Monthly Archives: October 2014

Improving writing through dialogue by Peter Worley

One of the most common questions put to me when I do training on facilitating dialogues with teachers, especially when I’m doing training with secondary school teachers, is: ‘All this dialogue stuff is great but how can we transfer all this on to the page?’ or, words to that effect. I think the answer lies in the question itself: is to transfer the fruits of dialoguing onto the page. But how?

To read the entire article and found out how go here: Innovate My School

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Peter Worley, Philosophy in Schools

Let’s stop trying to teach students critical thinking

By Dennis Hayes, University of Derby

Socrates, the father of critical thinking.
lentina_x, CC BY-NC-SA

Many teachers say they strive to teach their students to be critical thinkers. They even pride themselves on it; after all, who wants children to just take in knowledge passively?

But there is a problem with this widespread belief. 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.

As a teacher, you have to have a critical spirit. This does not mean moaning endlessly about education policies you dislike or telling students what they should think. It means first and foremost that you are capable of engaging in deep conversation. This means debate and discussion based on considerable knowledge – something that is almost entirely absent in the educational world. It also has to take place in public, with parents and others who are not teachers, not just in the classroom or staffroom.

The need for teachers to engage in this kind of deep conversation has been forgotten, because they think that being critical is a skill. But the Australian philosopher John Passmore criticised this idea nearly half a century ago:

If being critical consisted simply in the application of a skill then it could in principle be taught by teachers who never engaged in it except as a game or defensive device, somewhat as a crack rifle shot who happened to be a pacifist might nevertheless be able to teach rifle-shooting to soldiers. But in fact being critical can be taught only by men who can themselves freely partake in critical discussion.

The misuses of ‘criticism’

The misuse of the idea of “criticism” first became clear to me when I gave a talk about critical thinking to a large group of first-year students. One student said that the lecturers she most disliked were the ones who banged on about the importance of being critical. She longed for one of them to assert or say something, so she could learn from them and perhaps challenge what they say.

The idea that critical thinking is a skill is the first of three popular, but false views that all do disservice to the idea of being critical. They also allow many teachers to believe they are critical thinkers when they are the opposite:

  1. “Critical thinking” is a skill. No it is not. At best this view reduces criticism to second-rate or elementary instruction in informal and some formal logic. It is usually second-rate logic and poor philosophy offered in bite-sized nuggets. Seen as a skill, critical thinking can also mean subjection to the conformism of an ideological yoke. If a feminist or Marxist teacher demands a certain perspective be adopted this may seem like it is “criticism” or acquiring a “critical perspective”, but it is actually a training in feminism or Marxism which could be done through tick box techniques. It almost acquires the character of a mental drill.

  2. “Critical thinking” means indoctrination. When teachers talk about the need to be “critical” they often mean instead that students must “conform”. It is often actually teaching students to be “critical” of their unacceptable ideas and adopt the right ones. Having to support multiculturalism and diversity are the most common of the “correct ideas” that everyone has to adopt. Professional programmes in education, nursing, social work and others often promote this sort of “criticism”. It used to be called “indoctrination”.

  3. “Critical theories” are “uncritical theories”. When some theory has the prefix “critical” it requires the uncritical acceptance of a certain political perspective. Critical theory, critical race theory, critical race philosophy, critical realism, critical reflective practice all explicitly have political aims.

What is criticism?

Criticism, according to Victorian cultural critic Matthew Arnold, is a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world. We should all be as “bound” by that definition as he was. We need only to teach the best that is known and thought and “criticism” will take care of itself. That is a lesson from 150 years ago that every teacher should learn.

Matthew Arnold knew how to be critical.
Elliott & Fry, via Wikimedia Commons

Critical thinking seen as Arnold defined it is more like a character trait – like having “a critical spirit”, or a willingness to engage in the “give and take of critical discussion”. Criticism is always about the world and not about you.

The philosopher most associated with the critical spirit is Socrates. In the 1930s, another Australian philosopher John Anderson put the Socratic view of education most clearly when he wrote: “The Socratic education begins … with the awakening of the mind to the need for criticism, to the uncertainty of the principles by which it supposed itself to be guided.”

