A Marathon for the Mind

Gary Flood investigates Philosothons, a new philosophical phenomenon in schools.

In a hot London schoolroom there’s complete silence. The kids are working hard, but the pause has now stretched out to a good 10 seconds. Even so, the room is hushed as the children patiently wait for their 11-year old colleague to speak.

Just as the pause is on the verge of becoming unbearable – and the adult observers in the room expect the person who’s asked the question, another grown-up, to move the conversation on – the child finally speaks up: “Even if they put your body in prison, your mind is still free to go wherever it likes.” It’s a clever observation. Everyone smiles and we move on to the next participant, who asks for the equivalent of The Lord Of The Flies’ speaking ”conch” – a toy ball that the grown-up in charge, a trained facilitator, uses to help regulate the conversation and ensure equal access to the floor.

That’s just one of many insightful comments made on the day. In the course of 20 minutes, another 11 year old, Jenyd, argues that “The world is the choices you make,” and claims that “There’s no ‘wrong’ way of thinking.” His sombre eyes track the faces of the group as he quietly waits his turn to do a bit more of this weird, but cool, philosophy thing.

Welcome to some of the quiet but compelling drama of a Philosothon – a debate and philosophy competition, where different primary schools get together to work through some of the same philosophical questions first year undergraduates might struggle with.

What is a Philosothon? The first Philosothon was held in Western Australia in 2007, with seven schools taking part, the brainchild of teachers Matthew Wills and Leanne Rucks. Since then the idea has become very popular in the Antipodes, with the inaugural Australasian event taking place in Sydney in 2011. Wills has subsequently become a Philosothon advocate, spreading the word to the US and Europe. The first UK version was held at King's College Taunton in January 2014, with Wells Cathedral College taking first prize. There are now more than 250 schools taking part in Philosothons worldwide.

The London Philosothon was the first for primary schools in this country. It was held just before the summer break in Lewisham’s Deptford Green School, part of the Deptford Collective, a group of five South East London state schools, with just under 200 children participating.

The event was organised by the Philosophy Foundation, a London based educational charity which brings philosophy to children in schools. Their aim is to make “Reasoning” the fourth “R” in education by, as they put it on their website, “giving children the tools to help them think critically, creatively, cohesively and autonomously.”

The organisation’s cofounder and CEO Peter Worley explained the background to the day: “The Deptford Collective heads and teachers were concerned that previous attempts to bring all the Year 6s together had ended up with quite a competitive atmosphere and were keen to avoid that. To do so, we designed the event to stress the importance of collaboration with others; we told the kids we would mark them on that, not on ‘beating’ others. We wanted a cohesive structure that would bring the kids together, if possible.”

So the emphasis was on competition, not combat. Worley made it clear that marks would be taken away from teams or even whole schools that did not follow the guidelines of avoiding aggressive or disruptive behaviour, such as talking over others or not waiting for their turn to be invited to speak. Teams were also aware that they would be marked on their ability to work with their peers from the different schools in an atmosphere of collaboration. Worley asked the judges to look for examples of facilitation and support, which he said warranted good marks, just as much as flashes of philosophical brilliance.

The London event was structured along the lines of typical Philosophy Foundation sessions, says Worley. Groups were divided into two “circles,” an inner and an outer, with each circle getting a go at both answering a question and commenting on the discussion of the other group. A facilitator leads the talk, usually a philosophy graduate or postgraduate. Their function is not to teach, not to download data to the children, but rather to allow the children to do philosophy themselves.

The children’s aim was to see their school win maximum points in the debates and so win the overall competition (the cup). Individuals were also assessed and awarded separate prizes (medals) for such things as the intelligent use of counter examples, the mobilisation of a thought experiment, clear evidence of having absorbed the logic of the conversation but taking it in a legitimate new direction and so on. Jeydn was particularly good at seeing how his current comment was sometimes a reaction to not just one but a number of previous statements. He seemed very able to follow, build and critique an argument.

Due to the number of schools involved, several parallel sessions were held over the course of a few hours, with time off for the children to take a lunch break, and for a final judging session where marks were totted up and observations swapped. As the judges moved from group to group they had the opportunity to see all of the children in at least one debate. Knowledge and freedom were the two main subject areas on the day.

How were these themes approached? A question was raised at the start of each session by the facilitator. For example, “How do you know that you know something?” was asked, appropriately enough, in the classroom that for the day had become the Socrates Room.

The kids were soon in serious territory. “You need to prove it more than once to prove you know it,” was an early contribution from Michael. For Prince, from another school, this was a good point: “I agree with Michael. It’s like a science test. You need to prove it more than once.” But others were less sure. Hands were raised and the ball thrown, though not always very accurately. The outer circle scribbled notes while their inner circle counterparts went back and forth, and then the two swapped roles. I was genuinely struck by how deeply the children were committed to doing a good job here, as well as the lack of messing about and showboating (with one or two actually rather charming exceptions over the whole day). The kids took pains to be courteous to their rivals and fellow speakers. It was really quite impressive stuff.

After a while the facilitator Steve gently steered the conversation back to the original problem: “So is there any way we can know that we know something?” More answers were suggested and debated in response. Can we really have knowledge of the future? “In five minutes time,” declared one lad, “I know I’m going to make myself a sandwich.” “But I meant four hundred years in the future, not five minutes!” another objected. The spectre of scepticism arose: “Scientists could have created the dinosaur bones.”

