Sunday, 27 October 2013

Philosophy and preschool

After meeting the speech therapist last week it has got me thinking more about the value of using philosophy as a learning and exploration tool in preschool. It was clear to the speech therapist, from observing just one session, that there was great value for language development as there is VERY clear structure in how the philosophical dialogue is held.

Reaching this structure with this group of children has been a journey, to say the least, as there is little to no information out there on philosophy for children for preschoolers - and what there is TENDS to be for over fours, and some for over threes. And when I started at Filosofiska Preschool last January there were no children above the age of three - but during the year three of the children have turned four and most of the two year olds have turned three. As it is a new preschool many of these children were also new to each other and the preschool - so if you follow my blog you will probably have noticed that there are a lot of posts about listening and social skills - as most of the art sessions have been chosen to support the children in getting to know each other and to support their budding social skills - it has, in all honesty, been a roller coaster of a ride - and some days I have pulled at my hair thinking "we are supposed to have philosophical dialogues with these children?".

The whole of the spring term was dedicated to trying out different formats - talking in a circle on the floor, talking with the children with their backs lined up against the wall (as when we were in the circle children were being excluded as the circle got smaller and smaller - no matter how obvious it was that we should sit round the mat - the need to be seen and the need to see was at that time BIGGER than the need to be a "we") - we worked in the whole group (10 children and 2 teachers) and half groups to see how this helped. We worked with the children with images in the middle as well as giving them pens and paper to draw with as we talked around the table.

LISTENING was always a problem - just about ALL of them LOVED to talk but not to listen - and with a philosophical dialogue (just with any conversation or dialogue) listening is an essential tool - not only to show peers your respect for what they are saying, but also to be able to undertand, reflect and ask questions about what is being said - otherwise there is a risk of a series of monologues. And yes, we as teachers were modelling listening behaviour, by being attentive, by writing down their words and reading them back to them - but still there was a lack of listening...

Summer came and went and a reorganisation of preschool staff meant Ellen became my new colleague - and of course after time away, new children starting and a new teacher in the little group (even though she is well known to the children) the first few weeks of the term were dedicated to social jostling - "who am I in this group?". We are now 11 children and two teachers - two children have moved (including one to USA) and three new children started.
We had planned for the first official philosophical dialogue for a Tuesday morning - "talking rings" were ready - the idea being that if you are holding the talking ring it is your turn to talk and IMPORTANTLY if you are not holding the talking ring then it is your turn to listen - it is important that you say "your turn to listen" instead of "not talking" and there is a BIG difference between the two. Listening is an active verb - it is a skill that the children need to learn and practice. Not talking is not an active skill and means that we are not asking the children to listen or show interest just "not to talk". There is a second ring - as I wanted to show the children respect - that we as adults also needed to follow the same rules and that one thing did not apply to them and another to us - so one of the teachers holds a second talking ring - a slightly different one, that allows the teacher to ask questions and support the children in their particiaption - the other teacher is busy writing everything that is being said (and done) in a note book (A4). We have shared with the children that our aim is that one day one of the children can hold the leader talking-ring, but that first we need to practice both talking and listening and sharing our ideas.

the children's talking ring
The day before the first philosophical dialogue was tough. The children showed me quite clearly that they were NOT interested in sitting around the mat in a circle without a great deal of adult support - and this did not bode well for a dialgue if we were concentrating on just being able to sit in a circle. I went home and wracked my brain... how could I make this easier for the children - to have their own space so that they did not have to be concerned about what others are doing and to be able to focus on talking and listening...

The next day I moved chairs into our library area of the preschool and put them in a circle, with a small amount of space between each one - allowing each child their own defined space. In the middle of the circle I put a glass bowl of coloured water and there were three floating candles - something to focus on...

a circle of chairs with candles in the middle - we started off writing the notes on a BIG paper and had them on the wall - but they took up too much space, the children showed little interest in them and the parents were not partaking in the information either as it was at the far side of the preschool. All the notes were transferred to a note book and this book is kept near the entrance so that parents have the chance to read and be a part of their children's life at preschool
The children sat - and proved that we are right to believe in their competence - they could sit and they could talk - and, although when we look back now we can see how short that first dialogue was, we were SO pleased that our first dialogue went so smoothly.

