P H I L O S O P H Y P A T H W A Y S ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 36
14th July 2002
I. 'Meditations Upon Rational Thought, Possibility and Education' by
II. Bibliography to Francis Gilbert's Article
III. Appendix: Rhys Griffith's Criteria for Independent Learning
I. 'MEDITATIONS UPON RATIONAL THOUGHT, POSSIBILITY AND EDUCATION' BY
Having been a teacher in various comprehensives throughout England for over ten
years now, I have been struck by how rare the phenomenon of rational thought is
in schools. Since 1989 when the National Curriculum was introduced in English
schools, teachers have had their thinking done for them; documents prescribing
what should be taught - and often how it should be taught - are expected to be
implemented with little chance to question or think about what these documents
actually amount to. Unfortunately, this attitude is then passed onto pupils.
Teachers have a certain amount of content to deliver and have certain views
upon this content; pupils are expected to absorb this content - with varying
degrees of success - and then regurgitate what is generally the teacher's view
of the content in an exam or a piece of coursework.
If an educational Descartes came along and shone "the clear light of reason"
upon much of the curriculum, calling into doubt much of its content, I suspect
much of it would be cast aside in much the same way that Descartes swept away
the content-heavy Scholasticism that so preoccupied medieval scholars. The
blinkered, irrational prejudices of a certain group of educationalists have
determined the content of the UK National Curriculum.
This is ironic because one of the main aims of the curriculum is to "promote an
enquiring mind and capacity to think rationally." However, my purpose here is
not to dismantle the National Curriculum by shining "the clear light of reason"
upon it. The National Curriculum's core aim - as opposed to its content - is
laudable. If pupils were to leave school with the ability to be curious and to
think rationally then I believe society would benefit immeasurably. Clearly,
society is not overburdened with these sorts of people; irrational, emotional
and violent responses to problems are commonplace. Obviously, the fault is not
purely the education system - other factors such as social class, family
upbringing, the culture at large are probably far more influential - but
nevertheless it could play a role, and certainly set an example, in encouraging
humans to think rationally.
As a teacher I have seen first hand how destructive irrational behaviour can
be. Pupils who are ruled by their emotions often bully other pupils - and
teachers - for no good reason. Usually, they are unable to articulate what
motivates them and prefer to opt out of the system than to engage in any
meaningful analysis of it or themselves.
Unfortunately, the curriculum as it stands encourages this sort of behaviour
because, by and large, it operates in a similar way. When pupils ask why they
are learning about Shakespeare's prolix language, or mathematical equations, or
the Tudors and Stuarts, many teachers have no better answer than it "just is",
this just is what we have to learn.
Rhys Griffith, in his exhaustive study 'National Curriculum: National Disaster?
Education and Citizenship', argues that in most schools today pupils enjoy "no
interaction, no stimulus, no new experience that changes them in anyway.
Nothing happens to them". He argues for a much more pupil-centred approach
to learning which involves them working on meaningful projects in groups using
modern technology and reflecting upon what they are doing and why they are
doing it. His arguments are convincing. Although he doesn't mention it in his
book, many of his ideas owe a great deal to the French eighteenth century
philosopher Rousseau (1712-78).
Rousseau's contention that children should learn through experiencing the world
rather than analysing it, that they should be free to express themselves, is the
underlying message of Griffith's book. I believe there is a sound philosophical
basis for thinking like this, but I would contend that it isn't enough. It may
promote an "enquiring mind" but will it nurture "rational thought"?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, are what I would like to term, somewhat
satirically, the "Gradgrind" educationalists who currently have a grip upon the
establishment - unlike the 'Rousseau-ites', who had their day during the 1970s.
Dickens' wonderful novel 'Hard Times' satirizes a particularly rigid and
unbending version of utilitarianism in the form of the school master Thomas
Gradgrind, who has an obsession with the facts and nothing but the facts. This
sort of highly prescriptive, very directed teaching is currently in vogue. The
new "Literacy" strategy is a prime example of it. Teachers are expected to
teach explicit rules of English grammar and children are not encouraged to
explore language for themselves.
This approach would be valid if it wasn't so rigid and unbending. There is a
rational basis for teaching language in this way. How can a child be expected
to master subordinate clauses if he is not explicitly taught them? Subordinate
clauses aren't spontaneously discovered. And there are some very good reasons
why children should be taught them; without being able to use such clauses, I
can't see how any person can be capable of thinking to their full potential. It
is debatable whether pupils should be taught the explicit terminology of this
grammar but very few people in education would deny that children shouldn't
have a grasp of subordinating conjunctions like who, which, if and so forth.