The day culminated in an awards ceremony, with prizes originally set to be handed out by the local MP, who was unable to come due to a last minute diary clash. Deptford Park’s Opal Class won the overall prize, with some 14 individuals winning individual medals for their outstanding work on the day, Jeydn among them.

It was a fun, rewarding event that managed to prove that South East London kids can play nicely together, work hard and say some interesting things about abstract subjects. But is this philosophy? Was what the girl in the Freedom session managed to come up with after we had all given her the time and space to think, what Jeydn, Gabriel, Shimaya and all the other enthusiastic kids were up to, was all that really philosophy, or something we should find a less lofty term for?

Without doubt, the London Philosothon was a success in the terms Worley and his team set for it: the kids got along. “We were looking for the ability to both build on the ideas being opened up and critically analyse them, but also to collaborate with others in so doing,” Worley said.

But he insists that working in this way is doing philosophy. “Philosophy has two faces: one is that we collaborate to try and work out positions and we often work collectively to do that, and one of opposition, as to get there we challenge and ask for re-evaluation all the time, of both ourselves and our opponents. It’s a collective effort where no one has to agree. That’s what we saw in Deptford; not ‘nicey nicey’ agreement but polite disagreement – where you say why you don’t see things the same way. I think it was all incredibly encouraging.”

His sentiments were echoed by another person behind the Philosothon, community philosophy veteran Catherine McCall. For her, what we all saw that day was clearly philosophy: “I believe philosophy is fundamental to human well-being and we need to examine the assumptions underlying everything at all ages: adult, teenage, and as children. All of the judges were impressed by the efforts the kids made in Deptford to open dialogue with not just the other schools but each other – surely in a lot of cases, themselves too? I am also sure this event will spur deeper interest in philosophy beyond the Philosothon, which is also a positive.”

But should we class exercises like the Philosothon as really more in the debating or drama end of school activities? A number of people think young children are incapable of genuinely engaging in philosophy. For these sceptics, what happens when kids get together and try and talk through abstract problems is more akin to group therapy than what students at a university might get up to this term.

As the University of Derby’s professor of education Dennis Hayes puts it, “The truth is that you can’t teach people to be critical unless you are critical yourself. This involves more than asking young people to ‘look critically’ at something, as if criticism was a mechanical task.” Hayes has also claimed that kids can’t do Kant: “These philosophy classes could be hijacked and become nothing more than ‘circle time’ with children being encouraged to express feelings and do some respectful listening in an uncritical way … It flatters children by thinking they can have powerful understanding without any real studying [and that] they just need to express themselves and argue.”

What did the professional philosophers who took part as judges on the day think? On the whole, they come down more on the “this really was philosophy” side than you might have thought. But that doesn’t mean they think we should see what happened as particularly profound.

For example, in the eyes of Simon Glendinning, professor of European philosophy in the European Institute of the LSE, “Learning how to do philosophy belongs to a young person’s education just as much as learning how to play a musical instrument or learning how to solve maths problems.

“No one expects the vast majority of young people to be naturally gifted musicians or mathematicians, but we do not see that as a reason not to do music or maths with them at school. Philosophy is the same.”

"’What is philosophy?’ is a great philosophical question, of course,” add Ellen Fridland, one of the judges and a lecturer in philosophy at King's College London. “The one thing that I'll say about this is that a lot of professional philosophers have thought that they know the answer to this question and thereby acted as bullies in keeping people who are ‘not really doing philosophy’ out of the discipline.

“I could see how some might be threatened by similar accusations when doing philosophy with children. I'd encourage people who are challenged with the claim that they're not ‘really’ doing philosophy to keep in mind that no one owns the concept ‘philosophy’ – and that it is far from a foregone conclusion what counts as philosophy as a discipline, never mind what constitutes philosophy as a practice.”

In Fridland’s case at least, there is little doubt: she really did see something with philosophical merit. “At the Philosothon, I saw a large group of young children thinking and reasoning about questions that philosophers have struggled with for ages,” she said. “I was impressed by how students were able to give various examples and counterexamples that mirrored positions established in the canon.

“It was also very impressive to see students come up with definitions of abstract concepts. For instance, one student, in response to the question, ‘How do you know that you know?’ said, ‘When you know something, you always know it and you can explain it to others.’ That's a very Platonic notion of knowledge: as permanent and requiring the ability to give an account.”

What does the future hold, for philosophy for children in general and the Philosothon in particular? Many observers see great potential for things like the Foundation’s work (“The Philosophy Foundation should be congratulated for the amazing work they are doing,” says Glendinning). Worley says he’d love to do more, seeing particular scope in using Philosothons as a tool to help what is often a very tough transition time for kids, Year 7, when children from smaller primaries move up to bigger secondary schools and often get neglected or feel a bit lost.

Teachers whose schools took part in the Philosothon also see value in this sort of work: “For us the priority is developing higher-order thinking skills, as well as developing the skills and dispositions for effective communication,” says Ken Johnson, Deptford Park’s head. “These are life qualities that transcend mere educational goals.”

Fridland agrees: “It struck me that not letting children ask and think about abstract but seemingly simple questions in an open but directed way really squanders an opportunity to get children thinking critically and analytically at a young age – something that they're ready and willing to do, if given the chance.

“It's something that we should do more in schools,” she said. She sounds convinced, but not everyone will be. Let’s see what Jeydn may have to say about that a few years.