Philosophy for Children: Opportunities for Radical Education

K.A.

5 December 2017

 

Kids and Philosophy

Apparently there are professional philosophers and educational theorists who think that kids can’t do philosophy.

This proposition is a good stimulus for reflection. It begs a whole lot of questions. Here are some:

What is philosophy? What is it for? How is it done? Why can’t children do it? Why can adults do it? What does philosophy do for people? What does it do to people? What does it do for philosophers?

Philosophers disagree about the answers to these questions. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. Practitioners of Philosophy for Children (P4C) have their own answers to these questions; and these answers indicate that children can, indeed, practice philosophy.

 

Community of Inquiry

On the last MESEJ seminar of 2017, Bonnie Zuidland gave us an opportunity to explore P4C’s answers to these questions. P4C, originally developed by Matthew Lipman, draws heavily from the inquiry pedagogy of the American philosopher and educator John Dewey.

Central to this approach is the community of inquiry – Bonnie presented it to us as a series of steps that allow students to collaborate in a philosophical process.

  1. Teacher presents a stimulus (scenarios, quotes from philosophers, videos, songs, riddles, poems etc)
  2. Students ask questions in response to the stimulus; teacher lists those questions
  3. Students sort questions into categories
  4. Students choose a question to focus upon
  5. “Suggestion bombing” – brainstorming answers to the chosen question.
  6. Analysis and evaluation of the answers that have been proposed

I’ve already modelled the first two steps. I did so in order to give you a feel for how Bonnie conducted the seminar. We did not follow this process precisely, but we were offered stimuli and invited to discuss them – for instance, we began by being asked to distinguish the following three terms: ‘teacher’, ‘ educator’, ‘facilitator.’ This stimulated us to discuss our investments, convictions and presuppositions regarding what we do. It also called upon us to listen to one another, to actively engage and respond to the contributions of others. This is no easy task, but it is essential to the practice.

 

Techniques

I sometimes get this feeling that philosophy is represented in our culture as the practice of hapless fools. Philosophers don’t do anything, they don’t make anything. They don’t have any proper skills. They just waffle about in their naïve bubble, spouting irrelevant nonsense about vapid ‘ thought experiments’. That sometimes feels like the zeitgeist to me. But I also believe that it is a true representation of some philosophers and some ways of doing philosophy. As someone who has spent many years in the discipline, I make this confession with a touch of shame.

But I only feel shame because I know philosophy as something else. For me, philosophy is a rigorous discipline, replete with transformative techniques and insights. Philosophy is not a site of specialled esotericism but a tool which cultivates suspicion, modesty, attention and patience. It is a way of trying to make sense of our reality as a whole – not a key to knowing everything, but a key for making sense of the things that come our way.

 

Critiques

You need to be wary of philosophy, and you need to be wary of this presentation of philosophy. Many philosophers are wary of philosophy, and many have (paradoxically) refused the discipline in order to offer philosophical critiques of the discipline.

It is worth exploring one example that came up for us.

There is a certain way of doing philosophy (but not the only way, not by far), that takes philosophy as the free and unimpeded sharing of ideas in a safe and neutral space. This pretence of free dialogue obscures the lived reality of complex and multifocal power relations. We perceive and understand ourselves and others through the mediation of these relations. And all this keeps happening through words, bodies, institutions and places.

Words do things, as do the ways that we occupy space. The things they do are never neutral or free. So we are never mere equals when we sit down in order to make sense of an issue.

The same applies for children in the classroom. What if students generate racist, ableist, queerphobic or sexist questions? Should the teacher encourage this, allowing students to explore it and (hopefully) find reason to refute it? Or should the teacher weigh in, closing down the discussion or subtly shifting the path of the discussion? Should all questions be respected as equally valid? Even if the consequence of this is the normalisation and obscuration of violent presuppositions? Is there a middle ground? One which respects earnest engagement but intervenes into dangerous lines of inquiry? And is it better to have these discussions in class rather than the playground?

We did not find answers to these questions. But we intend to keep trying. Such questions point to challenges that are present in all classroom settings, irrespective of the ages of students or the discipline in question.

Moving Beyond Despair in Climate Education

14 November 2017

By Mandy Pritchard

Climate change is often communicated in terms of distant, abstract scientific projections about global temperature increases, sea level rise, and its impact on the frequency and severity of natural disasters, and on the flipside, the political, governance, individual or technological ‘solutions’ to these environmental catastrophes. Within these narratives, the emotional impact of climate change rarely gets a mention.

