Philosophy with Children (06_2022)

Philosophy with Children: More Than an Educational Project – Interview with Sara Gomel

by Sarah Virgi

Does children’s ability to wonder – for this is how Aristotle describes the beginning of philosophy – make them more apt to philosophize? Do they also ask philosophical questions? This curiosity concerning the limits of children’s capacities to think and engage with profound questions drives many philosophers nowadays to practice philosophical dialogue with children and adolescents. But this is not their only motivation. Doing philosophy with children is also an educational and social project, as we learn from Sara Gomel, a young philosopher who is currently part of an associative initiative that promotes regular sessions of philosophy with children in Italian schools. More than mere instruction about philosophical topics, doing philosophy with children aims to foster discussions about what matters most to them. It stimulates rational discourse and reflection by helping them formulate their thoughts and listen to their classmates’ concerns and convictions – which are not always in perfect consonance with their own. In addition, doing philosophy also empowers children in underprivileged contexts by encouraging them to speak their minds and giving them the feeling that their voice is heard. More importantly, it provides them with the tools to think differently and envision how they can make a change.

About Sara Gomel

Sara Gomel studied philosophy in Paris and Rome. She is currently working with Filò, Il filo del pensiero, an association in Bologna that promotes the practice of philosophical dialogue in schools and other social contexts. Since the beginning of her studies in Paris, she has engaged in educational and social projects in schools and museums in France and Italy, aiming to introduce philosophy to children and adolescents. Only two years ago, she debuted as an author of children’s books with Un metro (One Meter, 2020), which naturally does not lack a philosophical spark. Her most recent book of philosophy for children is entitled Missione filosofia. 10 indagini per menti curiose (Mission Philosophy. 10 Questions for Curious Minds) and has just been released.

Interview with Sara Gomel

This interview took place on the 6th of April 2022.

SV: Aristotle famously said that “philosophy starts with wonder”. Do you think that children wonder more than adults and are more susceptible to being truly involved with philosophy? Is that why you decided to start doing philosophy with them rather than people your age?

SG: I began to do philosophy with children because I love children, first and foremost. I think that, at the start, it was primarily because I had a pedagogical interest. I was a philosophy student, and I was very interested in how children reason and dialogue, especially at an educative and psychological level. So when I discovered the field of philosophy with children, I became fascinated by it. The aim is different when you work with adults, children, and even adolescents. Indeed, people often say that children are philosophers. But children are not philosophers in the sense that they can do philosophy in the way that we understand it. However, they have this capacity to wonder and to be amazed that is no longer present among adults, especially nowadays that we are interconnected and have constant access to information, which results in the fact that we are no longer able to wonder. Why are children able to wonder? Well, because they are “new,” they just arrived in the world. Hence, they are in the state of searching, of discovering. Everything that is obvious to us is not obvious to them. That is why they wonder. Studies show that 2-year-old, 3-year-old, or 4-year-old children constantly ask questions. They pose questions every day and all the time. We can arrive at three hundred questions a day! They ask them the parents, teachers… And these are scientific questions, questions that have to do with psychology and even with philosophy sometimes. These can occur during the time when they are experiencing important events in their lives. For example, when their grandmother dies, they may ask: what happens when we die? Where do we go after we die? Do we disappear? So this is the time when they start to pose questions.

On the other hand, when they begin school, these same studies show that there is a decrease in the number of questions. Hence, academic skills increase, while there is a decrease in the capacity to pose questions. I think that this does not happen because they have fewer questions to ask; rather, the context hinders them from being in the position of a questioner or a philosopher. Our work is to try to bring things in the opposite direction with our workshops. 

Often when we begin a project in a school, the first thing we do is to ask the children to write down the most important question of their lives. Sometimes, in the beginning, they can appear a little bit lost. Still, we try to explain to them that what we are asking them is to tell us which is the question they have asked themselves several times, that is recurring, and to which they do not have an answer – and even when they ask the question to someone else, often the answer is not convincing. When we ask them to do this, the questions that arise are never trivial but rather major existential questions about the sense of life, death, and our relationships with others.

SV: What was the most intriguing, or perhaps awkward, question that a child has asked you and that you had never thought about, or to which you did not have an immediate answer?

