Monthly Archives: November 2014

Socrates, Philosophy & Black Friday

‘Look at all these things I don’t need!’ the philosopher Socrates is said to have declared as he stood before the many stalls filling the marketplace of Ancient Athens. In contrast to the stalls in the agora (Greek for ‘marketplace’), and by engaging the citizens there with big, philosophical questions, Socrates offered an exchange of a very different kind. His currency was ideas; a wiser, more reflective person housed within a life well-lived his aim. This anecdote shows how one can trace the origins of philosophy – as we know it in western Europe at least – back to shopping.

We can perhaps identify with Socrates here as we too stand amid a dizzying marketplace – albeit a much larger, global one – bombarded from all sides by promises of a better life from ‘pedlars of wares’. And we too may feel the need for an alternative kind of shop as an antidote to the pressures and promises of the modern-day agora – one that guards against the many ‘snake-oils’ on offer by insisting on an ‘account’ or ‘reason’ or logos in Greek. Perhaps we need an alternative shop such as this in order to reach that ‘better life’ by other than financial, consumerist means.

The Philosophy Shop book stands as Socrates to the reader: sometimes beguiling, humorous and inspiring; other times irritating, like a gadfly, goading us into wakefulness, and sometimes frustratingly circular or inconclusive. But always – it is hoped – stimulating.

Taken from the preface of ‘The Philosophy Shop

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Working with Concepts

From Peter Worley’s new book, 40 lessons to get children thinking, published in September 2015. Philosophy is not part of the curriculum so why on earth should anyone spend time doing philosophy with their class? Philosophy might not be part of the curriculum but inevitably thinking is. Philosophy helps children think. It allows them to practise the kind of thinking they already do in class in their other curriculum subjects but it also opens doors and allows the children to think in new ways about new things. One of philosophy’s central concerns is understanding. When doing philosophy one has to understand what the other is saying in order to respond appropriately, one has to understand what one thinks oneself in order to be able to give expression to the thought, one needs to understand the problem that has been presented in order to even begin trying to solve it, but perhaps most important of all, one needs to understand what it is that is not understood by oneself and by others in order to improve ones understanding. This is an important aspect of what is sometimes known as meta-cognition or learning to learn. incredible_shrinking_man_englandTo help with this I have tried to identify the key concepts behind each session so that you can use the session to help do two things: 1) to observe the class’s grasp of key, relevant concepts before being taught the relevant module and 2) to assess the class’s application of the key concepts once the module has been taught or during it being taught. These sessions, therefore, can be used before, during and/or after a teaching module. For instance, if you are about to teach a module on dissolving then The Incredible Shrinking Machine could be run in order to see how the children approach thinking about the microcosm. Do they think that something that can’t be seen still exists or not? Which children think what? Do those that recognise that ‘not being able to see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist’ make a convincing case to the others? Who has relevant knowledge (atoms, evaporation etc.)? By keeping a record of the answers to these and similar questions the philosophy sessions can help you plan your teaching of the module and to deal with such things as differentiation and peer-to-peer support in the class all based on the conceptual understanding of the class with regard to the relevant key concepts for the module. A word about misconceptions