By documenting what the children say we are not only able to see how their language develops - a richer vocabulary, their sentences are becoming longer, their pronunciation (I write down how they say words) but also their ability to listen and recall what friends have said. We do this every once in a while, especially when the listening part is starting to lose focus we ask - "is there someone who can repeat what xx has said?" - sometimes they can, sometimes just a part and sometimes they just start talking about something else entirely... we are also able to see their thought processes.
Writing down their words is also the fuel to the activities and the future dialogues that we have... Sometimes questions have been used when a small group started talking and thinking about a topic and we have asked if they would like to talk about the question in our philosophical dialogue - THOSE dialogues based on a previous discussion are the richest - because more of the children are invested in the question and also because some of them already have experience of talking and reflecting about this question...

So you might ask, why are not ALL of your questions for philosophical dialogue these kind of questions? Well all of them have been based on the children's interests and our observations of the children, but we still want to challenge the children in their thoughts - we are available the whole day to listen and discuss with the children as they wish and need (lunch times have become more and more like this) - and many of the activities are designed to give the children further opportunity to delve into their thoughts - but we also have to recognise that these children are still in the process of building up their language at the same time as particiapting in these discussions - for several of the children just staying on topic can be tricky at times - and the philosophical format gives structure to guide these children BACK to the topic "yes, I hear that you are starting to tell a story now, but we are interested in hearing what you think about..." We always let the children know we are interested in hearing their stories later, but that during the philosophy session we keep on topic. This is VERY good for their pragmatic language development - to not just say words to participate but to be able to follow the topic of the converation. The clear turn taking of using the talking rings also helps with their pragmatic language development - as listening is an important part of communication as is talking...

At the end of the session I read back to the children what they have said - holding both of the talking rings. It allows the children to hear their own words again, as well as those of friends, it allows the children to see that we value their words as we write them down, it allows the children to see that words can be written down using letters/symbols, it allows the children another chance to reflect on what has been said. On occasion the children are given the option to listen or go and get ready for outdoor play - and twice it has happened that all but one or two have gone (we have seen that their ability to listen has been pushed to the max - and it is about respecting their abilities and letting the experience remain positive).

The children are "free" to choose their own places in the circle of chairs - but we do encourage children to sit next to someone that allows them to be able to focus on listening - and there are days when we know that we have to select the places for some of the children, ensuring that they are close to an adult, for comfort or support, or not next to a certain child that would guarantee negative attention - as sometimes the need to allow the children to be competent is MUCH greater than the need to allow the children to choose freely. AND I do believe that the more competent the children feel the easier it will become for them to choose freely and wisely.

playing philosophical dialogue happens too - on this occasion the children used a red ball like a talking ring - at first they had placed the chairs in a circle, but others kept walking through their circle so they moved them up against the wall and continued there... We now have an extra set of talking rings (slightly different) for the children to play with when they want.
The difference between a normal preschool dialogue and a philosophical dialogue with these preschoolers  is that there is a great deal more structure - and there is not the fear of interrupting a child if they go off topic (and I am not talking about having an expansive and exploratory dialogue about the subject - some pretty amazing things pop up - BUT that we do keep to the day's philosophy question. As time goes on I am quite sure that the children will dig deeper into their reflections and that they will ask each other questions and the dialogue will take a different direction... but this will be something the whole groups agrees on - and not that just one child talks about) We are encouraging the children to particiapte and focus on a question - we are strict about turn taking, about keeping on topic and about being active listeners.
We do have other dialogues and conversations where there is the room for children to go off topic and to explore what is going on in their imaginations - there is room for all sorts of forms of communication - and a philsophical dialogue is a form of communication. We have philosphical dialogues twice a week.

As teachers we are expected to listen to what is being said with new ears - not to cloud thoughts with our own perception of what is right and wrong, but to be open to new possibilities - this does not mean we just cast aside our experiences and wisdoms - it means that we use these experiences and wisdoms to make sense of what is being shared - can we take this new thought to expand our own - or can we take our own to help expand those of others? Will we agree to disagree? BUT most importantly to receive other's thoughts with respect and value whether we agree with them or not.

We as teachers at Filosofiska also have philsophical dialogues with each other - with the exact same structure - this allows the ceiling to be high - in other words that we can be accepting of each other's ideas and explore them together... but this has been a long post - and I will go more into that another time...

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