But when I discuss Socratic criticism with teachers and teacher trainers I miss out Anderson’s mention of the word “uncertainty”. This is because many teachers will assume that this “uncertainty” means questioning those bad ideas you have and conforming to an agreed version of events, or an agreed theory.

Becoming a truly critical thinker is more difficult today because so many people want to be a Socrates. But Socrates only sought knowledge and to be a Socrates today means putting knowledge first.

The Conversation

Dennis Hayes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Education, Guest Blogger

How to use poetry for philosophy enquiries

When National Poetry Day and World Poetry Day come around each year I like to use poetry for all my philosophy sessions where possible. I usually write some more Thoughtings and a blog. This year I have got a little over-excited about poetry. Because I love it! So this is the second blog on poetry which follows on from my previous blog post ‘Why Poetry? Because it is like the TARDIS…

Something similar to what follows can be found in the appendices at the back of Thoughtings together with a sample lesson plan around one particular Thoughting. The poems in that collection have been written specifically to do philosophy with, however philosophy can also be done with many other poems not written to do philosophy. With that in mind, I’ve put this together for anyone who wishes to start using poetry as a starting stimulus for doing philosophy but who lacks the confidence (or a procedure) to do so. This is only a guideline so the word to bear in mind is ‘variation’ – play around with this structure to best fit your aims, your class or group and your poem. All the poems mentioned here can be found by following the links in my previous blog ‘Why Poetry?…’

  1. First of all decide whether handing out a copy of the poem or projecting the poem is necessary. If the poem is short and not terribly difficult then I opt not to do this, but longer poems that need ‘unpacking’ often benefit from being seen by the class. Also decide at which point you hand it out/project it. I prefer to have a class simply hear a poem at least once.
  2. Prop used for 'An Owner's Complaint' by John Hegley

    Prop used for ‘An Owner’s Complaint’ by John Hegley

    Read Either read it yourself or get the children to read it sharing a line for each person. But only do this is if the class is of an age to read it well. For most primary classes I choose to read as comprehension is so much more difficult if a poem is read badly. This isn’t a ‘reading poetry class’ it’s a ‘philosophy-through-poetry’ class and good comprehension is essential for this. When reading, and especially if you are working with younger groups, it can be helpful to provide gestures and/or actions as you read. Read meaningfully. For instance, ‘An Owner’s Complaint’ by John Hegley should be read like it’s a complaint!

  3. Allow silent thinking time (usually only up to 30 seconds).
  4. Read again. If comprehension is required then some time will need to be spent unpacking the poem. If this is necessary then before you read the poem for the second time ask them to put their hands up at the end if there are any words or phrases they do not understand. It’s sometimes useful to have a dictionary ready for this. Note: when dealing with unknown words or difficult phrases read out the word or phrase in context (in other words, read the complete thought or image containing the word or phrase). Then ask if there is someone who thinks they know what the word or phrase might mean. It is always better if someone in the class can teach the class rather than you. Sometimes it is the case that they are only able to provide an approximate meaning; in that case you complete it. If you have to look it up then get someone in the class to take on this duty: a dictionary monitor. Hint: Either for the second or a third reading you could leave out certain key words for the class to fill in. For younger ones simply leave out the last word of each rhyming couplet but with older ones you may choose to leave out less obvious words, phrases or even whole lines.
  5. Ask a question. Very often a discussion, or question for discussion, will arise quite naturally from this comprehension part of the session. I call this an emergent discussion or question. If a suitable discussion does not arise then it is a good idea to have a question ready to begin one – what I call a task question. (See ‘Finding a question’ below.)
  6. Give them some talk time in pairs or threes. They will usually need no more than 1 minute of talk time.
  7. Begin the enquiry. First of all, gain their attention. Then ask the question again. Let the enquiry run for a few minutes (usually 5-10) before returning to more talk time.
  8. Continue moving between 6 (talk time) and 7 (enquiry) until a new question arises and in which case return to 5, then 6 and 7. Use your judgement and return to 9 (talk time) whenever the conversation demands or suggests that you do so.

