that the methods and teachings of Socrates were passed down. Plato also expanded on the study of philosophy to cover issues of metaphysics, logic, ethics, politics, science and aesthetics. Plato also had quite an influential student himself – Aristotle. Philosophy then continued to develop with many, many philosophers introducing their own approaches and beliefs but all with a shared aim – a quest for a knowledge or truth.
Miss Magical Mess is a pre-school teacher and P4C Level 2B facilitator. After a shaky start as a P4C facilitator (P4C with 3 year olds... are you kidding?) Miss Magical Mess created her own approach to P4C and enquiry model and is now a big fan.