Alice in Wonderland

Philosophy sessions are a great way to address common misconceptions that children have in and around subjects and topics. An example of this kind of misconception has been alluded to above: that ‘not existing’ means ‘not being able to see it’ or that ‘not being able to see something’ means ‘that it is nothing’. But I’d like to offer two words of warning about diagnosing misconceptions. First of all, children do not always mean exactly what they say and they do not always say exactly what they mean (think of Alice in Wonderland: ‘Is saying what you mean the same as meaning what you say?’) so, a misconception is not the same as a simple misuse of language or referring term and, similarly, a misconception is not the same as being mis-informed. Your questioning should involve a great deal of eliciting in order to avoid pre-interpreting and possibly misinterpreting children’s words. Secondly, also look out for your own misconceptions, either of the issue or with regard to what the children are trying to say. For example, in The Disappearing Ball Trick you may be using the session to address a misconception about matter: that matter doesn’t cease to exist is simply transforms into something else (what is known as the conservation of energy principle in physics). The question in the session is ‘How would you make the ball no longer exist?’ You may have something like the following notion in your head: ‘You can’t, because of the conservation of energy principle’. But, because you have this fixed notion in your head it is possible that you may miss a more nuanced position that a pupil is trying to express: ‘though the particles the ball is made of cannot cease to exist those particles may no longer configure to make a ball as a ball if the particles are scattered across the universe.’ The philosophy sessions are not only good for the children to improve their understanding of themselves, each other and the issues they’re thinking about, philosophy is also good for you – the teacher – to improve your understanding of yourself, your pupils and the issues and topics the philosophy sessions engage you all with. An edited session extract from Peter’s new book, showing how philosophy can help with conceptual understanding in the curriculum. Equipment needed and preparation: talk circle; a ball (use the talk ball) Age: 5 years and up Key vocabulary: nothing, something, doing, anything, verb Subject links: literacy, science (forces) Key controversies: Is it possible to do nothing? Can something without a will or the power of agency perform an action? Key concepts: nothing, doing, verbs, agency, will, action, event, intention, force. Possible misconception(s): that verbs are only ‘doing words’ when in fact verbs cover not only actions but also occurrences and states of being; that ‘not doing nothing’ is not equivalent to ‘not doing anything’. Critical thinking tool: Break The Circle (see any of The If Books) on ‘do’ –  Say: I would like you to say what ‘do’ means but without saying the word ‘do’ or ‘doing’ in your answer. Begin by saying ‘It is…’ so you don’t have to say ‘Doing is…’ Do: Give the class a minute or two to talk with each other about what doing is. Then write up their ideas as a concept-map in order to discuss the answers. If someone accidentally says ‘do’ or ‘doing’ ask them to think of another word or phrase they can say in place of the word ‘do’. If they can’t, ask someone else to help them. Session Plan: Say: Today I have a task for you. The task is this: do nothing. Talk to each other in pairs to decide how you will attempt to do nothing. Then when I hold the ball in the air put up your hands if you think you can perform the task: to do nothing. Do: Give the class a minute to think through how they might do nothing. Then put the ball up in the air. Remind them that they should be ready to show the class how to do nothing. SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAThe Doing Statue  Say: Everyone stand up and make a pose like a statue. Hold it and stay absolutely still for 20 seconds. Task Question: Do statues do anything? Nested Questions:

  • If statues stand and stare then are statues doing anything?
  • Do statues stand? Do statues stare?
  • If someone pushes a statue and makes it fall over has the statue done something?
  • What is it to do something?
  • What is doing?
  • What is a verb? Are verbs only ‘doing words’?

Are the following words doing something:

  1. Sitting
  2. Sleeping
  3. Being dead

This is a good place to do the Break The Circle activity on ‘do’ (see Critical Thinking Tool above). Extension activities:


Is the ball doing anything?

The Doing Ball Roll a ball to someone (X) in the class. Ask the following two questions: 1) Did X [insert student’s name] do something? 2) Did the ball do something? Here’s an argument given to me by a 7-year-old-girl: Rolling is a verb; Verbs are doing words; When a statue rolls, it is rolling; So statues can do something. Present this nicely structured argument to the class and invite them to critically engage with it: ‘Do you agree with this idea?’ The girl’s argument rests on a belief that verbs are only ‘doing words’ (see Misconception above). This presents a nice opportunity to teach the children that verbs are more than doing or action words. Related Resources: 

  • The Philosophy Shop: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap (page 200), Ooops! (p. 202), Not Very Stationary Stationery (p. 191), Lucky and Unlucky (p. 198), The Good Daleks (p. 203) Immy’s Box (p. 20)
  • Picture Book: Let’s Do Nothing by Tony Facile
  • The If Machine: Thinking About Nothing (p. 135)

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Stoic Week Philosophy Session Plan

Here’s a lesson plan for Years 6 and up (and able Y5s) on Stoic-related themes for Stoic Week. Draw from it what you want. Taken from Peter Worley‘s forthcoming book, 40 lessons to get children thinking [September 2015].