Remember: the above procedure IS NOT philosophy – it is merely a procedure for philosophy to happen in, although philosophy will only happen if the discussion is facilitated well. For a more detailed explanation of how to manage the enquiry (7) itself – the bit where the philosophy happens – see The If Machine pages 1-45 or ‘If it, anchor it, open it up’ in the forthcoming The Socratic Handbook. (‘If it, anchor it, open it up’ is also available FREE, for members of SOPHIA, as a download from in ‘Resources’.)

Finding a question in a poem

 (1) ‘Questioning’ a poem

Sometimes a poem explicitly asks a question such as ‘Some Opposites’ by Richard Wilbur in which it ends:

What’s the opposite of opposite?

That’s much too difficult. I quit.

In this case, the poet’s surrender sets up the class’s challenge. But where a question is not asked explicitly it can quite often be hidden, such as with ‘Invictus’ by W.E. Henley where it ends with these two lines:

I am the master of my fate;

I am the captain of my soul.

To make a question, simply ‘question’ these lines: ‘So, are you the master of your fate? Are you the captain of your soul?’ See also Hamlet: ‘What is the question?’ or (also Hamlet) ‘Is it true that there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so?’ Or Shel Silverstein’s ‘Listen To The Mustn’ts’:

Anything can happen, child,

Anything can be.

To ‘question’ these lines…

‘Can anything happen? Can anything be?’

When using poems to do philosophy I prefer to select poems that have one of these two options, an explicit question or an implicit question. If the poem has neither of these opportunities then it will be harder to do philosophy from, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that the poem is no good for philosophising from. What it does mean is that it will require a bit more thought. For instance, the poem ‘An Owner’s Complaint’ has neither an explicit nor an implicit question but I have found that the following question works really well for an enquiry: ‘When is a dog not a dog?’ and part of what makes it work is that it contains what appears to be a contradiction (see my previous post Why Poetry?) Note: this question also gives an excellent question structure for general use: ‘When is an X not an X?’ Some children resolve the contradiction, for example, like so: ‘An ‘X’ is not an X when…’ (resolved here by the use scare quotes). Many of the Thoughtings poems are like this: they have lots of questions in them. As a general rule, one difference between a Thoughting and non-Thoughting poem is that Thoughtings tend to only raise/ask questions rather than answer them. This makes them easier to find questions in but it is worth noting that a poem that ‘has answers’ has more to disagree with.

(2) Questioning a poem

For instance, ‘What is Truth?’ by Steve Turner:

The truth is what’s what;

A lie is what’s not.

Here, the best question to ask a class, I find, is: ‘Do you agree with the poem/poet?’ A good strategy for possible use here, especially if the children do not do so automatically, is to ‘task’ them to seek out a counter-example: ‘Can anyone think of a situation where the truth is not ‘what’s what?’ and ‘Can anyone think of a situation where a lie is not ‘what’s not’?’ and so on.

Here’s a couple of brand new Thoughtings to get you started:

Illustration by Tamar Levi

Illustration by Tamar Levi

My Shoes

My shoes walk me; I don’t walk them.

I don’t write stuff down; that would be my pen.

I don’t do the thinking ‘round here; it’s my brain that does it

And the deciding, desiring, and then the inquiring about it.

It’s my heart, not me, that sometimes likes, hates and loves you.

And all this is quite a part from the other things I don’t do.

So what do I do when all is said and done?

What’s left for me to do?

To remove my shoes

And run.


My Trousers

My trousers ran away today

We tried to catch ‘em up

They ran and ran

Like the gingerbread man

But simply wouldn’t stop.

When asked why they’d run away

They simply said, ‘No more

Will we do what our wearer wants –

That’s not what we are for!

We want to wear our owner

And stop him donning gingham!’ When

M’ strides were done, I laughed out loud –

’Til I realised I was in ‘em.


