Thinking Allowed

Thinking Allowed: Philosophy for children at Gallions Primary School (DVD, Gallions School, London 2007)

Philosophy or 'thinking skills' as it is otherwise known is becoming more important to schools. The movement of doing philosophy -- or practicing thinking skills -- with children was started by Matthew Lipman in the 1970s in the United States and became known as P4C, philosophy for children. Lipman has written extensively in the area over the space of a lifetime. One key theoretical text is Thinking in Education (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991; 2nd edition, 2003). Lipman, based at Montclair State College in New Jersey developed the 'community of inquiry' idea as the way of doing philosophy, or practicing thinking skills.

Lipman followed the American tradition, particularly John Dewey (1859-1952) which has a strong pragmatic rather than speculative or history-of-ideas character, saw philosophy as doing something and doing something for society. What the community of inquiry does is to foster critical and creative thinking. This means, thinking that is self-reflexive, in other words, thinking that has a sense of its criteria, that is sensitive to the opinions of others and their right to differ, and that is creative in the sense of not fixed, but self-correcting. This is the kind of thinking required in a democracy. Critical and creative thinking is good democratic thinking.

Why is this approach more and more pertinent to contemporary education? The reasoning goes as follows. With the rationalisation of education we have tied learning to outcomes, and mapped the curriculum to these outcomes. In assessing whether the outcomes have been met we have developed marking criteria. At the upper end of these marking criteria, across the curriculum, developed learning is judged to be that which is analytical. At the lower end of the marking criteria is learning which is descriptive. The difference here is between a student that can remember and describe information they have been given in lessons, and a student that can pick that information up and do something with it; analyse, assess, evaluate, appreciate, in a word, show they understand it.

Modern technological democracies need the latter kind of person who can do something with what they have been given, which is responsible, reflective and relevant.

The world is awash with information, but do we have the young people coming through that know what to do with it? It is one thing to know how to access information, it is another to be able to judge whether the information is worth accessing. The one is a passive mind, the other an active judgement. It is the latter modern technological democracies need.

But can we expect such 'higher order' skills of our young people? In the democratic spirit, the answer is a resounding yes. Being a philosopher is for everyone. When should you start? The earlier the better. Lipman started working at the younger end with primary school children and then extended his work into secondary schools.

The DVD under review here is entitled 'Thinking Allowed'. There is a pun on aloud, but the title is nevertheless provocative. Are we getting our school children thinking out loud among themselves in an engaged and intelligent manner, or do we shut their thinking in on them and deluge them with information. Are they allowed to think? Do our educational planners, our school leaders even really know what thinking is? There are political questions here. Thinking is dangerous, as Plato recognised, because once people begin to think for themselves things can start to change in unplanned ways.

Gallions Primary school is in East London. It is multi-cultural, in fact primarily non-Anglo. I'm just guessing, but I don't imagine the parents of these children are London's middle class. They are mainly (I'm guessing) kids of migrant parents trying to make a way in the new society. This is important because it shows the democratic importance, strength and potential of embedding philosophy into school. There are two ways of doing it. One is having philosophy as an add-on to an already packed curriculum or under the gifted and talented budget, the other is to embed it right through the school as the way to process what is being taught. By 'process' I mean the students really working with the materials they get given in lessons and playing with it. Gallions Primary has followed the second, more adventurous route.

Thinking Allowed mainly shows footage of the community of inquiry, showing how it works, how students process work, how they work together and how the teacher operates as a facilitator. The DVD manages to show the developmental aspect of this, by which I mean how, over time, the community of inquiry develops like a team that knows how to work together. Also the DVD gives us at least a glimpse of how embedding community of inquiry style learning through the school changes the school culture in ways that have huge positive impact over time.

Thinking Allowed is most useful for those who are thinking of venturing down the path of philosophy in school and want to see what it looks like; it is less useful for those already thoroughly versed in the ways of community of inquiry.

On the point about embedding school-wide philosophy or critical and creative thinking skills, it is true that the culture of the school will improve, enrolments will improve, and the outputs will improve (i.e. student's achievements). Of course there is a circular relationship between these, once one improves, that has influence on the others.

The story of Buranda State High, a primary school in downtown Brisbane is often cited in this part of the world. Burunda had failing enrolments on the back of its poor reputation and performance and was going to be closed down. A new Principal took the school on and said she would turn it around. She introduced philosophy in school across the classes. She sent teachers off for philosophy in schools training. The school completely turned around and begun to compete as one of the best primary schools in the state, both for its learning culture and the quality of students it produced. The measure of success, surely the result of philosophy in school, was the minister of education in Queensland picking Buranda as school of choice for his child.