Roger Scruton, in his book 'An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy',
points out, while summarising the philosophy of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), that
there is a "deep relation between language and truth." Perhaps the most
interesting aspect of Scruton's argument is the way in which he makes
connections between the fundamental grammar of language with truth. He writes:
"The emphasis on truth provides a clue to the structure of
language. When we join two sentences with the word 'and' we
form a new sentence which is true when its component parts
are both true, otherwise false. That is how we grasp the
word 'and'. It refers to an operation defined in terms of
truth-values. The same goes for other words which form new
sentences from old ones - including 'if', 'not' and 'or'.
Seeing language in this way, we begin to make sense of its
structure. We see how it is that, from a finite array of
words, infinitely many sentences can be constructed and
understood. We begin to distinguish the valid from the
invalid arguments, the well-formed from the ill- formed
complexes, and the different functions of the parts of
speech. For example, we can begin to describe the real
logical differences between names, which refer to objects,
predicates, which refer to concepts, and 'quantifiers' like
'some' and 'all', which have a logical role of their own."
Scruton's argument that it is connectives (conjunctions and adverbial phrases
such as 'and', 'but', 'if', 'or') and negatives that enable us to formulate
truthful statements is crucial. Too often, children are taught grammar that is
abstracted from meaning and fail to become aware of the astonishing feat that
the smaller words in the language manage to achieve. As Scruton shows, without
them logical, truthful thought would not be possible. It is remarkable that an
"infinitely many sentences can be constructed and understood" when connectives
and negatives are brought into play successfully in sentences.
These words give us the tools for analysis. As Scruton says, "we can begin to
describe the logical differences between ...objects...concepts...and
quantifiers". Rhys Griffiths points out, entirely correctly in my view, that
one of the problems with the National Curriculum at the moment is that it leads
to a " didactic transmission of factual information unrelated to the real
world". Griffiths' solutions, while entirely valid in certain respects, do
not address the central problem. Time and time again Griffith shows in his
detailed observations of teaching in comprehensives throughout the country that
teachers never go beyond transmitting "factual information". The grammar of the
lessons is always, "this is the case...you should know this...". The vital
connectives such as "if" and "or" rarely come into play.
As a result, children are seldom given the chance to hypothesize, to speculate,
or to think. And when they are given this chance, it is always made clear to
them that there is one correct answer which the teacher knows about. This is a
shame because it can create a lack of curiosity and flexibility in children's
thought processes and it certainly doesn't encourage them to think rationally;
two central aims of the National Curriculum are evidently not achieved.
While Griffiths' argues for a much more child-centred approach in order to
promote a spirit of enquiry in children, other thinkers such as Edward De
Bono have put forward the theory that language is part of the problem. It
encourages children to think in terms of rigid categories, to sequence material
in a linear and uninteresting fashion, to learn by rote.
Tony Buzan argues that an advanced form of spider diagrams which he calls
'Mind Mapping' should be taught in schools. Children should be encouraged to
use pictures, colours, to devise notes in a non-linear fashion, to think in
terms of loose overall categories and think of off-shoots from each categories.
Buzan's methods are now used widely in schools and certainly have enabled
children to be more creative about their learning.
However, while excellent aids to learning, these methods do not get to the root
of the problem; children are still describing what "is" rather than speculating
in coherent, clear sentences about what might be or might have been, if certain
conditions were taken into consideration. Therefore, without being aware of the
possible answers, alternatives or ramifications to a problem or phenomenon,
pupils never are actually able to see the problem clearly.
In his book 'Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom' Philip
Cam says: "people who seldom consider more than one possibility, or tend to
reject alternative courses of action without weighing their merits, show
themselves to be unimaginative, dogmatic or inflexible thinkers, who haven't
learned how to make the best of their opportunities" . Cam argues that
there are two types of learning in school; the routine and the reflective. The
routine describes what children learn so that certain processes become
automatic; spelling, punctuation, addition, multiplication and so on.
Reflective thinking is a "persistent act of inquiry, where there is order to
our thought, and it builds in one way or another toward considered judgement".
Cam points out what words indicate that children are exhibiting signs of
rational thought: "Since reasoning is a connected sequence of thought that is
directed towards a conclusion, in discussion you will frequently hear children
using forms of words such as:
We know that....and therefore...
Here we can see that Scruton's analysis of language has very real relevance to
the classroom. These connectives are the building blocks of thought, of
speculation, of hypothesis. Without them children are not able to fully extend
their thought. Cam goes onto to say: "We argue that since such-and-such is the
case, so-and-so must be (or is likely to be) the case too. In the conduct of
inquiry, however, we also explore what would or might be the consequences
of some mere possibility. This may be because we are trying to see whether that
possibility is worth pursuing, or because we are looking for evidence that it
has already been realised, or because we are interested in the general
connections between it and other states of affairs."