Equipment needed and preparation: a glass of water, half-filled; handouts or a projection of the extract from Hamlet (optional)

Age: The ‘glass of water’ section is suitable for 7 years and up, but the ‘Hamlet’ section is suitable only for 10 years and up.

Key vocabulary: optimism, pessimism, positive, negative, good, bad

Subject links: literacy, Shakespeare, PSHE

Key controversies: Is ‘good and bad’ a state of mind or a state of the world?

Key concepts: attitude(s), perception, value,

A little philosophy: Stoicism is a branch of Hellenistic (late ancient Greek period from approx. 323-31 BCE) philosophy that derives its name from the ‘painted porch’ (Stoa poikile) in the marketplace of Athens, under which many of the early Stoics taught. The school of Stoicism is said to have begun with Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE) and been further developed by Cleanthes of Assos (330-230 BCE) and Chrysippus of Soli (279-206 BCE) but the most famous of the Stoics is Epictetus (55-135 CE), originally a slave who later became a free man because of his philosophy, Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE), tutor and advisor to the Roman Emperor Nero, and Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), himself an Emperor of Rome (who features in the film Gladiator). The word ‘stoic’ has entered the English language and means ‘to accept something undesirable without complaint’. The key ideas of stoicism are as follows:

  • All human beings have the capacity to attain happiness.
  • Human beings are a ‘connected brotherhood’ and, unlike animals, are able to benefit each other rationally.
  • Human beings are able to change their emotions and desires by changing their beliefs.
  • Stoics care less about achieving something and much more about having done one’s best to achieve it.
  • Stoics attempt to understand what is in one’s power and what is not, to act, when necessary, to change what it is in one’s power to change, and to accept stoically (see above) what it is not in one’s power to change.

Quote: ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; And wisdom to know the difference.’ (Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous)


Emperor Penguin

Critical thinking tool: Examples, counter-examples and falsification – Examples are often used to illustrate a claim whereas counter-examples are examples that are used to refute a claim. Counter-examples are very useful for falsifying general claims:

Child A: All birds fly.

Child B: A penguin is a bird but penguins don’t fly, so not all birds fly.

In this case, because the claim made was a general claim (‘All Xs F’), only a single example is needed to refute it; it is quite unnecessary to mention ostriches or kiwis for the refutation to be successful. Hamlet’s


Is the glass half full, or half empty?

Session Plan: Part One: The Glass of Water

Half fill a glass of water and place it in the middle of the talk circle so all the children can see it. Then ask the following task question:

Task Question: Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty?

Nested Questions:

  • Is there an answer to this question?
  • Is it a matter of opinion?
  • Can it be both?
  • Is it good or bad that the glass is only half full/empty?

Allow a discussion to unfold around this question. At some point it may become appropriate to introduce the following words:

  1. Optimist
  2. Pessimist

Find out if anyone has heard these words before and see if anyone can explain the words to the class. Provide the following starting definitions if they don’t do so themselves:

  1. An optimist is someone who sees things in a positive way; someone who often sees the good side of things.
  2. A pessimist is someone who sees things in a negative way; someone who often sees the bad side of things.


  1. Which one, the optimist or the pessimist, would see the glass as half-full? Why?
  2. Which one, the optimist or the pessimist, would see the glass as half-empty? Why?

Task Question: Is it better to be an optimist or a pessimist? 


