Critical Thinking – And Why It’s More Important Than Ever Right Now

I’d like to jump in with an extract from Fierce Resistance …

(Peter Hardy has been kidnapped by the Malvanian Army, and he and his friends are being transported to a Malvanian Youth Camp. They have stopped at a large toy store and been given a toy each.)

… “First, said a lady with a guitar, ‘you must learn a special song. It’s called ze Question Song.’ She strummed the introduction.

Don’t ask questions … Question marks are bad … Children who ask questions … Are sad and wrong and mad … ‘Which?’ and ‘When?’ and ‘Where?’ and ‘Who?’ … Are words you mustn’t try … ‘What?’ and ‘How’ are naughty too … but the worst of them all is ‘Why?’

Peter wasn’t sure about this song. He liked asking questions, because life was interesting and complicated and puzzling. But no-one else seemed to mind singing it – and anyway, he wanted to keep his super blaster gun, so he joined in loudly …”

“Interesting and complicated and puzzling.”

One thing I have learnt from teaching children over the past 25 years, is that they are brimming with curiosity, goodness and common sense and that they are natural philosophers. So I was very fortunate that, during my teacher training year, a number of lecturers were members of the Philosophy for Children movement.  Creating a safe place for discussion – and fostering critical thinking skills – were very much part of the way I was trained to teach.

A simple class discussion might run something like this: 

Teacher: ‘What do people think about the way the three bears reacted to finding Goldilocks in their house?’

Child A: ‘I think they were a bit mean because she’s only a little girl and she must have been scared when they woke her up.’

Teacher:  ‘What do other people think about that?’

Child B:  ‘I disagree with ‘A’ because Goldilocks was actually being very naughty and had stolen their food, so she deserved to get told off.’

Teacher:  ‘Any more thoughts?’

Child C: ‘I agree with ‘B’ because when you’re naughty, you have to learn your lesson, and then you learn to behave well when you visit other people’s houses.’

Child ‘D’: ‘I agree and disagree with ‘A’, because the bears should have been less angry when they told Goldilocks off so she wasn’t scared, but she had broken their baby’s chair and that’s very naughty.’

You get the idea.  In philosophical discussions, children are taught that they can safely express their opinions to their teacher and peers (and that they are equally entitled to remain silent, or not join in, if they wish.)  They are encouraged to back up their opinions with evidence, to listen respectfully and attentively when other people are talking, and to express disagreement with kindness and neutrality. They are taught that people’s opinions differ widely, and that we can learn from each others’ views.  AND THEY FIND THIS EASY.  I had classroom discussions like this with children as young as 4, and they remain some of my most joyful teaching experiences.

Let’s go back to Peter in the toy shop for a moment …

“…The lady stopped playing, and pointed to an older boy sitting on the opposite side of the room.  He had short, bristly hair and a silver earring in one ear.

‘You’re not singing,’ said the lady.’

‘I hate singing,’ said the boy.  ‘And yer song’s rubbish.’

Peter quietly rubbed his hands together.  He wished he could say things like that …”

We’ll hear more about what happened to the boy who didn’t want to join in later.

Recently, it was reported that a school, as part of its ‘COVID-safe’ strategy, had stipulated that children should not make jokes about COVID-19. 

NO. Just: no.

Have a discussion about it, yes.  Ask children what they think about making jokes about COVID-19 and LET THEM SPEAK (if they want to).  They will have plenty to say about it: some will say that it’s fine and that cracking jokes is a brilliant way to deal with something scary or unknown.  Others will say that they don’t want to hear about it – ever – because it upsets them too much.  Someone might say that a loved one has died or suffered from the virus and they don’t want to be upset any more than they are already.  Others will say that it’s ok to make jokes … but that we have a responsibility towards our friends to not upset them, and that we need to make sensible and sensitive decisions about when to laugh, and when to talk about something else.  If you let the kids talk it through, they will find the balance, common sense and decency to move forward in the right way.  Kids are amazing like that

Censoring young people before they’ve had a chance to THINK FOR THEMSELVES and ASK QUESTIONS sends chills down my spine.

So, back to the boy who said he didn’t want to sing the song …

“…One of the lady’s eyebrows rose slightly.  ‘I am sorry to hear you speak zis way,’ she said.

She walked to the side of the room, opened up a small silver case and took out a syringe with yellow liquid in it.  Two other ladies stepped forward, took hold of the boy and pulled him to his feet, twisting his arms behind his back.  The lady with the shiny hair pushed the needle into the boy’s neck, squeezing it until the yellow liquid disappeared.

… The shiny-haired lady returned to the front.  She disposed of the syringe and straightened the collar on her clean, white dress.

‘Everyone in ze room will sing nicely,’ she said.

… The injected boy sang contentedly, rocking himself backwards and forwards in time to the music, his eyes lolling about in their sockets.  The verse came to an end and the lady shouted, ‘Repeat!’

The boy gave a lop-sided grin.  ‘Don’t ask questions,’ he sang, and dribbled on his T-shirt …”

When I penned that for the first time, I actually cried.  The censorship of children’s voices is unacceptable.  

It’s more important than ever right now, to allow our children to speak freely and make up their own minds about how to deal with what life throws at them. 

Trust me – they’ll do a great job of working it out.

Philosophy for Children is an organization that enables children and young people to experience rational and reasonable dialogue about things that matter to them and their teachers. You can find out more about them here.