Philosophy with children is neglected in Israel’s education

A CLASSROOM (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The educational discourse in Israel after the publication of the Pisa results expressed shock of the results but missed the main point. This is not about the money or the size of the classrooms, nor the quality of the teachers, nor the structure of Israeli society. The Israeli education system is neglecting for years thinking and education for thinking among students and especially young students. Thinking, and especially philosophical critical and creative thinking, is the main tool to encourage students to apply the core learning skills.
In recent decades, the educational system in Israel have been motivated by what I shall call herein a “pedagogy of fear.” This pedagogy touches on the concept of childhood, the child and the rationale for his/her education and on practices relating to the pedagogy of his/her upbringing. It fuels the view that the child constitutes a potential educational – generally psychological – problem that must be diagnosed, defended, assisted and, of course, “promoted” and aided and abetted.
Pedagogy motivated by fear prevents young students – as well as teachers – from dealing with the great existential questions that relate to the essence of human beings. This pedagogy based on a fear of philosophy in fact pathologizes children and childhood.
Pedagogy of fear stunts the active and vital educational growth of the young person, making him/her passive and dependent upon external disciplinary sources. Under the guise of a living, breathing educational system that seeks progress, fear and apprehension of a conscious and alert life guided by an educational space that enables the philosophical life so necessary for the young person is inculcated. It is thus no wonder that Martin Seligman – the founder of the positive psychology school – argues that “modern psychology has been co-opted by the disease model. We’ve become too preoccupied with repairing damage when our focus should be on building strength and resilience, especially in children.” In its over-enthusiastic adoption of the model of “repairing damage,” the pedagogy of fear views students as in constant need of “repair.”
In contrast, philosophy with children as a worldwide movement for years offers a space for addressing existential questions, some of which deal with urgent social issues. These philosophical questions threatening some social and educational structures, those interested in maintaining them claim that philosophy is irrelevant, ineffective, “pompous” and “badgering” and has nothing to do with success – certainly not financial or real-life success.
The pedagogical approach that excludes doing philosophy especially from elementary schools and educational communities has a long and complex history, having shaped the hegemonic discourse and thus influenced people’s views of society, war and patriotism and determined the standards by which these concepts are judged.
One of the techniques of the pedagogy of fear is the internalization of the view that without evaluation and assessment we cannot know a child’s level or “worth” – and therefore are unable to help him/her if he is “slow in learning.”
For years Israel adopted a policy of assessment by bodies which have thus begun testing children from younger and younger ages in order to ascertain how badly “retarded” they are in understanding and absorbing the learning material. The language of clinical medicine having infiltrated education, we have begun speaking of “early diagnosis” in order to help the potential “patient” before s/he becomes terminally “ill” and can no longer be “cured.” In a gradual process, medical terminology has permeated educational language, becoming clinical, diagnostic, ostensibly objective-scientific, numerical and, of course, “true.”
THIS PROCESS had led to the fact that, even at a young age, existential questions relating to human beings, the human essence, and humanity’s place in the world have been classified as superfluous, troublesome, and confusing, distracting the child from dealing with what should be his/her primary concerns – success in studies and life. Philosophic inquiry has thus gradually been driven outside the young person’s learning world – despite the fact that more than 40 years ago Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, the founders of Philosophy with Children, proposed a vast alternative space that paid respect to attentiveness to the authentic and original philosophical questions children (even very young ones) ask – even when they are not completely sure of the right way to ask them.
This view represents a willingness on the part of adults to let go their determined and determinative erudition and higher authority, as well as their daily desire to raise in both sense of the word their subordinates (i.e., children). This disposition places at its center a pedagogy of humility towards the child that contains not only an element of caring but also an understanding of the child as the one writing the story of his/her life and thus needing to ask essential questions about it.
Shaking free of the pedagogy of fear in Israel and restoring honor to children’s questions demands a fundamental conceptual change within education in Israel. A protracted, living, breathing philosophical space validates philosophical inquiry that does not focus specifically on content but rather on asking, in particular, philosophical questions relating to all fields of life. In many senses, such legitimization is of a space that contains continuous uncertainty that enables the child to live his/her life as a changing space rather than as an imaginary certainty.
Philosophy with children is designed to implement three central tasks:
• 1) To provide the tools for philosophical, critical, constructive thinking and investigation of the phenomena of life;
• 2) To provide the tools for creative thought that will inspire ideas and deepen creative life; and
• 3) To develop skills for caring behavior based on community involvement. The three Cs – critical, caring and creative – are the three elements that are lacking today in educational curricula which overemphasize learning achievements, assessment and evaluation, and a discourse centered around student “advancement.”
Philosophy with Children can thus not only contribute to children’s growth and creativity (as studies of communities of philosophic inquiry with children are increasingly demonstrating) but also to diminishing tension between people – especially the young – and meeting the need for dialogue regarding meaningful content.
For some education systems, philosophy with children can also free teachers from the prison into which they have been placed by the education system – a jail in which they are instructors who declaim fixed texts working with curricula that frequently confine them to uncreative furrows rather than allowing the to perceive the dialogic encounter with the student as a goal.
The writer is the head of development of the educational systems program at the Faculty of Education at the University of Haifa, and the president of the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children.