There is no greater privilege for a teacher, or a parent perhaps, than being present when a young child engages in some deep thinking and a new dimension is unwrapped for them – when they realise that there is another way of viewing things, another angle, a fresh approach. Seeing the expression in their eyes when they discover that the world they’ve been inhabiting for a few years has other dimensions that were in shadow but are now illuminated for them – such moments are golden for us grown ups to witness. During my twenty years of teaching in primary and prep schools I always enjoyed running philosophy and thinking clubs for this reason.
Seeing things differently or approaching things from other angles gives children something they really need in learning – and certainly something they need at the moment during this lockdown period: it gives them space. Space is so important in learning: space to think, space and scope to come up with one’s own ideas and theories without fear of ‘getting it wrong’.
Philosophy provides this space precisely because there is rarely one correct answer to a philosophical question: there is always scope for different opinions. Philosophy builds brains, literally; it helps children to make new connections in their heads, and making new connections is what good thinking is all about.
In philosophy, a little question can be deceptively large. Take the following, for example: ‘Does a bird know that it’s a bird?’ Such a question leads to many more playful questions, few of which have a ‘correct’ answer, as far as I know, and all of which can occupy children’s brains as they metaphorically explore the cavernous space which the original question led them into.
Does a bird need to know it’s a bird? Does it matter? And if it doesn’t know that it’s a bird, well, what does it think it is? If it doesn’t know what it is, then how does it know how to behave like a bird?
If birds’ behaviour is essentially instinctive, handed down from generations of birds before them, then can the same be said for us humans who do know what we are? How much of our behaviour is driven by our being cognisant of ‘this is what humans do’ and how much of it is subconscious, driven by our instincts?
And then, of course, there is the question: Why should humans be the only species who are truly cognisant of what they are? Why us? What is so special about us? Why do we human beings possess an ability to understand what it means to be human, when other species do not have the same meta-awareness?
Or do they? How do we know?
In my new series entitled ‘Little Questions for BIG Thinkers’, I’ve been posing questions like this on Discovery Education’s free-to-subscribe YouTube channel. These are little questions to which there are some very big answers and lots and lots to talk about. They invite children to visit a place that has not yet been conquered – where there is scope and space to come up with their own theories and talk about their opinions without the worry that someone will tell them they’re ‘wrong’!
I hope you enjoy some BIG thinking with your children, whether it’s your own children at home or your students online. There are so many changes afoot in the way we interact and the way we learn, but two things will always remain: it’s good to think and it’s good to talk.