As a result, we are not often asked to consider the psychological toll taken on those directly in the firing line of our changing climate. Even less frequently are we given scope to examine the emotional impact of climate change on relatively privileged people concerned for the future of the planet and humanity, as we process the actual and anticipated events and phenomena unfolding around us.

So, it was a rare and welcome opportunity to be able to discuss this important issue at the MESEJ workshop Moving Beyond Despair in Climate Education facilitated by Blanche Verlie – an environmental educator at RMIT University and PhD candidate examining hope and despair in environmental education – and Fiona Taylor – a high school and undergraduate humanities teacher. 

Before I go any further, a disclaimer – I am not an educator, but an undergraduate student close to graduating from RMIT’s Bachelor of Environment and Society program. My perspective about climate change education is therefore coming from a place of knowing how I like to be taught and how I best engage with learning, as well as from interaction and conversations with peers, educators, friends, family, and acquaintances about climate change and its implications for the planet and its people. I am also an ex-student of Blanche, who continues to inspire me through her ideas and actions and her unwavering commitment to engaging with topics such as those discussed in the workshop, despite this being incredibly challenging work.

My point of view is therefore not necessarily representative of others who attended the workshop, who by and large work as educators and as such have a much deeper understanding of what effective and responsible education entails, and who are furthermore bound by professional ethics and – as discussed in the workshop – prescriptive and/or restrictive curricula that overlooks and/or discourages discussion of the very real, very complex human emotions surrounding climate change.

Given this, and considering the potential audience of this blog, I will not attempt to instruct those eminently more qualified on how to address and manage the emotional impact of climate change with students in the classroom. What I can offer is my own personal perspective of the topic, as learned through my tertiary studies, my own readings, the MESEJ workshop, and my opinion that communication and the sharing of ideas and feelings around climate change and other social and environmental justice issues is key to building a more equitable and livable world.

Even in my degree program that focuses specifically on the interactions between environment and society and where climate change has some direct or indirect link to almost every subject I have studied, only one of my lecturers or tutors – Blanche – has acknowledged that firstly, climate change can stir up some complex and confronting emotions, and secondly, that providing a safe space to discuss these feelings as well as developing techniques for self-care are integral to preventing disengagement and burnout for those of us studying and/or intending to work in this area.

My own feelings about climate change – as discussed in the workshop – oscillate between sadness, anger, helplessness, despair, shame, and an overwhelming, visceral sense of loss. And despite being taught – and understanding – that the antidote to these feelings is action, after completing a climate change subject in 2016 I almost completely disengaged from thinking, talking and reading about the issue. I also made a conscious decision to pursue something less emotionally challenging after graduation – such as sustainable food systems or urban greening – as a means to protect myself from the sense of hopelessness and pain I felt about climate change and related injustices.

It has only been very recently that I have examined my values and emotions around climate change and the system that enables and perpetuates other forms of social and environmental destruction, and started to articulate my feelings and ideas both in writing and verbally in safe, supportive spaces – including in the workshop. Through this, I have come to know myself better, build emotional resilience, look at the world in which I live and participate and co-create through a different lens, and realise that climate change is an area in which – because of my intense emotional connection to, and not in spite of it – I feel compelled to work and hopefully inspire others through the sharing of stories and the building of communities of caring to contribute – collectively – to meaningful, tangible change.

Without this recent realisation, I doubt I would have attended the MESEJ workshop, which was structured in a way that encouraged participation and invited the group to identify and articulate our emotions around climate change through written or spoken word, or drawing. I’m very glad I did though, as the experience was intense but ultimately very rewarding. The results of our various activities and discussions revealed a range of feelings including anger, grief, depression, shame, disillusionment and despair – but also hope and acceptance. It was validating and reassuring to realise that other participants shared many similar emotions to my own, and also interesting that, across the board, our feelings weren’t static but rather fluctuated or had evolved over time.

Previously I had attributed my negative feelings about climate change to a combination of being overly-empathetic and to a lack of confidence that I possessed the knowledge, skills, or appropriate platform to create change. The logical response to that – in my mind – was to disengage. Now, thanks to some deep introspection and sharing of my feelings through university coursework and the workshop, I understand that mine is a reasonable and common response to climate change. Feeling sad or fearful or angry about environmental and social injustices doesn’t equate to emotional instability – it’s a natural human response to very overwhelming stimuli – and I’m not alone in feeling this way. The key, I believe, is what we individually and collectively do with these emotions, and how we communicate them to others in a way that builds solidarity and resilience, rather than inadvertently precipitating disengagement.

