David Whitney: "(...) I don’t think philosophy is an ‘optional extra’ for a school’s curriculum. How can learning how to think be optional?"
David Whitney is a full-time primary school teacher and SMSC leader from Warwickshire in England. He has led bespoke philosophy for children programmes across a federation of schools and is the creator and writer of Delphi Philosophy, an interactive storytelling approach to philosophy for children.
I met David on Twitter and decided to contact him so he can answer my questions.
Thank you, Dave!
Can you recall the first time you heard about philosophy for children (p4c)?
I first came across philosophy for children when I was researching at university. I was researching the idea of childhood innocence and trying to find examples of children showing abstract thinking at a young age. I immediately loved the sound of it – and it debunked the myth that children aren’t capable of complex or abstract reasoning. I didn’t see it in practise until I tried it for myself many years later.
How did you start working with p4c?
It was in my first year of teaching when I started to look into it – the children at my school have extraordinary passion and curiosity for their learning and I just thought they’d love it. Then I read a book which made it all possible – The If Machine by Peter Worley. I put the enquiries in that book into a scheme of work and built in some skill development, and away we went. The impact of that first scheme was amazing. I taught an enquiry called The Chair in the first lesson and the children were astonished. They had just never had a lesson like it. They were literally still talking about that lesson two years later!
Do you think p4c is necessary to children? Why?
Absolutely. The reason is simply because children try to do it anyway. On the one hand, much of the school curriculum includes skills which are developed by doing philosophy, but are never explicitly taught. Children need the ability to give reasons, think of examples or change their mind, to give a few examples, in all their lessons – but our maths or English curriculum rarely gives them time to develop these skills. On the other hand, children are also natural philosophers. I love the line in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, where Alberto tells Sophie that philosophers have to “regain the faculty of wonder” that they had when they were children. When you teach children philosophy, it feels like you’re unleashing some natural inner power in them! Philosophy has the power to really bring out potential.
Nowadays children ( @ Portugal) have a lot of activities at school and after school. Why should we take philosophy to schools?
It’s much the same in England – one of the toughest parts of my job has not been persuading teachers that philosophy for children is a good idea – the hard part is finding time for it.
But I don’t think philosophy is an ‘optional extra’ for a school’s curriculum. How can learning how to think be optional? Once school leaders and teachers realise that philosophy teaches skills which the children go on to use in all their lessons, then they see the value of it.
We developed Delphi Philosophy with this in mind – philosophy for children can be so much more than an interesting discussion – it can really develop children’s thinking and reasoning skills in a very clear and measurable way.
What makes a question a philosophical question – from a p4c point of view?
One of the funniest things about teaching children philosophical questions is that they have no problems asking them – but saying the word ‘philosophical’ can be a bit of a challenge! In Delphi Philosophy, we’ve taken to calling them ‘big questions’. In the story of Delphi the Philosopher, Delphi gets told that a philosophical question is one that doesn’t have a right answer, but you can get better answers by thinking about it. That definition seems to work well in class.
The best philosophical questions for class discussions are usually simple enough for anyone to access but deep enough to challenge everybody. A four year old can tell you what “being good” means, while a professional philosopher might know a lot of possible answers, none of them ‘right’. That makes it a philosophical question.
What’s the biggest challenge p4c faces, nowadays?
The challenge comes from all the other competing influences on schools. I’m a full-time teacher and the vast majority of my time is spent teaching English and maths, planning, marking and assessing. There are so many pressures on schools in England at the moment, and anxiety about inspection or data scrutiny is deeply ingrained in the system. The sad reality is that schools end up feeling forced to teach a narrow curriculum based on passing the tests – which of course, isn’t real learning at all.
In my experience, philosophy sessions are a highlight for the children because they are so refreshingly different from much of the rest of the curriculum.
Can you give the teachers and the parents some kind of advice to help them deal with the children’s questions?
Don’t be scared of them! And don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know, and then ask them what they think. Sometimes a scary sounding question isn’t half as scary as it first sounds! The most important thing is the conversation, not the answer.
Did the children ever surprise you with a question? Can you share that question with us?
The children constantly surprise me – every single day. Writing the Delphi stories for the children in my school has been such a delight because it’s a reciprocal process – the children’s responses to the stories help me re-write them so that Delphi shows their responses. One early example in my career was the first time I taught the enquiry about the invisibility ring – and what they would do with it. The first class who did this enquiry with me surprised me by all agreeing they should throw the ring in the river and be rid of the responsibility of using it. So, I had Delphi do exactly the same thing. Having a class of children to help me develop these stories is the most extraordinary privilege.