Monthly Archives: February 2012

Classroom in One Voice


Dialectic is a form of enquiry that makes use of question-and-answer, or objections-and-replies as its basic structure. In other words it is an enquiring conversation, reflective and critical. The word ‘conversation’ pinpoints the essential character of dialectic: there is more than one speaker.

Sophists and Socrates

Dialectic as the standard method of philosophical enquiry probably began with Socrates. He took exception to the methods of the Sophists (from which the word ‘sophisticated’ originates) for engaging in argument. They were a professional group of philosophers that took a fee to teach the skills of rhetoric; the art of the public speaker. What Socrates took exception to was their indifference to truth; they were concerned only with teaching how to win an argument not with which argument was true. Two ancient Geek words capture the distinction between the approach of the Sophists and Socrates respectively: eristic and dialectic. The first of these is ‘combative’ and the second ‘collaborative’.

Plato’s Dialogues

In fact, we only know about Socrates from Plato’s written works in which he depicts the character of Socrates, and most of his philosophical works were written in dialogue form, detailing discussions between Socrates and various other characters from Athens. Although they represent an internal dialogue in the head of Plato, his dialogues are, prima facie, an externalisation of the enquiry process; that is, something going on outside of the heads of the interlocutors and between the different speakers.

Classroom Philosophy and Magnets

When doing philosophy in the classroom it is the Socratic model that we begin with because it is very difficult to get children to engage in a philosophical discussion or thought process on their own. Put a group of children together and they naturally engage in dialectic, pushing the enquiry into directions it could never go with just one child. We use the external process of dialectic to magnetise children into philosophical enquiry. And it works.

Descartes swallowed Plato!

Now take a look at Descartes’ Meditations. This is not written in dialogue form, there is only one speaker addressing the reader who cannot object or question; it looks very different to Plato. But take a closer look and you will see that it is not quite as simple as this. The dialogue is taking place but implicitly. Descartes seems to have swallowed Plato and internalised the process of dialectic. If you read the first Meditiation carefully you will notice that there are different speakers but given only one voice: the narrator’s. Descartes makes a point in on sentence and then raises an objection in the next; he then responds to the objection in the next sentence and the enquiry continues in this fashion. This is what has sometimes been called the dialogue in one voice.

The classroom in one voice

One of the overall aims of the philosophy project in primary school is to internalise the dialectic process so that any one child can learn to question and challenge their own thoughts and assumptions as if they were someone else. This has prodigious implications for self evaluation, moral development and critical thinking. If this is achieved then the child has learned to engage in second-order thinking.

Why philosophy should be taught in primary school

As you can imagine, a process like this, i.e. the internalisation of the dialectic process, needs time to be properly assimilated by a student, and it is best if the habit is formed at an early stage of a child’s development so that it is more easily naturalised (think of language learning). Because of the obvious difficulties of trying to confer this kind of habit to teenagers, it is therefore best to do this before adolescence, so, learning dialectic is best done when in primary school.

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by | February 18, 2012 · 7:09 pm

Good Thinking vs The Right Answer

Here’s a question for you. Imagine a teacher asks this question: “what does 2 + 2 equal?” and child A responds with, “four, because its my lucky number,” but child B counts along the number line but makes a small error and says, “five.” Which would you consider to be the better answer and why? I was leading a staff meeting where a debate ensued following this question about the importance of understanding when giving the right answer. Some two and a half thousand years ago Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher written about by Plato, said that a right answer is not worth much until it is ‘tethered’ by good reasons. As a philosopher who works with children and teachers, I subscribe to this view and would always prefer a wrong answer with good reasoning to a right answer with faulty or no reasoning (“Four, because it is my lucky number.”) The Cambridge Primary Review report (20th February) has voiced concerns about the shortcomings of the current ‘testing-culture’ in education, and I would like to add to the many voices by saying that I think this education approach seems to favour the right answer over good reasoning. Let me provide some examples that have come to my attention through the work that I do in primary schools. If you were shown a necker cube how would you answer the question whether it is 2D or 3D? I have been in discussion with primary school children where many have said that it is 3D (including many teachers) but where some have pointed out that it is 2D because… “Even though it looks like a 3D shape, it’s really only 2D because it’s flat and you can’t turn it round, so it’s a 2D drawing of a 3D shape.” A perfectly sound bit of reasoning, surely. Now think about this: what sort of answer do you think would be expected of a child in a SAT situation? 3D perhaps? Again, in a SAT situation, when asked what the definition of a square is, which of these lists would you prefer, A or B?


