Wednesday, 2 August 2017

working philosophically with children

I thought I would share a few reflections from working philosophically with children. I have found it to be not only a great way for the children to interact with each other, but also for me, as an educator, to learn how to be a facilitator rather then an instructor... my approach has always been to listen to the children and to co-research/co-learn with them - but getting to really practice taking a step back and facilitating their dialogue with each other, focussing on helping them gain the skills they needed to get better at this, I realised how much we still unintentionally control a group of children we work with... partly because  this is how we experienced our own childhoods and partly because we have well meaning intentions of keeping them safe.
The fact that I worked with the same children for almost 4 years also taught me many things... that TIME is essential... time to build trust with each other, time to explore ideas bit by bit so that the children could make informed decisions, time to learn about how each person (adult and child alike) reacted in social situations.
So the level of trust the children and I had for each other was amazing, it opened up learning so much more as we did not have to reflect on whether it felt safe enough to say something, or worry about feeling silly expressing an idea - because there was that level of trust that let you spend all your energy on sharing ideas knowing that they would be accepted, discussed, and explored.

And just as the philosophy sessions influenced the children in their daily play... to solve problems, make decisions together to be able to argue their point respectfully, to listen to the play ideas of others... it also helped me to be a better educator... to facilitate in my day to day interactions with the children rather than teach... to be able to listen, to learn to stand back, to not always have an agenda, but to be able to see the learning...

the philosophy sessions gave the children the time and space to feel listened to, and to play and explore with ideas

The group I first started with were aged 2-4 years... all in one group... which made it both tricky and exciting as there were many different abilities which both support each other but at the same time there is a risk that the more verbal children take over.

The philosophy sessions were always with very defined rules... even for us adults...  not just a normal conversation where the children could talk about anything... but there is a need to stay on topic, of turn taking, of active listening, of being able to support the ideas you give with good reasons and arguments (ie they could not just spout out anything, they needed to explain why they thought that)

of course all of this did not happen in a short space of time... both children and educators need to practice this... the educator needs to practice going in to the meeting without an agenda - ie  not the children are going to learn "this" about the topic today... instead the "agenda"  for the teacher is to be a facilitator - to enable the children to communicate their ideas, to explain them, to enable all the children to talk, and not just a few take over, to enable a safe space where the children feel free to talk, a respectful meeting... the facilitator also needs to help link the ideas, until the children are doing this themselves too.

some sessions used photographs the children had taken, we explored the importance of them, explored what play was happening etc

The first sessions we had were just 10 minutes long... but that was enough... three years later after doing sessions once a week... the children could talk for an average of 45-75 minutes depending on the topic...  sometimes it was shorter or extremely short as there was just not the focus that day for whatever reason... the aim was always to make the sessions fun and meaningful.. but at the same time push their thinking... but never push so much that they did not want to do it any more.

We tried to take in the children's questions to the sessions, but found that they never worked as well... they were GREAT for conversations that felt philosophical, but not the more structured philosophy session... I have tried to explore this idea as to why this was the case and came to the conclusion that it was due to the fact that it was often an off the cuff wondering and not a deep rooted wondering... those I observed through the children's play and interactions with each other, with books, and with materials and adults... so the questions (or stimuli for dialogue) always came from the children, but it was me that has sort of mined for this information. (I always let the children know this too... not during the philosophy sessions, but during other conversations how they had influenced the philosophy sessions's direction).

sometimes we took the philosophy outside in the play... how many different ways could we jump in a puddle... a playful way to explore there are more than one way to do something...

Here is a quick description of a typical philosophy session I developed... it is not P4C or any other approved method (you can google more and find out if you want to try out a specific method) - but I have been inspired by these methods, by meeting others who use or train people in Philosophy With Children or P4C or Socratic Dialogue, and also through reading books and articles etc etc - and then being a "Malaguzzi Inspired" educator I pieced together a format that suited us as a group... the children and myself, in the context we found ourselves...

Tuesday mornings (this was the day we had philosophy sessions)

we gathered in a circle
I presented the question, or read a story and asked about it, or showed photos/picture to ask about it/them...

The children had a thinking pause to reflect on the question, and to think about WHY they thought that

We then explored the question together (I avoided going round in a circle) I also tried hard to let the dialogue be as organic as possible... but in the beginning there was a LOT of intervention by me, for language support, reminding of the question, to keep on topic.

My colleague wrote down everything the children and myself were say verbatim... so we could document the children thinking skills, language skills etc

Usually there is a metadialogue at the end... but I found the children struggled with this at the young age... so our metadialogue became reading back the notes to them... and giving the children time to reflect on what they had said... had we written it down right? Did they want to change their minds or add something new? This way the children became active in the recording of their words, and very interested in writing

The choice of questions/topic always came from the project and the children's play/interest - these were the most successful.

