17.02.2024 Feature Article

A Case for Philosophy for Children in African Schools

A Case for Philosophy for Children in African Schools
17.02.2024 LISTEN

Many years ago, I came across the idea of philosophy for children, but brushed it aside. I never took it seriously because I was of the notion that philosophy was not for children. Philosophy was not a child's play. Philosophy was for adults. But in the past few weeks, my views have been changing. I think that there is, or could be a philosophy for, with, and by kids. Philosophy needs not be exclusive to adults. Afterall, philosophy begins with wonder. And children wonder, and express their wonder. I had a rethink while exploring how to frame and deliver critical thinking lessons to secondary schools in Nigeria. I have been working and campaigning to introduce the teaching of critical thinking in primary schools. And the project has been going on pretty well. But the challenge is how to extend the project to secondary schools. As was the case in primary schools, I have been wondering if critical thinking could be introduced as a distinct and separate subject or embedded in an existing subject or program in secondary schools. The introduction of critical thinking as a new subject would be an uphill task, tougher and more challenging than in primary schools. The question was, how best could we accomplish this goal? It was in the course of pondering what to do and how to go about the critical thinking project in secondary schools that the philosophy for children program once again came to my mind. Maybe, we could frame the project as a philosophy for children. Why not? I went back and did some research on the topic of philosophy for children. And this second time was the charm. The whole program clicked and fitted together. Philosophy for children dovetailed with critical thinking. It is the secondary school version of the critical thinking project in primary schools. Why do I think so?

Philosophy for children does not allude to teaching children philosophy as we know it. I used to think that way. But philosophy for children is a different way of teaching and learning. Developed by Mathew Lipman, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, USA in 1974, philosophy for children is an inquiry-based and student-led approach to teaching and learning. It focuses on teaching children thinking skills and fostering the ability of young people to question, reason, argue, and reflect on issues, ideas, and experiences. Philosophy for children nurtures curiosity and encourages children to question and challenge received wisdom and knowledge. The discipline of philosophy is taunted as lacking market value. The school system stresses economic productivity. Children are encouraged to pursue forms of education and learning that could help them secure jobs and make them employable.

Due to overemphasis on economic productivity, little attention has been paid to educational programs that could get students to question the idea of economy or productivity, the kind of world we live in, the way we live and behave, and why things are the way they are not otherwise. Especially in Nigeria and by extension Africa, there is limited space for children to express their curiosity and doubts. The school system has no space for deep thought, reflective thinking, and pondering of big questions. Thus, philosophy for children provides a mechanism to further critical thinking skills in schools. Some educationists have suggested how philosophy for children could be delivered in classrooms. Different strands of pedagogy have been proposed. Michael Siegmund suggests asking questions and presenting pictures or images that could provoke children to converse and reflect.

Also, children can engage in philosophy through stories. These stories are told to inspire children to debate and argue. Programs on philosophy for children are going on in some parts of the world. A growing number of schools in Europe, America, and Australia offer lessons on the philosophy of children. In the UK, SAPERE and The Philosophy Foundation are leading the promotion of philosophy for children in schools. SAPERE is a national charity established in 1992. It advocates for the philosophy of children, encouraging children to think together and to think for themselves. The charity facilitates philosophy of children by getting them into groups, and encouraging them to ask and reflect on some key questions, and share their opinions. The Philosophy Foundation brings the benefits of philosophy to children, furthering the Lipman project of equipping young children with tools to think rationally, and respond philosophically to issues. It states on its website that its mission is to 'bring understanding, wisdom, and eudaimonia (flourishing) to the heart of education for children...'.

It notes that 'reasoning skills developed through philosophical inquiry are an indispensable foundation of all aspects of learning...'.

In the US, the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organisation (PLATO) promotes philosophy for children. Some information on its website says that, PLATO 'nurtures young people's curiosity, critical thinking, and desire to explore big questions, through philosophy and ethics programs for students, educators, and families'. The website has some of these big questions such as: Are numbers real? Can trees think? Who am I? etc. In Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa, there are programs on philosophy for children.

Prof Philip Cam of the University of South Wales Australia corrects the notion that philosophy is suitable only for adults, or for university students. He claims that it was a wrong and mistaken assumption. He notes that people can develop a capacity for philosophical reasoning from an early age. This capacity develops through inquiry-based learning that inspires children to engage in discussions on various subjects, exploring issues and questioning them, analyzing and constructing ideas. As Prof Cam noted, inquiry-based learning helps children to be more tolerant, open-minded, and reasonable. In her TED Talk, Lynne Hinton argues that philosophy for children is not an oxymoron or a contradiction. She claims that doing philosophy with young people does three things. It gets young people to engage in deep thinking; it inspires them to ponder big philosophical ideas or questions. Philosophy for children gets young people to think well. It enables them to collaboratively explore big ideas and questions.

In an interview with Sara Stanley in Cape Town, she states that philosophy for children is a method of teaching that gets the voices of children out there, getting them to share ideas, and building a community of inquiry. Philosophy for children makes children to be critical of their thinking and the thinking of others. So, it is evident that the philosophy for children should be the sequel to critical reasoning in primary schools. It builds on the foundation that has been laid in the elementary school. Before children are taught to ponder and reflect on big questions, they need to learn how to generate questions. Philosophy for children can transform the school system in the region. It can improve the way we teach and learn in schools. Public and private school managers should endeavor to introduce philosophy for children in secondary schools across Africa.

Leo Igwe is a member of the International Council of Philosophy for Children and director of the Critical Thinking Social Empowerment Foundation.