Laurence Olivier as Hamlet

Part Two: Hamlet’s Prison

Part one makes a good session by itself. Here is a second part that is more advanced and can be approached in one of two ways: either use the full extract from Hamlet and allow the class to unpack it or simply skip straight to the central Hamlet quote (‘For there is nothing…’). The previous enquiry around the glass of water should give the class what it needs to approach the quote on its own. I recommend not explaining how the two parts link; give the class the opportunity to make the link. Because you want to get to the thinking aspect of the session I recommend not having members of the class read out the extract. I usually ask them to read it, dramatically, in pairs to each other; I then read it properly to the class as a whole and ask them to raise their hands if:

  1. There is a word they don’t understand.
  2. There is a phrase they don’t understand.
  3. They would like to say what they think the entire extract is about.
  4. They would like to say what a particular part means.

Give out the handouts or project the extract on the IWB then read the following:

This extract is taken from the play Hamlet by William Shakespeare – it’s the one that contains the line ‘To be or not to be, that is the question’. This is another extract from the play that is less well-known but really good for thinking with.

HAMLET Denmark’s a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ Then is the world a prison?
HAMLET A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst.
ROSENCRANTZ We think not so, my lord.
HAMLET Why, then, ’tis no prison to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.
ROSENCRANTZ Why then, your ambition makes it one; Denmark is too
narrow for your mind.
HAMLET I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

Once you have spent some time unpacking the extract write up or project the following claim made by Hamlet: 

HAMLET Why, then, ’tis no prison to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

(If you are skipping to the single quote then write up just this:

HAMLET                                    …for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so…)

First of all ask the class: What do you think Hamlet means by this?

Then ask the following task question:

TQ: Do you agree with Hamlet – is it true that there is nothing either good or bad, but that thinking makes it so? 

Ask the class to come up with some examples of things that are good or bad whatever you happen to think about them.

What about these situations (use these examples only if the children do not find their own):

1) You fail an exam.

2) You win the lottery.

3) Your family forget your birthday.

4) Your tattooist misspells a word in your tattoo.

5) Your favourite pet dies.

6) You discover that you have become addicted to something.

7) You are diagnosed with a terminal illness.

Take some quotes from below and ask the children to respond critically to them. This is done by simply asking them if they agree or disagree with the quote. I sometimes ask for ‘thumbs up’ if they agree, ‘thumbs down’ if they disagree and ‘thumbs sideways’ if they think something other than agree or disagree.




“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

“People are not worried by real problems so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.”

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

“Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”




“Most powerful is she who has herself in her own power.”

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.”

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

“Life is like a play: it’s not the length, but the excellence of the acting that matters.”

“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”

“A sword never kills anybody; it is a tool in the killer’s hand.”

“Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false and by the rulers as useful.”

TQ: Can one agree with Seneca and also believe in God?

Marcus Aurelius


Marcus Aurelius

“You have the power of your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

“Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.”

“When you arise in the morning think of what a privilege it is to be alive, to think, to enjoy, to love…”

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”

“Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.”

Extension activities:

Here is a new Thoughting that could be used for, during or after this session that will introduce the children to some more isms.

(Preparation: half fill a glass of water and place in on a table in front of your class. Then, as you reach the part where the speaker in the poem says ‘cheers!’, pick up the glass of water and drink it. Half fill it once more and replace it before beginning the discussion.)

The Glass of Water

The pessimist says it’s half empty

The optimist says it’s half full

The sceptic says, ‘Now, hang on a minute!

Do we know that it’s there at all?’

The cynic says, ‘Whatever you do, don’t drink it!’

The paranoiac says, ‘Who put it there?’

Then, looking round, adds, ‘And why?’

The psychologist says that you think it,

The realist: ‘Without it you’ll die.’

And while all the company debate it,

Over the din no one hears,

When – feeling somewhat dehydrated – I say,



  • If you don’t already know, can you guess what each of the ists and so on means from the context of the poem? E.g. What’s a pessimist? What’s an optimist? A sceptic? A cynic? And so on.
  • Are you any of them? Why or why not?

