Are they the aliens, or are we?

Stargazing

Most kids find The Philosophy Club unusual, because it’s rare for them to find other opportunities – either in school or home – to think and talk about deep questions in an open and collaborative atmosphere. Although some families and teachers go out of their way to cultivate these opportunities, it’s generally uncommon for children to be invited to explore new perspectives, to challenge each other’s opinions in a reasoned way, or to spend time actively constructing their worldviews.

A version of this was first published as a guest post The Philosophy Club: Where young minds explore deep questions on the Enable Education and Kids Think About It blogs. The questions were posed by Amy Leask.

Tell us a little about the workshops you run.  Why did you start doing them?

My workshops are all about kids immersing themselves in big questions and exploring a universe of ideas together. I use theme-linked stories, multimedia and creative activities to spark philosophical dialogue.

I started The Philosophy Club because I thrive on the wonder, the exchange of ideas, the creative freedom and the critical rigour that characterise philosophical enquiry – and I wanted to share this passion with children.

I wanted to create a supportive environment and a rich array of learning materials that would enable kids to do all of these things, while developing their thinking and interpersonal skills along the way.

Illustration by Manon Gauthier

Children love having their ideas taken seriously. Illustration by Manon Gauthier

You’ve worked with a variety of age groups.  Which aspects of learning philosophy change as children get older, and which aspects stay the same?

The developmental changes I’ve noticed are related not so much to the children’s ages as to their level of experience in doing philosophy in a collaborative group. More experienced children are generally able to express subtle ideas more clearly. They tend to display sharper thinking and reasoning skills. And they have a more sophisticated philosophical awareness – in other words, they’re more attuned to the philosophical significance of what they’re saying or hearing.

I think that kids of all ages share a common appetite for provocation: they’re endlessly curious and eager to encounter new questions and puzzles. They seem to have an ongoing capacity to generate imaginative ideas, unconstrained by the inhibition and self-criticism that plague many adults.

Illustration by Felicita Sala

Philosophy can be playful as well as serious. Illustration by Felicita Sala

What’s the most “out there” question a child has asked you?  How did you and the other learners respond?

“If we found life on another planet, we’d need to think about this: Are THEY the aliens, or are WE?”

I was pretty dazzled by this question. We were having a discussion about how humanity should respond if an alien spacecraft were to rapidly approach Earth, emitting signals that we couldn’t decipher. I thought the kids would want to explore the ethical dimensions of the situation – like whether we should launch a pre-emptive strike – but to my surprise, they leapt into a range of questions about metaphysics, language and meaning. Here’s what they said (without any input from me):

    – “Are THEY the aliens, or are WE?”

    – “We’re probably alien to them.”

    – “To French people, English is a really odd language. And to us, French is a really odd language. But I can never think of English being an odd language, because I’ve grown up with it.”

    – If we wanted to talk to the aliens, how can we translate their thoughts into our words so we can understand them?”

    – “I would send the friendliest people on earth to go and greet them. Our friendliest people could say ‘We come in peace’.

    – “But if they don’t understand the word ‘peace’, they might zap us.”

    – “We could make a peace sign out of flowers…”

    – “If we give them a flower, how do we know they won’t think it’s a weapon?”

Illustration by Yelena Bryksenkova

Philosophy helps children to consider questions from different points of view. Illustration by Yelena Bryksenkova

How do you see programs like yours impacting children in the long-run?  How will they grow from them, both academically and personally?

I think that programs like these are hugely empowering for children. They develop three major skill-sets that help children flourish both in their school careers and in other areas of their lives.

Firstly, philosophical enquiry helps kids learn how to think better. It gets them thinking more critically, rigorously and sceptically, so they’re less likely to succumb to ill-founded beliefs or be duped by self-deception, spin or rhetoric. Philosophy develops reasoning skills, so children become better at building logical arguments and rationally defending their views. It also encourages kids to question the assumptions underlying different points of view, making it possible for them to challenge dogmatic beliefs. And philosophy cultivates deep and deliberative thinking – often neglected in traditional schooling, which tends to focus more on getting ‘the quick right answer’ – so children get a chance to explore the nuances of complex ideas.

A second set of skills relates to children’s personal development. By engaging in philosophical discussions, children develop independent thinking, the confidence to speak their minds, as well as a sense of responsibility for their opinions and actions. Philosophy also raises children’s awareness of the ethical issues that touch their lives, and gives them tools to begin developing their own values and principles.

A third important skill-set is social. Since philosophical enquiry is practiced in collaborative groups, children are working together to consider questions from diverse points of view. In this way, the children develop greater respect for difference and deeper empathy for other people’s experiences. They also become more attentive to each other, more fair-minded and more skilled at cooperating and negotiating.

I’m convinced that these three skill-sets – good thinking, self-development and productive collaboration – are foundational for anyone who wants to succeed as a student, as an active citizen, or simply as a thoughtful person who hopes to lead a meaningful life.

Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault

Philosophy helps children flourish not just intellectually but also personally and socially. Illustration by Isabelle Arsenault

The Philosophy Club works with teachers and students to develop a culture of critical and creative thinking through collaborative enquiry and dialogue.

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4 responses to “Are they the aliens, or are we?

    • Hi Gwendolyn,

      Thanks for your encouraging response. In my experience, few college-level philosophy teachers are enthusiastic about the idea of practising philosophy with children. Many academics regard children’s thinking as insufficiently philosophical to be worthy of the name. Of course, I’d beg to differ – and your words of support are a breath of fresh air!

      By the way, I’ve enjoyed visiting your blog and I particularly appreciated your remark that “finding something interesting, like recognizing beauty, takes time and thought. One isn’t always ‘struck or in ‘awe.’ Often, interest is the result of devoting energy to appreciation.” An excellent point.

    • It is not possible to say whether there are aliens out there or that we are alone. We haven`t made any real undeniable contact with aliens and because the universe is so vast that we haven`t and couldn`t have checked everywhere for life. Some people say that Crop Circles are messages from aliens but why fly all this way, leave an obscure message and then fly away again. People report that they`ve been taken by aliens but they are dismissed as unreliable and attention seekers. Until we get an alien mothership hovering over a major city, UFO abductees will continue to be dismissed. The only way I can plausible see us being the only lifeforms in the Universe is if we are at the centre of the Universe and that chemicals exist on our planet that don`t exist anywhere else which is highly unlikely. The most important chemicals for life on Earth are Oxygen, Carbon, Hydrogen and Nitrogen. All three of those chemicals have been spotted on in space. Oxygen has been spotted in a star forming region of Orion constellation, you can read more about his on the BBC News website.
      http://ku.ac.ke/schools/humanities/index.php/departments/philosophy-religious-studies

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