I think most of us in attendance at the workshop agreed that learning to manage our emotional responses to climate change is a prerequisite to instructing others how to do so, and Blanche recommended Ashlee Cunsolo Willox’s Climate Change as the Work of Mourning as a follow-up reading, which I have personally found very helpful in reframing my own feelings of grief and loss as opportunities to share and connect with others.

The take-home message from the workshop, for me, was that we have a responsibility – as educated, relatively privileged global citizens concerned with the impacts of climate change, and more formally as educators – to not only share our knowledge, thoughts, and feelings about climate change, but to create safe spaces for young people to do the same. As well, with the current lack of political leadership, misinformation in the media about climate change, and the disappearance of community, I think that developing emotional resilience through such discussions in the classroom is essential if we want future generations to engage with politics and the world outside of school, friendship groups and family, and to fight for social and environmental justice in an increasingly inequitable world.

I realise that my ideas may not be mainstream, but I wonder – if we don’t provide young people with the tools not only to connect with these issues, but to communicate their values and feelings effectively, who will? Also, how do we teach them to act with compassion, respect and intention if we don’t demonstrate – with our own words and actions – that the emotions underlying our desire to create a better world are normal, worthy of examination and – crucially – should be shared? How do we create a future generation of empathetic, engaged, socially-conscious critical thinkers and effective change-makers if we don’t provide safe and supportive spaces for them to test the waters?

My thoughts, after the workshop, are that we won’t do this by wrapping them in cotton wool and shielding them from the harsh realities of the world. We won’t do this by pretending that climate change will be solved by simply communicating the science or developing technological fixes to slow global warming. And, we certainly can’t hold the next generation in contempt when we are the ones with the capacity – right now – to create change and model effective ways of thinking and doing. If we’re doing a shit job, we can’t expect those we’re teaching to do any better.

This is not easy work, but it’s essential to the future of the planet and humanity. The question we have to ask ourselves is not only what our responsibility as global citizens is to the people who will be directly and disproportionately impacted by climate change – but also who we want to be to each other, and how we can support one another on this trajectory into the unknown.

The importance of this was affirmed through feedback at the end of the workshop, which indicated that we all appreciated the opportunity to share our emotions, ideas and concerns about climate change with like-minded others, and that talking about our grief, sadness, anger, etc., validated our collective desire to create a more sustainable and just world in spite of the challenges this work presents. The workshop also reconfirmed to me the value and necessity of providing safe spaces – whether in the classroom or platforms such as MESEJ – to share our values, ideas, fears and dreams, to enhance communication, build relationships, reconnect community, and re-position hope as key to our common future.

NAPLAN, MySchool, PISA: What’s wrong with standardised testing?

By Buffy Moon

22 August 2017

Coming from a family in which academic test scores were a compulsory topic for discussion at every Christmas and birthday gathering, with an older brother who was a finely-tuned high stakes test-taking machine, I already had a few feelings about standardised testing coming into this workshop.

The words ‘standardised test’ instantly conjure vivid childhood memories of opening A4 envelopes, heart racing in anticipation of seeing my mathematical, writing or reading ability represented as a dot on a scale or bell curve.

It took me years after leaving school to discover and extract the deeply felt belief that my primary (if not only) worth was my ability to achieve high academic results.

Having had such a fraught experience of school, I never imagined myself as a teacher. Yet my passion for learning, history, politics, languages, literature and the joy of working with children gradually pulled me in that direction.

Teaching my first class of newly-arrived English as an Additional Language (EAL) students last year, I desperately wanted to shield them from the experience of seeing themselves placed below whatever position on the ‘achievement scale’ they had been taught to see as acceptable. Yet to my dismay, they all wanted to do NAPLAN!

‘You don’t have to do NAPLAN,’ I explained. ‘It is not compulsory for students who have been in Australia for less than a year.’

‘But we can do it, Beth!’ they insisted. The whole school was buzzing with talk of NAPLAN. Everyone was preparing and they wanted to be like all the other students.