Related Resources: 


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The Question X Revisited

We read this blog ‘Closed Question Quizzing, Unfashionable Yet Effective‘ by Andy Tharby the other day. The virtues of closed questioning are well known to The Philosophy Foundation as they are central to our philosophical questioning approach, so we wanted to share this extract taken from a chapter entitled ‘If it, Anchor it, Open it up: A closed, guided questioning technique‘ that Peter Worley has written for the forthcoming book The Socratic Handbook ed. Michael Noah Weiss, LIT Verlag, 2015. Some of these ideas were first written about in The Question X published in Creative Teaching and Learning and available here: The Question X. In this blog Peter has developed some of the ideas written about in The Question X.

Plato’s Socrates asks many closed questions – questions that elicit a one-word or short answer such as ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘Paris’. Dip in to any of the dialogues and you will very likely witness an exchange between Socrates and an interlocutor that is made up of closed questions and single-word/phrase answers such as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘absolutely’, ‘without doubt’ and so on. However, the well-known Socratic Question – of the form ‘What is X?’ (e.g. ‘What is Beauty?’) – is an open question.

Socrates_Once Upon an If_©TamarLevi_5

Socrates by Tamar Levi ( ‘Once Upon an If’

When I ask those I train which of the two types of question they should favour during an enquiry almost invariably they will say, ‘Open questions’. When I ask them ‘why?’ they say something along the following lines: ‘They invite the children to say more than a closed question does and closed questions only elicit one-word answers.’

Before I explain my recommendation of which question-type to favour I would like to make a distinction between two kinds of open/closed question: 1) a grammatically open/closed question and 2) a conceptually open/closed question. So, ‘Do you like jam?’ is both grammatically and conceptually closed because the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and once it has been answered there is nothing more to explore; there is no further contestability. Even if you ask ‘why?’ the answer is likely to be no more enlightening than, ‘because I do,’ or words to that effect. A question such as ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ is grammatically closed in that the answer is either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but conceptually open in that any answer given will remain contestable – there’s still plenty more to explore and say on the matter.

With this distinction in mind I recommend that the best question type to favour during an enquiry is the closed question – just as Socrates does – even though one is exploring an open topic such as ‘What is the mind?’ Having said that, there are some qualifications I will add that I think improve on the Socratic way of using closed questions that appeals to another Socratic principle – that of eliciting ideas/knowledge from the person that is questioned (see Plato’s Meno for more on this).

The reason why we use (and should use) closed questions is because they are incredibly focused and specific. The virtue of this is that closed questions keep the line of inquiry sequential and logical, something that I claim is essential in a philosophical enquiry. We might represent the shape of a closed question as follows:

Closed Question

Fig 1. The shape of a closed question

But, many will point out, they are too focused so that they bring conversations to an end, or, as we see with Socrates, if the conversation doesn’t dry up completely then the questioner has to do a great of the work to allow the conversation to continue, possibly in truth only conducting a conversation with themselves, such as the following very plausible questioning situation:

(Context: The story of Sindbad and The Valley of The Diamonds [available for free download on Guardian Teacher Network] has been told [see Once Upon an If] in which Sindbad is trapped in a valley filled with diamonds on an island inhabited only by snakes of all sizes. At one point Sindbad is so filled with despair that he considers allowing a giant snake that has been sniffing around his tree at night to find him and eat him.)

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?


FAC: Okay, thank you. Anyone else got anything to say? Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

Here is a classic case of the problem of closed questions. If the facilitator carries on in this way the discussion, we might very well imagine, will soon dry up.

So instead, the facilitator could have made use of an open question. This is what most people think they should do. Let’s try a few out:

  • Why should Sindbad not have let the snake eat him?
  • What do you think Sindbad should do?
  • What’s going to happen next, do you think?

But none of these are satisfactory. The first is a classic example of a leading question: it has assumed that it is wrong for Sindbad to let the snake eat him when this is surely one of – if not the – central issue around which the debate will hang. The second is too open and is in danger of digressions that move away from the ethical problem that faces the main character of the story; the issue the teacher is likely to want the students to consider. (I’m especially thinking of practical recommendations such as what he should do to escape from the island or to protect himself and so on). And the third question is much more concerned with the narrative than the ethical problem. A discussion about the ethical problem may follow from these questions, but it is likely to move off track. We might describe the shape of an open question like this:


Fig 2. Open question shape

Now, I’d like to return to the closed question approach that I dismissed earlier. Let’s rewind:

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?