SG: Actually, this is quite a difficult question. Since I am a philosopher and I also have a tendency toward skepticism, it has never happened that a child asked me a question that I had never asked myself, even though I would have formulated it differently. However, the questions that I do not ask myself anymore as an adult and that I often find with children are, for instance, questions about the universe. For example: does the universe have an end at a certain point? Is it possible for the universe to be infinite? What is space? What is time? These are questions that I have asked myself as a philosopher and as a philosophy student in the past, but which I do not ask anymore in my daily life. Then, other questions that are also quite special and that always impress me are questions about birth, for instance: “why are we born?” In other words, what is our sense here in this life? “Why have we been brought to the world? What is our role in life?” Then, there are also more specific questions related to this topic. For instance, today, I was asked the following question: “what did we feel while we were in our mother’s womb?” They are also extremely strong in counterfactual and hypothetical thought. For instance, once I was asked: “what would have happened if I would not have been born? Would my family and my friends exist? Could the world have continued to be? What would have happened if the world would not have been there?” These are all questions that are connected to the conditions of reality that would have been different from those that we know. 

SV: In your children’s book, Un metro (2020), you drew a sort of dystopia, which actually became a reality nowadays, where people could not approach one another by more than one meter, and so this raised issues with measuring distances, conceiving how much a meter is. When you wrote this, did you try to picture what kind of concerns and questions children have in their daily life? What was your aim? To try to address their worries at their level?

When I wrote Un metro (which was even translated into Korean recently!), we were already living the first lockdown in Italy, and I did not have the chance to meet the children during this period. Naturally, I thought about the children which I had accompanied. What was most impressive to me, during that time was the way in which language became structured and the words that people repeated every day and that, after a while, had no sense anymore because they were repeated so many times that they became almost empty. For example, the expressions “social distancing”, “lockdown”, and “keep one-meter distance”. In this case, rather than a philosophical gaze, I took the role of a narrator. I was interested in giving a new sense to language and enriching it. We speak of “one meter” every day because this is the measure that is most familiar to us; but do we really know what a meter is? This is something that we always do with words. We use words that are associated with concepts, so, for instance, when we say the word “tree”, that immediately creates a mental image in us. But if we stop for a moment and look at a tree, we can see much more than what the word implies. The same happens with the word “meter”. We were repeating this word so many times, but were we really able to understand what a meter is and what could exist in a meter? Hence, my primary goal was to put aside this stereotypical vocabulary and enrich language. For me, enriching our vocabulary and enriching our language implies also an enrichment of our thought. I am more capable of understanding something when I am able to see more things that could be included within the meaning of a word. In my book, I try to capture this idea by alluding to the question of what can fit into a meter: how many cats, dogs, and even ants can fit into a meter? If we push it to a minuscule level, the entire universe can fit into a meter! 

[…]

SV: What do you think is the relevance of the work that you do with children? What kind of educational impact does it have? Does it also affect the parents, for example?

SG: Evidently, this has a very significant educational impact. This is not obvious, however. Someone who has never attended a philosophy workshop with children does not know what happens during these sessions. The first thing that we notice in a class where we are doing philosophy is that the children are sitting in a circle. This is already a different way of organizing the class. They look at each other and they let each other speak in turns. Hence, this is really an experience of dialogue. This is something very important for me because I think that when we do philosophy we engage in a collective inquiry. Even when we work individually, our work is always embedded in a bigger field of research. Mathew Lipman, who was one of the precursors of philosophy for children in the US in the 70’s, spoke of “community of inquiry”. As such, we do not merely exchange opinions. We are not in a bar or in a restaurant. Rather, we try to find a way of integrating each one’s ideas. There is a sense that we follow together and that guides our inquiry. And so there is also a moment when the children start to dialogue with their parents, which is incredible! The parents often find themselves disoriented and terrified in these situations because they are not used to it. It is becoming rarer and rarer to find a true dialogue within families and also within the school. That is also the reason why the children are so passionate about this. These sessions are most likely to be the only time in the day, or even in the week, where they can have a real dialogue, where they feel that someone listens to them and where they can listen to others’ reason. So, I think that this has a very strong impact on them at an educational level. Besides from what I just said, I will try to give you now other main reasons that I find particularly crucial. First of all, we tackle major questions, such as the question of death and freedom, which can be scary and, therefore, the parents sometimes do not speak about with their children, because they are afraid. Yet, at some point, the children will encounter these topics in their lives. I believe that, if they have the chance to discuss them together in a community, they are protected. On the one hand, there is the sense of liberation of being able to ask the questions that make them anxious. On the other hand, they can see that the others also ask themselves the same questions. If we lead this inquiry together, we have the feeling that we are penetrating a mystery but while we are holding each other’s hand. This is essential. 