Finding a way to sit is important... different groups have different needs... my lot needed chairs to sit on... a defined space, otherwise they crashed and bumped into each other... 40% of the group had special needs the first 2 years. (then some left for school)

I always made sure we had free play afterwards as the session is quite intense... we also offered the bubble game at the end of the session... and ALL wanted to be in that so the children were intent on staying the course of the session (there was a month where 2 of the children tested boundaries in a monumental style and when I said that they did not need to be in the session, but that it would mean missing out on the bubble game, they then self regulated... I knew both the children had the capacity... and actually both were very deep thinkers... but I also felt they were either active participants or observers, but that they should not be allowed to destroy it for the rest of the children practising their listening skills, thinking skills and interaction skills).

This is because I believe that if we want to create a democratic classroom/learning then we have to create situations where the children practice participation and responsibility... that it is not OK to opt out of the group just because you think it might be boring (funnily enough the children that complained the most about it being boring now and again, were also the ones that had the biggest need to make decisions in the group... they like deciding but were not so keen on the responsibility - but after a few years they realised the power they had in the dialogues and became very active participants)... so for me it indicated the need for me to insist that they participate and try out a "language" that was outside their comfort zone, until they did feel comfortable with it, even expert at using it. If I had let them just leave and do something else "less boring" - they would never have discovered the joy they found later or become empowered with the access to informed choice making and respectful dialogues with peers.

I had one child that ended up doing language training in another room during the philosophy session, as the gap between her ability to keep up with the dialogue meant that she was being excluded within the group... so she had one to one communication training during the time instead... after 6 months she joined us in the sessions on the days she felt she had the energy. This was something that both she and the group appreciated, and of course we were grateful we had the staff to be able to do this that allowed the child to get the support needed to be an active participant.

Before we get to the verbal sessions we do lots of preverbal sessions... like passing a ball around, turn taking, the bubble game, choosing what activity to do and then keeping to that choice for at least 15 minutes... etc. This is done with the 1-3 year olds on a regular basis... so in the sense we can work philosophically with children long before they are verbal.

We do have small groups... and this was a choice to be able to have philosophy sessions and shared sustained thinking. The biggest group was 13 with 2 staff... and it worked, put was a push...
The groups of 8-10 worked well... but 4-5 children worked well too... the problem then was often there was not a teacher available to write down the dialogue... and facilitating and documenting the dialogue at the same time is tricky - more things get missed... either in the documenting part, or in the communication part (you miss non-verbal cues in the group)
I found documenting direct onto a laptop was the easiest... and that was after 24 months of handwritten documentation... We did start by having it written on big paper on the wall so the children could see us writing down their words and see their words... but I felt this would have had more impact on a group that was able to read... also I think that it could have interfered with the children's ability to listen... suddenly there are many ideas flowing through the child at the same time with words on the wall... not only reflecting on what is written, but also trying to listen and interpret what is being said at the time... maybe it is information overload... maybe it is a symptom of being an adult and being dependant on the written word to remember, that we have forgotten the traditions of oral storytelling as passing information down from generation to generation, so that skill of listening and remembering is gone...??
I remember as a young child I could remember so many songs and so many telephone numbers etc... and when I started to use a song book in school my ability to remember those songs went, as I no longer had to commit them to memory (although that maybe means my brain was freed for other information?) - also with mobile phones today having all the numbers stored into them, I never remember phone numbers anymore!!

The written words on the computer also meant it was easier for the children to read back some of the words... at least some of the 5 year olds that were interested...(remember school, does not start until the year the child turns 7 here in Sweden so I don't have to teach reading and writing, I only encourage the children's natural desire to want to be able to do this, at their pace) the good thing with hand written was that the children could SEE us writing, and what that involved... that their thoughts were being saved on paper... and gave them inspiration for mark making themselves.

During the weeks and over the months we did lots of activities, play and art etc etc that supported the children in their ability to collaborate, to share ideas, to take turns, to express ideas through other languages than just verbal communication... please take the time to explore this blog under "listening" and "philosophy" to find out more...

drawing ideas to then explain to others... this was a sound machine...

dancing listening, interpreting sound through movement, and interpreting movement and recordings on the paper...

log books to collect ideas 

taking notes

using theatre to explore many ways to interpret a story

learning to listen to everyone's ideas so that art can be created

playing their ideas... we talked about magic powers... then I asked them how could we play these ideas... they decided that we needed to dance on rainbows... so we created a BIG rainbow to dance on

artwork not so much as creative expression but as taking responsibility, taking turns, being patient - Kandinsky helped us with this

together paintings

at christmas we explore what colour is Christmas - to learn more about what the children think Christmas is - then we paint using those colours...

exploring the many ways we can play with light... are we afraid of the dark if we can play in it... what is a shadow etc etc

if you have anymore questions or thoughts about this, please add them to the comments here on this blog, so that more may learn from your reflections....

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