While Scruton is talking specifically about philosophical inquiry, Cam is
showing how the tools of philosophy can be used to assist any sort of inquiry.
Cam suggests that it is only when children start entering the realm of what
might be possible that true inquiry can take place. What Cam is saying is that
all children should learn to become philosophers from a very early age and
learn how to apply certain processes of reasoning to all subjects.
This concept of possibility could be applied to all subjects from Science and
Maths to History and Physical Education. For example, a science lesson could
start with the teacher asking the question: "What if there was no gravity on
earth? What would be the logical consequences of that?" Pupils would
automatically be thinking. They would need to find out what gravity was, find
out what it does and then work out what would happen if there was no gravity.
They could research the experience of astronauts in space. Ultimately, they
would have answer the question; is a world possible without gravity?
Lessons could be structured around the notion of possibilities rather than the
notion of imparting and instilling bits of information. Pupils would learn the
information as a by-product of exploring the possibilities of a chosen subject.
In my own subject, English, the concept of possibility is significant,
particularly with reference to fiction. Aristotle contrasted history and poetry
(by which he meant fiction) in his 'Poetics' by saying: "the one describes the
kind of thing which has been, the other a kind of thing that might be...Hence
poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since
its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are
singulars. By a singular statement I mean one as to what such and such a kind
of man will probably or necessarily say or do..."
Fiction deals with what possibly could be the case. As Klempner notes: "Even
the most mundane piece of fiction describes a possible world: it is the way
things might have been, or might yet be." . One of the problems with
teaching fiction is that pupils' accept the reality of a writer's vision of the
world without realising that it is just one possible world, one possible version
amidst an infinity of choices. Essays about literature nearly always are
descriptions of what is happening in a text. Pupils rarely grasp the essential
point about fiction, namely that it deals with the conditional and, as a
consequence, never perceive the freedom that fiction offers.
Having realised this recently, I have started teaching fiction in a different
way. By focusing upon certain sentence frames: "If this...then this could have
been the case...Therefore the reader/ the audience feels this...However, the
writer chose to do this because....", I feel I have begun to force pupils to
think at a deep level about stories. I have also asked pupils to think about
how they might have done things differently and to think through what the
logical consequences of their own decisions.
These sentence frames can be used to focus upon both the specific and the
general. At the beginning of a course, I have started to encourage pupils to
ask some very fundamental questions. One productive one has been: what if there
were no stories in your life? This exercise involves pupils eradicating every
single made-up story from their life and thinking about the consequences of
this: a world of no soap operas, no jokes, no novels etc. This, in turn, leads
onto a multitude of further questions; why would our lives be so barren without
stories? What do stories give us that are so unique? What is the defining
characteristic of a story?
I then ask pupils to think about the essential ingredients of a story but using
the same format. What if there were no changes, no characters, no action or
conflict, no language or settings or ideas in a story? What effect would the
removal of these things do to the story? I ask pupils to think about stories
they like and know and cut out each of these facets, and think through the
logical consequences of taking them out. By the end of the session, pupils are
beginning to grasp the inherent logic of storytelling; that there are certain
key ingredients without which the story wouldn't work. Pupils emerge ultimately
with their own theories about fiction; the "possibility" framework avoids the
trap of dictating information but it also avoids the vagueness of just asking,
"what makes a satisfactory story?". A question like that fosters a degree of
thought but doesn't enable children to really think about the logic inherent in
stories. I can see now that this sort of approach can returned to again and
again; as pupils become more mature they can develop their theories in a more
As well as being useful for tackling the more general issues about fiction, the
"possibility" framework is good at facilitating logical thought about specific
texts and questions. For example, while studying Shakespeare's Henry V
recently, I invited pupils to think what might have happened if certain key
elements of the plot were missing. One pupil suggested that the play might have
turned out very differently if Henry V had not discovered the traitors who were
plotting to murder him. He could have been murdered or that particularly
subplot could have rumbled on until the last scenes of the play. My pupil felt
that actually more tension and suspense would have been created if the traitors
hadn't been discovered. She was also able to point out that Shakespeare couldn't
have had Henry V murdered because he was constrained by certain historical
facts; that he lived to fight the battle of Agincourt. This then led onto a
discussion about what a writer can and cannot do when writing about a
What I like about the "possibility" framework is that it manages to straddle a
happy middle ground between child-centred educational theory - as exemplified
by Griffiths and Rousseau - and the more rigid, prescriptive educational theory
- as exemplified by the theorists who drew up the Literacy Strategy. It
initially makes heavy demands upon teachers; they need to ask the right
questions that direct pupils towards specific learning goals. But once pupils
have been given a framework for thinking, they are then free to follow their
own possibilities to their own logical conclusions.
