Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Silent Einsteins - Andrew Strong

I was once a great believer in philosophy for children.  I’d read a class of children the wonderful chapter from Winnie the Pooh, ‘Eeyore’s Birthday’ in which  Pooh wants to give Eeyore a pot of honey but eats the honey, and Piglet has a balloon for Eeyore, but it bursts.  So Eeyore ends up with a burst balloon and an empty pot, but he’s delighted, he can put the burst balloon into the pot and take it out again. He’s happy.  Then, of course, the children can discuss happiness and what it is and what it means, and how it happens.  The wordy, confident pupils usually dominate the discussion, sometimes offering insight, often demonstrating some sort of philosophical approach.  “It depends what you mean by happiness,” one will say, and I will be delighted.

The quieter children will still be thinking about the story, or are lost somewhere along the way, maybe stalled at the point where Piglet falls on the balloon and thinks he’s dead.  But, you know, we have to move things along, get to the philosophy bit.

Except the other day a wordy confident child asked me if I knew what E=MC2 meant.  Well, I said, I do, sort of, but I can’t really explain it beyond the most superficial outline.  I did my best and he said he understood it.  I explained that Einstein had one of his first major breakthroughs when he thought of someone falling.  A person falling for long enough would achieve weightlessness.

I asked the wordy, confident boy to imagine he was in a lift, holding a pen, and then the cable broke and the lift fell, and kept falling until he was weightless.  Imagine, I said, you then let go the pen.  What happens to it?

Wordy boy mimicked the pen shooting up out of his hand.  And then, from behind him, I noticed a girl who had said nothing, but who was listening intently, suddenly leaning forward.  She was staring at me and her eyes were bright.

“It would stay there,” she said. “The pen would just stay there.”  She nodded to herself as if confirming her idea, and sat back, resuming her silent rumination.

These silent children, these children who don’t shine or sparkle, or who fail to make any early impression on the world, I am convinced their thoughts are quietly gestating.  Their minds are finding new ways to reimagine the world.  The wordy, confident ones, the brilliant academic children who fly through exams, they have often matured early, they know to repeat what they’ve been told, adding some calculated sparkle for good measure.

Here’s an example of a test question that so infuriated me I set fire to it and let it float, a fiery cloud, over the silent fields of my suppressed rage.  It asked pupils to read a text and then describe what a character was ‘feeling’.  In order to do this, it seems, a pupil scours the page for synonyms of the word ‘feel’ and then quotes these phrases.  ‘He sensed doubt’ ‘His worries compounded’ and so on. Yet throughout the passage there were louring skies, distant cries, a current in a pool eddies and swirls, all these things externalising the protagonists fears. Yet none of these were acceptable.  The limits of what the text could do had been set in stone by some evil test setter. 

Education rewards the wordy group, and more and more, demoralises the others.  The winners go on to become evil test setters.  And things like ‘Philosophy for Children’ just exacerbate it.  The quieter pupils allow images to rise and fall, let them simmer and settle.  The wordy ones want to pin them down as soon as possible, try and articulate something immediately. 

But literature is not a science, and art cannot have such simplistic one to one relationships.  A single word is a trove of associations, a text is a universe, and there is far too much to be found to expect everyone to discover the same things.


Stroppy Author said...

I'm afraid I think philosophy is the *only* thing worth teaching children. All the rest will follow if they know how to think and how to ask questions. I taught my daughters philosophy because the schools didn't. Philosophy can be a quiet, contemplative activity even though it moves more quickly if you tackle it through discussion. If you did away with philosophy, you would rob that quiet girl of the insight about the pen. The quiet ones benefit from the triggers as much as and maybe more than the noisy ones.

If you don't have the confidence to speak out in class, at least you can take a lot from it if it gives you things you can think about for a lifetime, such as 'what is evil?' 'what exists?' is one type of happiness more worthy than another?' and so on. The quiet kids won't be louder just because you take interesting content away - as your story proves, something really interesting to think about can make them speak out.

The way learning is tested is all wrong (ref your story about how only superficial types of insight into a literary text are acceptable), but the raw material of knowledge and intellectual enquiry is the birthright of all children. We need to challenge the teaching and testing regime, not stop teaching things that could be considered divisive.

Philosophy builds confidence by making children and adults aware of what they think and value. If it was good enough for Aristotle, it's good enough for me.

(I hereby declare my professional interest: The Story of Philosophy, 2013, and The 15-Minute Philosopher, 2014)

Sue Purkiss said...

Thought-provoking stuff. When I was teaching, I always felt the scales were balanced in favour of the wordy charming ones and the naughty ones - and that, somehow, more attention needed to be paid to the quiet ones. But it's really not easy to be fair to everyone. That's one of the reasons I get cross when teachers are blamed for not doing this and not doing that -the blamers should just try getting in there and doing the job, not for a day but for a term or a year. Rant over!

John Dougherty said...

This is an immensely powerful post, Andrew, and I agree with most of what you say - but, like Anne, I don't think it's fair to blame philosophy for the problems you describe.

Philosophy is literally 'the love of wisdom'. It is not wisdom - it is not philosophy - to insist on 'moving things along' and 'getting to the philosophy bit'. Literature, as you say, is not a science; and neither is philosophy.

Nor is it education to test in the way you describe. It is foolishness; foolishness driven by politicians and pen-pushers who lack the imagination to see that not all learning outcomes can be predicted and prepared for, and that there is more than one way of being.

Emma Barnes said...

I don't see why your post (which I found fascinating) is an argument against teaching philosophy either. Why would other subjects be better for the quiet ones? I do agree though that it can be difficult to make sure that the louder, more confident children don't dominate, not just for teachers but maybe especially for authors on school visits, with often only an hour to get to know a particular group of children. On the other hand trying to force the quieter, more reflective children to take centre-stage on those occasions doesn't always help either.

Pippa Goodhart said...

I wish you had been my teacher!

C.J.Busby said...

Very interesting post - and I know what you mean about the way education favours the wordy ones. It's something I gained from, as a wordy child, and my two eldest children similarly, but my youngest is really different, and it's making me re-evaluate the whole system quite radically (yes, I probably should have realised this before - but you know, when you just swim through it like a fish, you don't necessarily notice how narrow the stream you're in is, or how much there is to be gained by swimming sideways off into the eddies and pools instead!) So depressing that Gove seems intent on forcing the education system into the even narrower stream of old-fashioned public school rote learning and exams.

Heather Dyer said...

I read this as being an argument FOR philosophy (Andrew is teaching it, after all) but against testing it?

Andrew said...

I'd quite like to have done my schooling at Summerhill. Where the teachers don't force their pet subjects on you, or have the unstated aim to turn their pupils into junior versions of themselves.

They do have the very useful function of preventing it all turning into 'Lord of the Flies'.

Yes, I think I'd have quite liked Summerhill. Of course, there would have had to be the food parcels from home. A non-negotiable. My Mum's home made Cornish Pasties.

Andrew Strong said...

I wasn't having a go at philosophy, which remains very important to me, but at an educational culture that demands all children respond in a similar way (in this case by being able to articulate thoughts quickly and succinctly.) There are children who do well in these situations, but there are others who need quiet, reflective rumination, and who must be given time to dwell on a thought without feeling the need to respond quickly. But more and more, and particularly in Wales, all light and air is being squeezed out of the curriculum. (Eg it is now statutory that every school session whether it be art, music or IT has to have a literacy or numeracy focus). There is no room for real philosophy, or any genuine reflection or imaginative thought at all.