  • Do you always control your actions?
  • If not, then what sorts of things control you?
  • Do you do the thinking or does your brain do the thinking?
  • Are you different from your brain?
  • What walks you if you were to sleep walk?
  • Can you ever be excused for your actions?
  • Can you ever blame someone or something else for your actions?
  • What do you think is meant when the poet of ‘Shoes’ answers that what’s left for her to do is to ‘remove [her] shoes and run’?

These Thoughtings would work well with ‘It Wasn’t Me!’ and the ‘Are You Free?’ section in Thoughtings by Worley and Day.


Filed under Education, Peter Worley, Philosophy in Schools, Poetry

Is 3 The Same Upside-Down?

This is a session that started as general philosophy, but led into a Mathematics focus. (It’s Year 6, mixed ability in a 1-form entry primary school.) Here is the story/scenario I began with:

“There was once a man who had been working for 50 years, and it came to the day of his retirement. People asked him ‘What will you do all day now that you don’t have a job to go to?’. And the man thought about this for a while and said ‘Something I’ve never had the time to do before’.

The next day he woke up and said to his wife ‘I’m going to invent something. I’ve always wanted to invent something, and now’s my chance’. So he went down to the shed at the bottom of the garden, where he kept all his tools and bits and bobs for making things.

After a week, he came back up to the house after another long day in the shed. He made his wife a cup of tea and as he gave it to her with a sigh. ‘How’s it going?’ she enquired, sympathetically.

‘Well… I have all these ideas for things I’d like to invent. But I don’t know how to invent them. I’ll just have to keep trying.’

His wife nodded, and said gently: ‘To invent something, you’d need to be a bit more up-do-date with technology. And you’re not really that good with technology. Your phone looks like something out of a museum. And that time you tried to take a picture of your grandchildren with my phone, you took a selfie by accident. Technology is pretty complicated these days.’

The man thought about this for a while. Then he jumped up out of his chair, and said: ‘You’re right. I’ve been thinking about this all the wrong way’ and off he trotted, back to the shed.

The next morning, at breakfast he looked very pleased with himself. ‘I’ve worked out what to do,’ he explained to his wife. ‘I’ve got to invent something that doesn’t need technology. So I’ve narrowed it down to three possibilities. I’m going to invent either… a new word, a new shape, or a new number.’ “

I didn’t give the class a question at this point. I just asked them to discuss their reactions to the story in pairs, saying:

There is no question at the moment. Just tell your partner what you think.

I had questions up my sleeve, in case this initial prompt came to nothing. These were the questions:

If you were his wife what would you say?
Are all three possible, and what makes you say so?
Which would be easiest, and why?

One of the first responses was:

‘He can’t invent a new number, because numbers go on for ever.’

The next answer was:
‘He can’t invent a new number but he can invent a new rule. Like he could say that a number written upside down means a minus number, so an upside down 5 would mean minus 5.’

There followed a spirited and very flowing response from a youngster called Tabatha. Two of the things she said were:

1. It would be easier to invent a new word. Because in Mary Poppins they did it with Super-calli-fragilistic-expi-alidocious.
2. Turning numbers upside down to make them into minus numbers wouldn’t work because if you turn 1000 upside down, it’s still 1000.

Now, I love this second point, and I would like to put it to you, the reader, to ponder. Is 1000 the same upside down? Plump for an answer before you read on!

The children discussed it for a while. One of the answers was:

‘Numbers are the same upside down if they join up. 1, 8, and 0 are the same upside down. It’s because they join up. 4 and 2 don’t join up.’

By this time, several pupils have come up to the board to try to illustrate their points. I switched the term ‘number’ to ‘digit’ at one point, saying ‘Which digits are the same upside-down?’. Although it was obvious to me that the ‘joined up’ theory was fallacious, I waited for it to be superseded by something else.

Quite soon, a long-winded and rather confused answer contained the word ‘symmetry’ at some point. At the end, I said: ‘He mentioned the word ‘symmetry’. Does anyone else think this is anything to do with symmetry or not?’