 Aim 1: The school curriculum should aim to provide opportunities for all
pupils to learn and to achieve. The school curriculum should develop enjoyment
of, and commitment to, learning as a means of encouraging and stimulating the
best possible progress and the highest attainment for all pupils. It should
build on pupils' strengths, interests and experiences and develop their
confidence in their capacity to learn and work independently and
collaboratively. It should equip them with the essential learning skills of
literacy, numeracy, and information and communication technology, and promote
an enquiring mind and capacity to think rationally.
 pg XV 'National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and Citizenship'
by Rhys Griffith
 pg 29 'An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy' by Roger Scruton
 pg 29,30 ibid.
 pg 105 'National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and Citizenship'
by Rhys Griffith
 De Bono
 pg 14 'The MindMap Book' by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan
 Times Education Supplement June 14th 2002, pg 24: "thinking skills should
be taught across the curriculum, not just as a separate subject, through
classroom teacher-led activities like mind-mapping, followed by discussion and
reflection among pupils".
 Pg 6 'Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom' Philip
 pg 86 ibid.
 pg 149 'An Introduction To Literary Criticism' by S.M. Schreiber
 Pg 2 PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY, Programme A: An introduction to philosophy,
The Possible World Machine: Unit One by Geoffrey Klempner
(c) Francis Gilbert 2002
II. BIBLIOGRAPHY TO FRANCIS GILBERT'S ARTICLE
Aristotle. 'The Poetics' Penguin Classics
Buzan, Tony. 'The MindMap Book' published by BBC, 1990 ISBN 0-563-37101-3
Cam, Philip. 'Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom'
Primary English Teaching Association in association with Hale and Iremonger
De Bono, Edward. 'I am right, you are wrong'. Viking ISBN 0-670-83011-9
Department for Education and Employment: The National Curriculum for England
Department for Education and Employment http://www.standards.dfee.gov.uk/literacy/
Dickens, Charles. 'Hard Times', Penguin Classics
Griffiths, Rhys. 'National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and
Citizenship' published by Routledge Falmer ISBN 0-7507-0956-1
Honderich (Ed.). 'The Oxford Companion To Philosophy'. 1995 ISBN 0-19-866132-0
Klempner, Geoffrey. PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY, Programme A: Introduction to
Philosophy, 'The Possible World Machine'. Introduction to Unit 1
Schreibner, S.M. 'An Introduction To Literary Criticism' Pergamon Press, 1965
Scruton, Roger. 'An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy' Duckworth, 1996
(c) Francis Gilbert 2002
III. APPENDIX: RHYS GRIFFITH'S CRITERIA FOR INDEPENDENT LEARNING
Collaborative groupwork: a group of between three and five pupils, preferably
mixed gender and self-selected, working in partnership to research a subject
chosen by the group.
Cooperative groupwork: non-competitive agreements and exchanges between the
collaborative groups; the cooperative group to encompass all involved in the
project including adults;
Individual responsibility; to contribute, and adhere, to the formulation of
codes of practice for both groups above;
Pupil designed tasks; each collaborative group should define its own project
tasks and the range of outcomes;
Pupil designed assessment: each collaborative group should decide what aspects
of its work should be assessed, at what stage of the project, to what criteria
and by whom - multiple assessors should be encouraged (eg peer, a teacher,
adult other than teacher)
Pupil-negotiated deadlines: pupils should be entitled to plan the progress of
their own project.
Pupil-initiated research; pupils should have the opportunity to interview and
conduct questionnaires, to use databases, to communicate directly with living
authorities, to access information centres off campus, to make site-visits;
Pupil-use a range of language technology: (synthesizers, cameras, audio and
video editing and recording equipment) pupils should have the opportunity, by
creating their own media artefacts, to experience and interpret the effect of
language in a post-literary, audio-visual, high-tech society;
Community involvement and use of the environment:
Community: education should be seen as relevant to real life; by allowing
pupils to make a choice of topical issues for their collaborative topic and by
relating the work of all groups to the community of humankind, pupils may be
encouraged to see global society as a series of concentric cooperative groups
(starting with the cooperative group undertaking of the project)
Environment: taking the learning experience beyond the classroom walls; a
stimulus to experiential learning in the environment in which the local
community lives; an awareness of a shared global environment.
A sense of audience: lending purpose to the project and shaping its
presentation differently for different audiences, thus encouraging the critical
awareness that messages can be put across more effectively with specific
audiences in mind; a way of giving back to the community;
Presentation in various forms;
Reflexivity; the sense of a personal stake in one's education, and the
development of the capacity for critical and self-critical reflection.
(c) Francis Gilbert 2002
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