  • 4 straight sides
  • Equal sides
  • 2D
  • Opposite parallel lines
  • Sides connected by right angle


  • 4 straight sides
  • Equal sides
  • 2D
  • Sides connected by right angle

I witnessed a discussion where the children removed ‘opposite parallel lines’ from the list because they said, “You don’t need it, because if you’ve got four straight, equal sides connected by right angles then you’ve already got opposite parallel lines.” (Interestingly, it was only originally included because one of the children was ‘cheating’ and reading off a wall chart that I was unaware of).  The teacher then felt the need to recommend that they still include it to get the marks. Whether or not they really would get less marks for list B, the teacher’s concern demonstrates the kind of thinking that is preferred and therefore encouraged in the children: expected answers over clearer thinking and better understanding. If education is about teaching our children to think, then the current model seriously needs to be looked at, if not utterly reformed when it prefers an unthinking answer to a thinking one. Socrates and ‘Necessary and Sufficient Conditions’ Socrates is famous for going about the market place of Athens in the years running up to his death in 399 BC, and challenging the beliefs of many of its citizens by asking them philosophical questions such as what is justice? and what is courage? He is one of the first historical figures to have insisted that people provide clear and precise definitions of words that they are using, such as ‘justice’ or ‘courage’ in order to make discussions about them fruitful. Later in philosophy this criteria for accuracy would be known as necessary and sufficient conditions. It sounds daunting but can be translated as ‘what is needed and what is enough’. When we speak of a square there are certain things that are needed, such as ‘sides’ or ‘right angles’, but they are not, by themselves enough to say that we have a square – any rectangle will have both sides and right angles. So philosophers would say that ‘sides’ and ‘right angles’ are necessary for a square but not sufficient. What the children had done in the above example was identify that ‘opposite parallel lines’ are not even necessary for the definition of a square when they considered what else they had already listed (equal, straight lines connected by right angles).

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Live Philosophy Session on Philosophy Now Radio Show

Primary school philosophy live on the Philosophy Now radio show, with children from All Saints School, Blackheath, years 4-6 (ages 8-10). Run by Peter Worley, interviewed by Grant Bartley from Philosophy Now.

Available to listen to here: (Show number 13)

This paper was written to aid our trainees. This is a document of techniques, hints and tips and good practice by The Philosophy Foundation, written whilst listening to this podcast. Particularly interesting contrast between Peter, using the PhiE method, and Grant who hasn’t had any experience or training in doing philosophy with children.

For more on the PhiE method and techniques for doing philosophy with children and developing higher-order thinking buy The If Machine: Philosophical Enquiry in the Classroom by Peter Worley. Available here:

‘The best book of its kind currently available, an invaluable resource for teachers wanting to try out some philosophy in their classrooms and a significant contribution to educational theory. Buy it!’ Michael Hand, Reader of Philosophy, London’s Institute of Education.

NB: some of the techniques mentioned here (‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’), all fully explained in The If Machine, but for a quick overview you can download Peter’s paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’

First discussion

  • Notice the clarity of the opening question to the children.
  • Repetition of stimulus and Task Question (TQ): TQ – Talk Time – TQ repeated.
  • Encouraging divergent answers (‘Lets see how many different answers we can find.’)
  • Because of nerves Peter’s responses are slower at beginning because he is taking the time to make sure he is actively listening (‘playing back’ in his head) – this is important to remember in the classroom, particularly when you are first starting out, nerves can be a problem – focus on listening very carefully to the children.
  • Peter reminds them of the hand/finger rule.
  • Trying to develop dialectic / controversy as soon as possible through the use of ‘fingers’ (responses) and Right-to-Reply (SeeThe If Machine).
  • A few ‘echoes’ (repeating exactly back what the children have said) and paraphrases (ask questions – ‘is that right Charlotte?’ – to make sure the paraphrases are exactly what the children mean). Echoing gives everyone time to think about the last comment, and to make sure everyone has heard it.
  • Peter aids Carter and Luke in linking their ideas.
  • If-ing (a technique to encourage hypothetical thinking) with Carter (difference between the pencils) – ‘either-or-the-if’ and then ‘anchoring’ back to the TQ (See The If Machine for more on ‘If-ing, anchoring and opening up’).
  • Gave Carter ‘time to think it through’ (Peter could see that he was nervous).
  • Clarification question (‘could you explain what you mean?’ with George).
  • Linking, with the use of ‘Tension Play’ (playing off ideas that disagree with each other to develop thinking, see The If Machine) George and Luke (pencils count as one thing).
  • George’s ‘Norway example’ providing a counter-example to Luke & Ellie’s idea that there was just one thing there.
  • Ellie (things / objects) – Peter could have if-ed ‘objects’ rather than correcting her about the question.
  • Jack and Ellie – (she asked him a really good question).
  • Clarification question used for Charlotte to understand atoms.
  • Peter makes sure they have a concept of ‘atom’ that they could work with. He avoided telling facts about atoms and molecules – more interested in a ‘working concept’.
  • If-ed to test and clarify Ellie’s idea of the number of atoms (‘if we had one atom… if we had two atoms…?’).
  • Heather –  Peter’s question: ‘Why are they different?’ (Justificatory questioning.)
  • Charlotte – ‘1006 things’ Aristotle, “the whole is different from the sum of its parts.” – Charlotte seems to be moving towards this idea. If appropriate Peter will bring in relevant philosophers and their ideas later on in a session, see the Sibelius Model in his paper ‘What can university philosophy learn from primary philosophy?’ available to download here:

Second discussion

  • Charlotte takes Jacks ‘1000 atoms’ and ‘ifs’ with the idea perfectly well, as do the others. (Advanced hypothetical thinking.)
  • Peter refocuses the question by quoting Charlotte more accurately than she did herself.
  • Looking for agreement with Charlotte (‘Who agrees with Charlotte?’ – Response Detector, see The If Machine).
  • Peter allows Charlotte to respond generally.
  • George ‘But…’ (dialectic is developing nicely here, and naturally) this is because Peter is staying out of the discussion.
  • Peter seeks the less frequent contributors (this gets Luke to put up his hand).
  • New TQ (‘Emergent Question’, i.e. a question that has emerged from the discussion and therefore from the children) is introduced: ‘if we took the thousand atoms away, what would we be left with?’

Grant takes over (NB: Grant has not done philosophy with children before, so this is a brave move on live radio! Many of the problems Grant experiences are something that philosophers new to doing philosophy with children experience.

  • His objective is definitional.
  • He challenges the children personally and thus risks ‘blocking’ them.
  • This is essentially an eristic dynamic (eristic = ‘combative’ in contrast to dialectic = ‘collaborative’).
  • Adult / child disjunction (two conversations happening: Grant’s agenda / children’s limited understanding of that).
  • Discussion dries up in places due to the eristic dynamic.
  • Honeycomb dynamic – each child responding directly to the adult, rather than each other (no dialectic).
  • Grant shows some exasperation because he has an agenda and the children are perhaps not fulfilling his aim.
  • Putting words in their mouths: (the ‘so you’re saying…’ principle)
  • He’s doing all the talking (fear of silence – even worse on radio).
  • He has to keep rephrasing his questions until a child responds.
  • Children are no longer talking to each other but each one to him.
  • These kids are particularly good at dealing with his questions but many other children would simply dry up under this pressure.
  • Grant flicks from one idea to the next where the children are not sure of the rhetorical value of having done so (e.g. body / ghost questions) – because they don’t ‘own’ the conversation it is not clear that they understand it synoptically (the conversation as a whole) even though they understand each isolated exchange with Grant.

Third discussion

  • ‘Can you say a bit more about that?’ – Peter tries to get Carter to say more about his idea. Remember in a philosophy session to always go deeper: ‘why?’, ‘can you say more?’, ‘what do you mean by…?’
  • Corrected Eli’s ‘minicules’ without correcting her directly, merely by using the right word (although ‘minicules’ is lovely!)
  • Anchoring them to Charlotte’s challenge – more advanced level of focus here than at the beginning. ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’
  • ‘Can anyone answer Charlotte’s question?’ – ‘Anchoring’
  • George and Charlotte have started to take the discussion to another level
  • The discussion is touching on identity (‘is water identical with H2O?’) – this is one possibility of where to go next with the next session. An emergent discussion – the children are deciding on the direction rather than the facilitator, the facilitator keeps the discussion within the realms of philosophy, and uses techniques to deepen thinking and reasoning.
  • Anchored them again and again to Charlottes’ question ‘If you counted all the atoms you would still have the arms, legs, head and body to count wouldn’t you?’

Final question to the children: ‘Why do you like philosophy?’

  • Heather: I like speaking about what I think is right, but I also like finding out what other people think about it.
  • Luke: Philosophy is mainly all about thinking and I really like thinking because I think all the time.
  • George: We do questions which are hard. It helps you understand the question and be more open-minded. If you think about something quickly you’ll get the answer but it helps you to think: ‘is that exactly the correct answer or are there more?’
  • Ellie: There’s never just one answer – and there’s never a wrong answer. So, let’s say if I said something and Heather said something different, we’re both right in our own opinions.
  • Max: I just like solving the questions. I just like trying to ‘work’ it. Trying to get the answer.
  • Carter: I like when we finish the discussion and solve it and we have loads of different answers. I like it because it’s really a fun way of thinking about things.
  • Charlotte: It makes you think really deeply. And once you get really deep into the question there’s even more answers.

With thanks to all the children who took part in the programme, from All Saints School, Blackheath: Heather, George, Ellie, Max, Carter, George, Luke, Jack & Charlotte.


Filed under Philosophy in Schools