The discussion went off at another tangent at this point, though in an interesting way, as the children debated whether the numeral ‘3’ is the same upside down. This brings into focus the very same issue that complicates whether 1000 is the same upside down: it sort of depends how you make it go upside-down.

By this time, I and most of the class were periodically turning our heads upside down to read the numbers on the board. If you do this, you will find that 1000 is not the same, because it reads as 0001, because all the digits look the same, but appear in a different order (this assumes that we are writing 1 with a single vertical stroke, though the children noticed that you might not). The numeral 3 is also different upside-down because it appears ‘backwards’ with its open side facing right instead of left. So…. is that the answer?

What about if we use a mirror? If I place a mirror under the numeral 3, what do I see in the mirror? Another 3, facing the correct way. The number 1000 will also read correctly. Which is weird because I always thought that if you look at something in a mirror then left is right and right is left.

Huh? This is a nice example of how a simple question can lead down an interesting and unexpected route. With this class it led away from the concept of whether numbers are invented or discovered into the practicality of whether something looks the same upside-down. But this then led into a discussion where the class needed the concept of symmetry to explain a phenomenon that they could all observe – which is a great way of consolidating that concept in the minds of the children. They would also needed to refine their application of the concept of symmetry to explain why 3 is the same upside-down if you use a mirror, but not if you turn your head upside down.

We didn’t quite get there. Can you explain it?

By the way, we did also have fun talking about how you invent a new word, but this blog series is about maths. Next time I do it, we might end up on shapes. I just don’t know. If we do, I’ll report back.



Filed under Education, Maths, Philosophy in Schools

Why poetry? Because poetry is like a TARDIS: paradoxical and much bigger on the inside.

First of all, a confession: I haven’t read a novel – just for pleasure – for years! I have read books though, but only non-fiction, conforming to the stereotype that men read most of the novels they ever read before the age of 25. The main reason for this (that I’ve identified anyway): ever-growing demands on my time and therefore an increasing need for efficiency. However, I’m not dead behind the eyes, I don’t read car maintenance manuals; I still yearn for escapism, good writing, imaginative worlds, making connections with writers and their special worldviews. At first I turned to short stories of which, and for many years, I have been a fan. As a philosopher I have always been drawn to the way short stories put at their heart – as Philip K. Dick said – not characters but ideas. And then I (re-)discovered poetry.

What philosophers (and anyone for that matter!) can learn from poetry.

Philosophers and teachers have a tendency to exorcise contradictions and paradoxes. If something doesn’t make sense then it needs revision. This is, to some extent, right. It is rational, after all, to try to make sense of that which makes no sense. But I have noticed that the best learning happens when there is contradiction. I’d like to give an example from a maths lesson I was involved in.

We were playing a game called Secret Number (see previous blog post by Andrew Day ‘mine do it already‘) in which there is an envelope in the middle of the room containing a number between (and including) 1 and 100. The children have only 10 questions that must be answerable with either ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The teacher keeps a note on the board of everything that’s inferred and the questions that were asked during the game, such as: ‘It is not even,’ (the question was: ‘Is it even?’) ‘It is not 4’, (question: ‘Is it four?’) ‘It is a double number,’ ‘It is odd,’ and so on. The children have to try to work out what the number is. There is a tendency for a teacher to try to deal with contradictions as the game goes on so that all the information is useful and that all the questions are not contradictory. But whenever I have played this game I have found that the best learning comes the more contradictions there are. So, even though the class did not guess the number, the after-game analysis was much more fruitful when the children could see where the problems were: ‘We didn’t need to ask if the number was 4 because we already know that it’s not even and 4 is an even number.’ If the teacher had said things like, ‘Do you need to ask that question?’ or, ‘Is 4 an even number? What does the board have on it about even numbers?’ during the game then the board would have ended up with no knots to untie.

Badly asked questions such as those you find in lateral thinking puzzle books are similar. It is easy to think that one shouldn’t ask a question to a class if it has been worded ambiguously but then you’d be missing the learning opportunity. Children are actually very good at unpacking badly worded questions. So, take this for example: how do you make this sum add up to 17?

