Monday, May 30, 2011

Doing Philosophy

Sometimes we do exercises that explore philosophical content; other times, we try stuff to get a better sense of how philosophy is done.

In Ms. Barnes 4th grade class on Friday, we were all about the latter; I led the kids through two activities that I think did a pretty good job of encouraging them to engage in the practice of doing philosophy, and we even got to do a bit of philosophizing at the end.

The first exercise was just a simple word-association game. I make the point that, in philosophy, it’s important that we listen to each other and, by drawing upon the ideas of others, come up with new ideas of our own. So, we go around the room, student by student, doing word association. I time the class and we try to increase our speed with each successive iteration of the game.

The first time, E. started with the word “philosophy.” The next student, M., said “falafel.” When I asked her to explain the connection between those two words, she said that the sound of “philosophy” makes her think of the sound of “falafel.” Fair enough. The subsequent student, however, didn’t know what falafel was, so that slowed down the associations. Eventually, though, the class got back on track, and there was a stretch in the middle, where everyone was doing food items; that moved thing along with reasonable alacrity.

Afterwards, we reflected on what could be done to make us go faster; the general consensus was that too much thinking was going on; a person should just say the first thing that came into his or her head. When we tried that, things went faster for a bit, but then, some of the associations were so random that making connections was difficult and the process slowed down again.

The fourth and last time we played the game, I turned it into word disassociation; students had to say a word that had nothing at all to do with the previous one; this proved harder than they thought it would be. Having practiced making connections, now it was more difficult not to. We wondered together why this was so and it seemed like the listening that went on during that discussion had been enhanced by the exercise.

Next, we did the exercise called “blind painter,” where students work in pairs, with one student being the “eyes” and the other the “painter” to copy a drawing I do on the board. This is always a laugh riot especially the second time we do it, when I draw an almost unrecognizable Fred Flintstone on the board. Still, students had a lot of fun and seemed to get the point: the importance of listening actively and communicating clearly when doing philosophy.

We ended things with a brief discussion about whether some art is better than other art. Predictably, most students said that it was all just a matter of taste. I think I’ll poke at that belief next time.

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