I was impressed by their determination, and the last thing I wanted was for them to think that I had no faith in them. So I decided to offer them a trial Language Conventions test to give them a better idea of whether they wanted to sit the real thing.

A large part of this test involves identifying and correcting misspelt words. I assumed that the tedium of this experience alone would be enough to turn them off NAPLAN. For some, I was right. For others, it wasn’t until they were marking cross after cross on their practice test papers as we corrected them together in class that they began to rethink their initial enthusiasm for NAPLAN.

I was pleased to have regained time with my students to do work with more real-world relevance than NAPLAN prep, but I felt sad to have dashed their hopes of being able to present themselves to their families as high-achieving dots on a NAPLAN results report. At a deeper level, I was ashamed to belong to a society and profession that taught children to see learning and achievement in such dehumanising terms.

There are many lenses through which a standardised test such as NAPLAN can be critiqued, and the workshop organised by Fiona Taylor and Lucy Hunan offered a range of interesting viewpoints. The first presenter, Honorary Fellow at Victoria University, Neil Hooley, asked us to consider the purpose of schooling in assessing the value of standardised testing. Is the role of the school teacher simply to present students with pre-given knowledge and assess their ability to repeat it? Or should teachers provide students with opportunities to construct new understandings based on their own experiences (as progressive educational theorists like Dewey, Vygotsky and Freire affirmed)?

If students are genuinely constructing new understandings, of what value is a predetermined set of criteria with which to assess them? Even if we accept that part of school should be about acquiring knowledge constructed by people in the past, isn’t the most important thing how students adapt, apply and build on that knowledge? And what can standardised tests really tell us about their ability to do that?

The second presenter, teacher educator David Hornsby, offered a more grounded critique of NAPLAN. Drawing on the fascinating, yet easy-to-read research of education academic Margaret Wu, David explained that NAPLAN tests are unreliable measures of even the limited areas of learning they claim to assess: literacy and numeracy.

Based on the calculations of ACARA (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority) obtained by Wu under the Freedom of Information Act, random fluctuation of test scores for an individual student is estimated to be ±7 score points, which is more than one year’s average growth. That means that a student’s results on two tests administered one year apart could show no growth or three years’ growth, just through random fluctuation of test scores.

This random fluctuation is produced because of the limited number of questions that can be asked in a single test under the sweeping banners of “numeracy” or “literacy”. It is simply not possible to test all the skills students are expected to have acquired at a particular year level, and students will inevitably perform better on one set of questions than another.

This is quite a different explanation of NAPLAN test score variation than that offered by the brochure ACARA provides to parents, which suggests that unexpectedly low scores may be caused by “illness or other distractions”. It never mentions that random fluctuation of scores is inherent to the test itself (as that could undermine the government’s decision to spend millions of dollars developing and administering these tests).

Another issue David raised that applies to all tests administered within a limited timeframe is that such tests advantage shallow thinking and penalised slow, careful thinking, as students who take the time to think about questions deeply do not manage to finish.

Drawing in questions of teacher rights, Deputy President of AEU Victoria, Justin Mullaly, argued that standardised tests like NAPLAN marginalise the role of teachers in determining what we assess and how. Justin then highlighted the links between the standardisation of curriculum and commercial interests in Australia and internationally. Companies generate huge profits through the testing industry, as schools and parents scramble to give their students and children a competitive advantage over their peers.

Justin also argued that NAPLAN is a diversionary tactic of the government, as it provides a means to blame individual schools for poor student outcomes, rather than recognising disadvantage as a product of funding disparities between schools and socio-economic inequalities between students.

Finally, Justin explained that by creating the appearance of a crisis in school performance, governments can provide justification for further privatisation of the public education system, as has occurred in the US.

In the discussion that followed, participants offered a range of insights based on their experiences as teachers, student teachers and parents. We heard how schools are finding the surest way to improve their NAPLAN and VCE scores is by excluding “underperforming” students from the tests, or from the school altogether.

For me, one of the most interesting questions to be generated was around how we, as teachers, can answer calls for schools to be more accountable to their students, parents and the public, while rejecting the practice of standardised testing. Teacher and education researcher Sophie Rudolf affirmed the value of engaging students in discussions about how they know they are making progress in their learning.

Many participants agreed that students should be supported to monitor their own learning and present their achievements to their parents, peers, and broader community. This kind of assessment is empowering for students, parents and teachers alike, and helps everyone to see academic achievement as more than just a test score.