Philosophy is about Thinking: Sedimentary, my dear Watson.

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

I thought I would write another short blog about the possibilities of Philosophy Teaching in KS2. I have blogged about the academic need and the ideological reasons but what about the practical ‘teachery’ reasons? In this blog post I have outlined a bit about the teaching of Philosophy but this is also informed by yet another reason why we should.

The teaching of Philosophy is about more than just Plato and Aristotle or St. Thomas Aquinas. These philosophers are intensely important, of course, and a look at them will inform children about the direction of western culture from its infancy but what about the actual, in class reasons to study Philosophy and what is it like?

Teaching from or observing others teach the plans in my own setting I have noticed some wonderful things. The children have to stop and really think. They have to talk to each other and attempt to express their understanding of things they may have never thought about before. Later in the year I still have children say things like ‘...from a utilitarian point of view..’ or ‘...that argument doesn’t follow because….’

In the year 5 Morality unit, using the ‘Runaway Trolley’ as a stimulus the children have to discuss how you make moral decisions and think carefully about what influences those choices. When talking about a Utilitarian solution children are invited to consider a decision based on numbers at first. Kill one to save the many they say. Simple, but what if the many have committed crimes? What if the one is a doctor who holds the secret to the cure for some terrible disease? All of these added complications may lead us down a dead end: what if it’s so complicated you simply walk away declaring that ‘there’s no right answer’?

Having these discussions with children helps them to become ready to look at the work of thinkers who have tried to construct systems of morality. Looking closer at the work of Bentham and Mill can begin in earnest now that they have realised that what was once a simple case of numbers has many levels of complexity. The question of ‘what does it mean to live a good life?’ can be explored with the children now that they have had their thinking disrupted….

In How the World Thinks by Julian Baggini he discusses the concept of ideas being like sediment on a riverbed. Discussing a quote from Merleau-Ponty:

‘We should always find the experiences which have not been made explicit, large-scale contributions from past and present, a whole “sedimentary history” which is not only relevant to the genesis of my thought, but which determines its significance.’

...Baggini interprets this idea thus:

‘Just as riverbed builds up sediment comprised of that which washes through it, values and beliefs begin to sediment in the minds of people who inhabit those cultures from birth, so that we mistake the build-up for an immutable riverbed.’

Julian Baggini, How the World Thinks, Grant 2018, Prologue xxxii

If ideas float around our culture we may dismiss them if we like, but after a while those ideas sink to the bottom. The bottom being something like our cultural base and after hundreds of years those ideas are compacted and form the bedrock of our experience. Such ideas that were merely floating around have become the solid base upon which our entire cultural outlook is built. Now, whether you agree with this or not is up to you but it’s a useful way to look at thinking.

Breaking into that bedrock encourages us to see our own thinking and examine where it comes from. It can be disruptive but intensely rewarding. We live in a world where old ideas are being challenged on a daily basis sometimes violently, sometimes with anger. New ideas are sometimes defended with the same anger and intolerance. What Philosophy in the classroom can also do is prepare children for those moments when someone does disagree with them. Training in presenting your argument and convincing someone that your idea is correct often means that Thinker A must understand the position of Thinker B in order to persuade Thinker B. If children can do this honestly you sometimes find that while doing so Thinker A realises that Thinker B’s position is in fact the correct one. I use this only as a very blunt illustration but how often have you or the children in your class been able to simply back down and say ‘oh, yeah, I see what you’re saying now’ when conducting a class debate? That moment when a new realisation hits and then becomes part of the bedrock, surely this is something akin to education in the first place? Even when talking about gravity the children first examine what they know then learn about disruptive thinkers like Newton and Einstein. If this way of thinking and disrupting is to be taken further perhaps we could say that disruption is part of the process. Is education part of that compacting process or is it disruptive, or indeed, is it both?

Now, whether you agree that your bedrock should be disruptively examined or not is another case entirely and there are many who have adopted positions that they will not be budged from. In answer to this Philosophers may bring out that old quote from Socrates about knowing nothing. If our perceptions sit on the solid sediment of cultural experience perhaps it is too difficult to ask what’s underneath the bedrock, but I think we all should try it more often.

Once the class realises that moral decisions have and can be made based on a set of principles that align the decision maker to a certain worldview then they are ready to look at those worldviews in detail. A question about ‘How do (insert religion or worldview here) lead a good life?’ can now be investigated knowing that you yourself have a worldview and have been influenced by the religion or culture you have been brought up in, even if your views are a reaction against that upbringing. For children, and adults, to realise this is to begin to really understand someone else’s point of view rather than just study it from the outside.

The Norfolk Agreed Syllabus 2019 helps children and teachers get to this point and seeks to encourage religious literacy in children. Just reading the news for 10mins tells us that this has got to be a matter of some importance. Perhaps, whether we like it or not, if we don’t choose to disrupt our own bedrock someone will try and do it for us.

118 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All