Pete Worley of The Philosophy Foundation asks, ‘How many things are there?’

Yesterday, I had a nice chat with Peter Worley who’s Co-founder, with his wife Emma, of The Philosophy Foundation. According to their website, their aim is to “bring philosophy to schools and the wider community.” Over the past 10 years, they’ve been training philosophers and teachers in leading schoolchildren in the art of philosophical inquiry. Their hope, with Petition 4R, is that philosophical training will be a “compulsory” part of public education.

Peter’s formative background, like mine, is in tutoring. As a peripatetic music instructor, he asked, some 10 years ago, how he could mimic music’s stunning “ensemble effect” in a philosophical setting. His hypothesis:

If philosophical teaching somehow or other were to resemble musical teaching, then how could might it look?

During our conversation, he explained that the idea is to create a “philosophical arena” in which children can “play with concepts.” Afterward, I listened to a recent philosophical conversation he had with 8-, 9-, and 10-year-old children in Blackheath, England, about the nature of reality. I thought I’d share with you a handful of my observations about his estimable model of instruction.

1. The Philosophical Setup. Pete introduces a “philosophical arena,” a hypothetical scenario in which the children can play. “Suppose that…” Or “Let’s…” In this recorded conversation, he directs the children’s attention to a stick figure consisting of 4 pencils, a block, and a ball. He then asks, “How many things are there?” The lesson is about metaphysics: about the nature of reality and about how (or, indeed, whether) it’s cut up. He then allows the children to talk with each other for a bit to see what answers they come up with.

2. Modes of Interaction. There are 4 possible philosophical utterances: i) The question (How many things are there? Why do you think that? What makes this so? Why not…?); ii) The answer (There are 6 things. There are a 1000 atoms. Etc.); iii) One child’s response to another’s answer. (I agree with John because… I disagree with Jane because…); and iv) The open-ended sorting things out with each other.

3. Guidance. Pete’s job is to educate his pupils in the art of philosophical inquiry. He does this in key part by showing them how a good inquiry is supposed to look. Over time and with guided practice, each student practices how to make this collective form of inquiry “his own.” (Montaigne speaks about “ingesting” and “digesting” ideas.) The art of philosophical teaching, then, is showing each pupil how to get on on her own.

4. The Virtues. Of particular importance is Pete’s manner. You can sense, first of all, that he is quite patient. He doesn’t push the children this way or that; he listens attentively to each child’s appropriate reply. And yet, he doesn’t let the inquiry get lost forever in cul-de-sacs or circles; he moves the inquiry along by allowing each child to speak, by letting them essay their answers, by dwelling in the silence.

Second of all, he has the right style. He is neither patronizing nor cloying, neither stern nor dewy. He thanks each child for her contribution, but you don’t get the sense that the goal of thanking is self-esteem. He thanks each child for giving something important: for thinking with him, for engaging in philosophical inquiry, for helping everyone continue along the path of understanding. The emphasis, in short, remains on the inquiry, not on this or that individual.

Lastly, he is properly attuned to what is “needful” in the inquiry. There were a few times when I thought, “Hang on, Pete. Why not introduce concept X? What about weighing better and worse accounts? How about better answers?,” and then I restrained myself. Truth will come with time. Moving from opinion to truth is farther along in the philosophical itinerary. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

5. Educating his Interlocutor. For me, the most intriguing part of the conversation comes about halfway through. There, Grant, the Assistant Editor at Philosophy Now, begins to inquire with the children, and we see how things can go awry. Grant’s approach resembles the agon. The children are asked challenging questions, the child who has “stepped forth” is then pulled aside, and Grant’s follow-up question pushes much too hard. He draws inferences; introduces new terms; expects pellucid accounts; makes distinctions; poses further challenges; moves on quickly to the next challenge. The children, it is clear, are not following him. 

Here, Pete intervenes by gently pulling Grant aside. Striking the right tone, he tells Grant that the agon is adult discourse, not children’s speech. He implies that Grant has been forcing their hand. And he shows us, even as he is showing Grant, what it means to be a nurturant guide. Absolutely fascinating moment in the recording.

6. The Spirit of Montaigne. The most important thing I learned from our conversation yesterday was that Pete and I are both in love with Montaigne.

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “Childhood as Spiritual Exercise: Peter in The Snowy Day