All the facilitator need do here is say ‘Why?’[1] to solve the problem of the closed question. It is as simple as that; the question simply needs to be opened up. The questioner now has the best of both worlds: focus and specificity from closed questions and the invitation to say more that you get from open questions. This helps discussions flow, it helps discussions to continue developing whilst remaining structured and disciplined without being restrictive. The shape of this style of questioning can be represented as an X (The Question X), visually capturing the shape and character of both styles of questioning:


Fig 3. The question X

However, I need to say something about ‘the why question’ here. It is often suggested that ‘why?’ is an aggressive question that puts a student ‘on the spot’ making him or her feel that there must be an answer and that they will be considered stupid if they don’t have one and so on. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water; we must not dispense with ‘Why?’ This is even more the case in discussions that are philosophical in nature; justification is so central to philosophy that philosopher’s – or those engaged in philosophical discussions – cannot do without it. But I do agree that we need to deal with the problem of ‘why?’s possible aggression. As long as facilitators are careful about how they use the question ‘Why?’ then we can – and should – continue to use it. So instead of ‘why?’, pure and simple, I recommend the following expressions of the ‘why?’ question, at least until a class is comfortable enough to deal with a straight ‘Why?’:

  • ‘Would you like to tell me the reasons you have for that?’
  • ‘Would you like to tell me why?’
  • ‘Would you like to say why?’

The key point here is that you should invite the students so that they know that they don’t have to answer until they are comfortable doing so. I would argue that any philosophical discussion implicitly demands reasons, because the nature of philosophy contains a demand for justification, but a facilitator does not need to make the demand explicit. One should also make sure that one’s tone is neutral so that ‘Why?’ doesn’t sound like a weapon.

One should be aware that ‘why?’ does not only serve a justificatory (reason) role. ‘Why?’ can also be explanatory (causal) or even provide an account of motivation (purpose). The context usually makes it clear which kind of response (reason, cause or purpose) is required but some further questioning or clarification may sometimes be helpful to a student. Part of the reason for engaging in philosophical discussions, especially if the aim is educational, is to give the student practice is selecting what kind of response they need to give, as determined by the context. This is essential in order for a thinker to develop his or her autonomous reasoning.

So, to return to the main discussion, ‘Why?’ is just one way in which a questioner can ‘open up’ a closed question. I have identified the following main ways in which a question can be opened up. They are:

  • Justification (E.g. ‘Would you like to say why?’)
  • Clarification (E.g. ‘Could you tell me what you mean by…?’)
  • Elicitation (E.g. ‘Can you say more about…?’)
  • Exemplification/counter-exemplification (E.g. ‘Can you give an example(s) of…?’/ ‘Can anyone think of an example where not X?’)
  • Explanation (E.g. ‘Can you explain how?’)
  • Implication/entailment (E.g. ‘What does that tell us about…?’)
  • Conditions (E.g. ‘What do you need for…?’)

I tend to find that during philosophical discussions number 5 (Explanation, or the ‘how’ question) is needed less often than the other four but, of course, if using the opening up strategy in science, for instance, asking for explanation will be very important if not unavoidable. When using clarification questions during philosophical enquiries very often it is important to say ‘you’ as in: ‘Could you tell me what you mean by X?’ because it is less important what the term X means and more important that we know what the speaker intends to use the term for. In other words, we are after their meaning and not the meaning. Of course, there will be situations where the general meaning is also needed but in my experience it is not usually necessary in philosophical discussions.

Ending note: of course, some students/clients open themselves up:

FAC: Should Sindbad allow the snake to eat him?