8 + 6 =

The ‘answer’ at the back of the book is, of course: ‘by turning the sum upside down so that it reads 8 + 9 = 17’. But, as one 9-year-old-girl once said to me, ‘It’s not the same sum anymore, so the question’s wrong.’ A good point.

So what’s all this got to do with poetry?

Poetry welcomes the paradox, usually in the broadest sense: the paradox of what it is to be human. It welcomes the very thing good thinking tries to iron out and this is where poetry and good thinking come together. Take the poem Death is smaller than I thought by Adrian Mitchell. The paradox in this poem is clearly stated in the last three lines:

It is imaginary.

It is real.

It is love.

Not all poems make their paradox so explicit but very often they are there nevertheless. This makes an excellent starting point for thinkers: does the poem make sense? Is it understandable? Is it right? Is it how humans are? What happens to people when they die? How do we cope when people die? How are the last two questions related? And so on. Poems lead on to other poems too: after this, read Examination at the womb’s door by Ted Hughes or Transformations or To an unborn pauper child, both by Thomas Hardy.

Poems are also often quite short so they are perfect for busy teachers and busy classes where there is not much time to wade through novels. Poems are like cut diamonds in that they contain an infinite variety of complex reflections inside, all held within a beautifully shaped and formed outside. But I think the best analogy for what I’m saying in this piece is Doctor Who’s TARDIS: poems are paradoxical and much bigger on the inside.

Six poems with paradoxes

A good general principle for critically engaging with a poem is to ask (only when appropriate in the context of the poem as it is a general rule that all general rules have exceptions): ‘Do you agree with the poem/poet?’ or to take the main claim of the poem and turn it into a question: ‘What is the question?’ (Hamlet), ‘Are we the masters of our fate? Are we the captain of our souls?’ (Invictus), ‘Can anything happen? Can anything be?’ (Listen to the mustn’ts)

Death is smaller than I thought by Adrian Mitchell: this is the paradox of both believing and not believing that ones dead loved ones are still there.

An Owner’s Complaint by John Hegley – the paradox: a carrot is not a dog! However, it’s ‘answer’ poem, ‘My Dog is a Dog’ in the same collection My Dog is a Carrot, somewhat makes sense of the paradox. I use a paradoxical question with this poem: ‘When is a dog not a dog?’

Invictus by W.E. Henley – the paradox: how can we be ‘the captain of our soul’ if we are subject to chance?

Mind by Richard Wilbur – the paradox: the paradox of consciousness tries to find a simile.

Some Opposites by Richard Wilbur – the paradox of opposites: what exactly are opposites? Are they completely different or do they have something in common? What’s the opposite of opposite?

Listen to the mustn’ts by Shel Silverstein – the paradox: well, on one level it is not the case that anything can happen or be. So, what might the poet mean?

The Highwayman by Frederick Noyes – the paradox: why would you kill yourself for someone else. This one is even more paradoxical to children.

And finally, an original Thoughting by the author of this piece written especially for it:

The Contradiction Monster (or, the poem that ends before it’s begun!)

The contradiction monster

Is not like me and you

It does the strangest things, you know,

Things that we can’t do.

It tips its hat, says, ‘hello’

Then leaves as it arrives,

There’s a pair of shoes on its only foot;

It’s unmarried with seven wives.

The contradiction monster

Is not as it appears,

When it comes to dinner

It gets smaller as it nears.

A mother with no children,

He sings to them at night.

The contradiction monster’s wrong

Only when it’s right.

For how to run a poetry philosophical enquiry visit Pete’s blog here.

Peter Worley is CEO and co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, the president of SOPHIA – the European foundation for doing philosophy with children and is currently a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College London. He has written 5 books on philosophy with children including a collection of poetry for thinking called Thoughtings (co-written with Andrew Day and published by Crown House) and his latest book Once Upon an If: The Storythinking Handbook (which includes a section on ‘Stories in Verse’ and is published by Bloomsbury). 


Filed under Education, Peter Worley, Philosophy in Schools, Poetry