In addition to this, there is the relational dimension. When we make the children sit together in a circle and listen to each other, they do not listen. Absolutely not. It is very difficult for them even not to speak while someone else is speaking, especially if there is no relation of authority. This happens, I think because teaching and learning are still done in a very passive way today, even after all the pedagogical revolutions that we have incorporated. These sessions are, thus, spaces where children can construct and build their knowledge together. Usually, when we do philosophy with adults, we deconstruct concepts. But with children, it is the reverse: we construct them, which is fascinating.

Moreover, when attending these workshops, the children have also the opportunity to get to know what their classmates and their friends think about major subjects. This is a way of weaving their relationships (tisser des liens).

Finally, there is also a logical and argumentative dimension that we cultivate. This is what Lipman had in mind when he developed his ideas regarding philosophy with children. He was a professor at the university and he realized that his students were not capable of reasoning in an autonomous way. So he asked himself what could be done against this problem. For him, it was obvious that it was necessary to start the process at a young age. This is for me at the basis of democracy. In order to work together, we must be able to understand one another, and, in order to accomplish this, we must be able to explain to others what I have in mind. This is the work that must be done at the level of the arguments and the reasoning. There are studies that show that the study of philosophy has a positive impact at all levels of learning. […]

SV: Do you think that it also has a social impact? Can philosophy with children in schools, for instance, also bring important contributions to the communities around them, like in areas of rehabilitation, with poor financial and economical conditions?

Yes. The association in which I work here in Bologna tries, as much as possible, to focus on underprivileged neighborhoods because we see the incredible effects that it has in these contexts. Often, in these cases, we encounter children that never have the chance to participate in extra-curricular activities, and who are, therefore, enthusiastic about the idea of doing something different. And they are motivated to participate in something in which they can be actors. I always tell them that everything that I bring is simply a proposition because what they can achieve depends uniquely on their participation and their motivation. I always have a structure in mind, but, in reality, I improvise, according to the children. They are the real actors that make the experience happen. They construct the experience, while I am guiding them. For children who are underprivileged and who never have the opportunity to put themselves at the center, this is an incredible occasion. They are able to speak freely with their classmates and to construct their knowledge. I really think that, given all this, we should not simply propose to have an hour of philosophy with the children, but have a “philosophical school”: a democratic school, where there is an adult who guides them and the children can pursue their inquiries. 

There is also something else I often observe in underprivileged contexts: the feeling of powerlessness. This is something that we often see with adolescents and, more recently, with younger children. There is a general feeling of powerlessness regarding global issues. We live in a very individualistic society and, therefore, children feel, very often, alone. They are alone face to the world. When we deal with subjects in our workshops regarding relationships and identity, things go well. However, when we touch upon social subjects, such as inequality, the distribution of resources, justice, and utopia, they are often disoriented because they feel powerless. They think that they can tell you what they think about the topic, but that it has no value. Hence, I think that the fact that we have this opportunity of speaking together about these subjects is a sort of medicine against powerlessness. It gives them the chance to think about the world differently. This is at the fundament of philosophy. It is the capacity of thinking hypothetically. […] It can give them the chance to think that their reality is not the only reality possible and that they can change it. This does not have an immediate impact on their lives, but perhaps can make a contribution in the long run.

SV: Do you have new projects in mind, now in Bologna?

SG: The project on which I am working now is building a network of philosophical primary schools, that is, schools that can introduce philosophy as a permanent school subject. Sometimes, we have projects that last for ten hours, or for half a year, where we accompany a class, and afterward, we do not see them anymore. The idea is, thus, to have the possibility of having longer projects, where we can follow the class and its development over several years. In this way, we could have a philosopher always present in the school and whom the children know. We are also expanding this project to the technical and professional schools. In this case, we are aiming at a national project, which consists in having philosophy classes over the whole high school period in these schools, which were not officially included in the program of philosophy.