CHILD: No because…

And under these circumstances closed questions don’t offer any problems, but the strategy I’ve described above is useful for those shy, unsure students, or those lacking in confidence you find silenced simply by the grammar of a closed question. After a while, and particularly with groups I’ve been working with for some time, I open up with simple prompts like ‘…because…?’ or ‘Go on…’ after an answer while I circle my hands to indicate that they continue in whatever capacity they see fit, if at all. Sometimes I simply motion with my hands ‘to go on’ saying nothing at all.

Intuitive responses[2]

I have found that there is another good reason to use closed questions: they elicit intuitions. This is important in a counter-intuitive way, or, ‘the first rule of philosophy club is don’t think about it!’ I have said elsewhere[3] that the philosophical process has the following structure:

  • Reflect (‘What is X?’)
  • Reason (‘I think X is/is not … because…)
  • Re-evaluate (‘But is that right? Because…)

And now I would like to add another R to the list that precedes them all: 0) Respond. That is to say that the philosophical process begins with intuitions – notions we have about something before we have gone through a reasoning process. A philosophical problem arises when there is conflict between or within our intuitions. For instance, ‘I think that the ship before me is the same ship because common sense tells me it is but I also think that it is not the same ship because it has changed over time,’ (see The Ship of Theseus in The If Machine) might be an example of a starting intuition that contains conflict: it is both the same ship and not the same ship. The conflict lies in the fact that there appears to be a contradiction (P and not P). Necessarily, one must have something to reflect on, to reason and re-evaluate about, so a response to some kind of cognitive conflict is essential to begin the philosophical process. There needs to be a puzzle.

Closed questions prompt a response in the manner of a reflex action.[4] Open questions are quite the opposite and it may be that something like a similar misconception about how philosophy works is at the root of why people tend to think that open questions are to be preferred when philosophizing or enquiring into something: ‘open questions require me to think so they must be better for thinking’. But, for the reasons given above, it is sometimes – I would argue: often – quite the opposite. Here’s a typical exchange:

FAC: So, [turning to a child who has not yet spoken] would you like to say anything? [Child shrugs shoulders to indicate something like ‘No,’ or ‘I don’t know,’ or ‘I’ve got nothing to say.’]

FAC: That’s okay. [Pause] Do you think the prisoner is free?


FAC: Would you like to say why?

CHILD: [After a while of some thought…] Because he can’t go out of the prison even if he wants to.

Sometimes, especially when the anchoring technique is used in this way, and also especially if the response is an intuitive one and not a reasoned response, then the child may have nothing more to say. At least they now have an intuition so they have something to start with, in this case, ‘No, he is not free’. Conflicts that come out of intuitions may not arise until other intuitions (from other speakers) are voiced. Sometimes, as with the ‘ship’ example above, conflicts arise out of a single intuition from a single person and other times they lie between intuitions had by different people.

[1] To many this will seem too obvious to mention but it is worth pointing out that it is one of the most commonly overlooked moves that we, at The Philosophy Foundation, notice when we conduct observations of teachers and graduates training to run philosophical enquiries.

[2] In his book Provocations Philosophy Foundation specialist David Birch endorses our use of closed questions in enquiry when he says, ‘…all that a closed question is asking of the pupil is whether they accept or reject something, whether they swallow or spit. It is appealing to taste rather than reason.’ (See Provocations: Philosophy For Secondary Schools by David Birch, page 6.) In this section I try to explain in more detail why philosophy begins with tasting.

[3] As part of a Tedx Talk: Plato Not Playdoh (TedxGoodenough College)

[4] This reminds me of the Bridge of Death scene in the Monty Python film The Holy Grail in which one of the characters is asked by the riddle setter ‘What is your favourite colour?’ The character is caught off-guard and says, ‘Blue. No, red!’ and is then thrown into the chasm below for failing to answer one of the three questions he had to answer in order to be able to pass. In this example the closed question prompted a reflex response such that he got his favourite colour wrong – something one would have thought you can’t get wrong!


Filed under Education, Peter Worley, Philosophy in Schools