Educational Notes: Lessons should seem like play, said Plato

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The Independent Culture
PHILOSOPHY IN schools is, if not the new rock and roll, certainly the new geography field trip. A fifth international conference of philosophy for children takes place - in Oxford no less - this month. After a "short Socratic dialogue" and "a philosophical dinner", the participants, including many luminaries of the Philosophy for Children movement, but not many children, will explain why the approach offers to improve pupils' ability to understand and respect each other, and make them more responsible and nicer to animals.

In UK schools, after all, inspectors and Ofsted have identified the ability to discuss ideas, listen intently and question ideas and opinions (all in a "reflective and mature" manner) as a key part of educational development.

Elsewhere, researchers at King's College London have developed what they call a way to "boost children's brain power" through "cognitive conflict" and constant challenging of assumptions. Over in the University of East Anglia's windy towers, Dr Alec Fisher has established the rival "Critical Thinking" movement, based on stripping down arguments to their basics and examining them for their logical flaws.

But the grandaddy of all the philosophers for children is Michael Lipmann, the smug American who treats "P4C" as a kind of franchise operation, endorsing courses and training teachers in the technique, who has achieved almost cult-like status among his philosophical followers.

For teachers and schools, the King's College approach looks the most promising. Michael Shayer and Philip Adey there steer well clear of any philosophical roots in their description of the techniques, emphasising instead "rapid brain growth" and demonstrable percentage increases in GCSE passes. (Up 20 per cent in science, 16 per cent in maths and 13 per cent in English.) The trick is, they say, to "set the kids up with an expectation that is rudely shattered", a trick with which children will become all too familiar, but apparently is still novel and useful at this stage.

But all these approaches rely on one ingredient, which is lacking even in some of the master's (Socrates', not Lipmann's) debates in ancient Greece: the participants must be interested. In schools, of course, children are largely not interested. Even if they start off so, after two or three lessons the novelty often wears off.

Whether Critical Thinkers ask children to analyse the ethics of smoking, Murris and Lipmann relate a moral tale, or Shayer and Adey shuffle coloured tokens around asking which pile is bigger all the approaches depend on the participants taking an interest. The "cognitive acceleration" will not take place otherwise. In fact, after being asked apparently baffling and ultimately unimportant questions (what most philosophers end up doing, sooner or later) the familiar philosophical phenomenon of cognitive deceleration may result.

Only one person has ever convincingly overcome this tendency. Victor Quinn, a lecturer in Leeds, used to tour the country fascinating classes with his absurd and stimulating discussions. Rather than say, "Today we are going to discuss the nature of justice. Turn to page 88", or even, "Today I want to read you a story about a little boy who becomes king after helping a knight to find his lost horse", Quinn would glare menacingly (or as menacingly as his pixie-like appearance allowed) and say, "You better do what I say because I'm bigger than you, and we big people are always right!"

Quinn's lessons worked because they appeared not to be lessons, and the children felt they genuinely wanted to win the argument. Through humour, he achieved a level of interest in the debates which eludes too many of the other exponents of philosophy for children. Two thousand years ago, Plato wrote, in the Republic, that lessons "should have the appearance of play", for forced learning never sticks. A simple idea which doesn't really need a lot of philosophy behind it.

Martin Cohen is editor of `The Philosopher'