Interview with David M. Larsson

WHAT IF THE WORLD WAS TRANSPARENT?

Interview with David M. Larsson, a philosophy for children specialist from Denmark

THE PHILOSOPHICAL SOCIETY OF MACEDONIA AS PART OF THE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAMME OF THE 8. PHILOSOPHICAL FILM FESTIVAL (PFF), FOR THE FIRST TIME IN MACEDONIA OPENS UP A WINDOW TO THE AREA OF PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN. PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN IS A DISCIPLINE AND PRACTICE WHICH HAS BEEN RAPIDLY DEVELOPING IN THE PAST YEARS (IN LARGE PART WITH THE SUPPORT AND UNDER THE PATRONAGE OF UNESCO) AND IT EMBODIES THE EFFORTS FOR DEVELOPMENT OF CRITICAL AND CREATIVE THINKING IN CHILDREN FROM THE YOUNGEST AGE, THE TIME WHEN THE SENSE OF WONDER AND OPENNESS TO THE WORLD IS THE STRONGEST.

IN THIS CONTEXT AND IN THIS PART OF THE FESTIVAL PROGRAMME, WE WILL HAVE DAVID M. LARSSON, PHILOSOPHICAL COUNSELOR AND PRACTITIONER FROM DENMARK AS OUR GUEST. LARSON IS PART OF A NON-PROFIT ORGANIZATION “RUM FOR UNDREN” (ROOM FOR WONDER) PROMOTING THE SOCRATIC METHOD AND CRITICAL THINKING IN KINDERGARTENS AND SCHOOLS THROUGHOUT DENMARK. IN THE FESTIVAL SEGMENT „FIL(M)OSOPHY FOR CHILDREN“ (IN THE PERIOD FROM 11-15 APRIL), LARSON WILL GIVE AN INTRODUCTORY LECTURE, WORKSHOP FOR TEACHERS, STUDENTS AND YOUNG RESEARCHERS, AS WELL AS A PRACTICAL DEMONSTRATION OF THE METHODS OF PRACTICING PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN WITH SECOND GRADERS AND THIRDS GRADERS. BEFORE THE FESTIVAL, WE HAD THE PLEASURE TO MAKE AN INTERVIEW WITH HIM ON WHICH HE HAS ANSWERED US FEW QUESTIONS RELATED TO HIS WORK IN THE AREA OF PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN.

 

1. Philosophy for Children is a relatively young educational practice having its beginnings in the 1970s and it is still very uncommon for many educational systems throughout the world, including the Macedonian educational system. Can you explain what philosophy for children is and what is its importance for the development of the individual and the society?

Philosophy for children takes so many different forms but at the heart of all the various approaches is the core belief that children can – and should – think about philosophical questions from a young age. What is love? What is friendship? What is freedom and justice? These are all questions that most children can relate to in some way and often they can also come up with meaningful answers to them. A crucial point to keep in mind, though, is that philosophy for children is not about teaching the children what Plato, Kant, or other famous philosophers thought about these questions. The main idea is to help the children think for themselves. As for the educational benefits, research is showing that philosophy for children has a positive impact on children’s self-esteem and social skills and also helps them to perform better in subjects like math and language learning. What I personally find most significant, however, is that philosophical reflection teaches the children to listen carefully to each other, to take in different perspectives and to reach their own conclusions. There is something almost magical about observing a 9-year-old reconsider his position and eventually change his mind after facing a strong argument from a classmate. In my opinion, these are skills we should promote if we want to raise responsible, rational and considerate future members of society.

2. People usually have the tendency to think that doing philosophy is for rear kind of people who are gifted, have a great knowledge and life experience, thus it is a widely spread opinion that children are not capable of doing philosophy. How would you contradict this commonly accepted view?

I have encountered this criticism before and I think it can be traced back to a difference of opinion as to what the nature of philosophy is. Without going too far into that discussion, I think it is worth recalling that philosophy originally was dialogical in nature and that it sprung from our fundamental desire to know why the world is the way it is. Both of these elements are present when you philosophize with children. So when people say that children aren’t equipped to philosophize I think they are missing the point, since nobody is more in touch with basic philosophical wonder than young children. Just consider the number of questions that an average 5-year-old asks on a daily basis. Even Plato recognized wonder as one of the main driving forces in philosophical inquiry. So, seen from that perspective, children are much better philosophers than most adults.

3. Since there are many theoreticians and practitioners of philosophy for children in its short history (Lipman, Matthews, Wartenberg, Murris, Buckley, Ord and many others) there is a great diversity of methods specially designed for doing philosophy with children. What are the specifics of the method(s) you use when you do practice philosophy with children?


In contrast to many of the existing methods, which usually put a strong emphasis solely on critical thinking skills, my colleagues and I have developed a method which aims to evoke philosophical wonder in the children. One simple strategy that we often employ is to ask lots of “what if” questions to fire up their imagination and for this purpose we have developed a series of questions that are deliberately open-ended. A few examples are: “what if the world were transparent?”, “what if the world were upside down?”, “what if you were born with eyes on your toes?”. The key point is that the questions obviously don’t have a right or a wrong answer, so they invite the children to think freely about the consequences of these scenarios. This usually takes them down a rabbit-hole of further philosophical inquiry, which might involve the obvious epistemological challenges of living in, say, a transparent world. Most of our exercises are developed for elementary school students who encounter philosophy for the first time, so as a general principle, we are very keen on showing the children that philosophy is about having fun, being creative, being playful and using your imagination.

4. You have earned your MA in Philosophy and Japanese at the Center for Subjectivity Research, University of Copenhagen, where you specialized in phenomenology, philosophy of mind, and Zen Buddhist philosophy. Are there any connections between these areas of your specialization and philosophy for children that lead you to get interested in it, or maybe shaped the way you understand and do philosophy for children?

That’s a good question… To be honest I did not see an obvious connection to my specialization when I first started working with children. Now I’m starting to become aware of some shared traits, though. The most important, I think, is the role that intuitive action plays both in Zen philosophy and in philosophy for children. When you’re in a classroom full of children you rarely have the time to stop and think hard so often you have to rely on your intuition to lead the way through good and bad arguments, improvisation and the ocassional dose of random silliness. I always try to take advantage of the unexpected moments that occur. It is these sudden cracks in the schedule that can turn an average session into something that the children will remember for a long time afterwards.

5. Can you shortly share with us your experiences, challenges and difficulties you are coming across while implementing philosophy for children in the educational practice in your homeland Denmark?

For a long time the primary challenge has simply been to make people aware that philosophy for children exists. Luckily, it appears that the general public and politicians are slowly beginning to take notе of the individual, social, and educational benefits of introducing philosophical reflection to children at an early age. There is still a long way to go, though, since philosophy is currently not mandatory at any level in the Danish school system, which I of course think is a great loss.

6. What advises would you give to the people interested in the idea of starting an educational practice of doing philosophy for children in Macedonia?

First of all my advice would be to establish contact with one or more schools and start philosophizing from day one. Find out which methods fit your style and temperament. Next, I would recommend reaching out to some of the numerous communities around the world that are already working hard to integrate philosophy into their own school systems. In my experience you can reach out to almost anywhere on the planet and meet practitioners who are happy to share their experiences. A third and final point would be to keep up the hard work even if it does not bring immediate results. It always makes a difference. I for one can’t think of a much more purposeful activity than telling children that their thoughts matter.

The interview was led by Martin Popovski, PhD