In the DVD of Gallions, similar improvement in culture is mentioned. They cite the complete drop in incidents at play-time, with students being able to sort through their problems by talking about them. This is spontaneous and not set up by or monitored by teachers on duty. It is simply a marked improvement in the school's culture that is a benefit, they believe, of introducing philosophy in school to all classes and developing a thoughtful culture out of that base.

I will not go into how the community of inquiry works, for children or from the point of view of the facilitator, who is the teacher; and it is facilitating, not teaching, which is big shift for some staff. You can see all this if you obtain the DVD.

I thoroughly recommend this DVD to anyone whose interest has been aroused by this review. As a practitioner of philosophy in schools here in Australia I know the information is accurate. It is also well presented. The DVD is realistic and down-to-earth, showing that philosophy in school is not something for elite schools but for all schools that truly value learning.

More information on Philosophy in School in UK can be obtained from the leading organisation SAPERE (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education)


This is an attempt to introduce the ideas of Critical Thinking or CT to the faculty and to provide some materials with which to pursue these ideas in class.

It is common to hear it said of students that they have many received ideas, and no original ones, and this is blamed on the educational culture in which they have grown up.
Rote learning, the overvaluation of authority, the passivity of learning facts to be examined and forgotten as soon as the exams are passed, these are all the sort of ingrained habits that we see in our students, and which we wish to overcome.

I have taken some ideas from a very active movement in Europe and the States which encourages the teaching of critical thinking from an early age. One of their slogans is the witty "I am four, therefore I think!"

In the UK, Critical Thinking is a curriculum subject in Sixth Form, and one report has a philosopher asking 7-year old schoolchildren about Heraclitus’ famous dictum that “ You can’t step in the same river twice” : one girl takes a literal approach:

"Well - I think you can step in twice because if you step in once with one leg you can step in a second time with the other leg," she says.

Another says: "You could step in the river one day and then go home. Then the next day you could come back to the same river - as long as you know the way - and do it again."

Neither of them question whether the river is still the same, or if it has changed, or if indeed they themselves have changed, but one bright spark says:

"If you step in the river on Saturday and then you went to step in the river on the next day - where you stepped on Saturday would be gone because the river keeps on moving."

How little Johnny saw this possibility while his peers did not is a mystery, but perhaps by continuing with the questioning game, we can encourage insights like his.

It might be also fun to ask 7 year olds whether they themselves are in fact characters in some cosmic video game, and how they could show that they are not, but that might be tantamount to child abuse.


A Call to Reasoned Judgement

A judge making a decision in court is not expected to base his judgements on his subjective preferences or on his personal opinions.

Judgement based on sound reasoning go beyond facts alone or mere opinion alone.

Facts are typically used in reasoning, but good reasoning does more than state facts so a judgement that is well-reasoned

is not described as simply "opinion"; we demand that it be based on relevant and sound reasoning.

Here's a somewhat different way to put this same point. There are three different kinds of question.

1. Those with one right answer (factual questions fall into this category).

eg What is the boiling point of water?

eg. How far is it from Doha to Dubai?

2 Those with as many answers as there are different human preferences.
eg. Which would you prefer, a vacation in the mountains or one at the seashore.
eg. Who was the best football player of all time?

These kinds of question are mostly a matter of personal opinion, though some facts and data may be used as support.

3. Questions with answers that should be well-reasoned, with factual support.
eg How can we solve the problem of poverty in the world today?

eg. Do animals have the same rights as humans?

This is a matter of reasoned judgement - so we can rationally evaluate answers to the question
using universal intellectual standards such as clarity, depth, consistency and so forth.

When questions that require reasoned answers are treated as matters of opinion, then bad thinking happens.

If students come to assume that everyone's "opinion" is of equal value, we can expect to hear views such as these:

That's just your point of view. We do things differently where I come from!

That was then. Things are different now...

I know what's right, and I don't have to justify it!

Whose standards? Why shouldn't we have our own standards?

Don't I have a right to my own opinion?

What if I don't believe in being "rational?"

Sloppy thinkers fail to see the difference between simply asserting a view as true, and offering solid reasons and evidence in support of it.

We want to teach students to recognize good reasoning, to value it and respect it.

Critical Thinking Appraisal

The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal, a commonly-used assessment instrument, defines five key skills: drawing inferences, recognizing assumptions, drawing conclusions, interpreting data, and evaluating arguments.

Drawing inferences: The ability to infer unstated facts from a series of statements.

Recognising assumptions: The ability to identify unstated assumptions or presuppositions in a series of assertive statements

Argument evalutation: The ability to determine whether conclusions necessarily follow from the information given in statements or premises

Deductive reasoning: The ability to weigh evidence and decide if generalisations or conclusions based on the given data are warranted

Logical interpretation: The ability to distinguish between arguments that are strong and relevant from those that are weak or irrelevant.

Themes from the Course

Each level of North Star broaches topics that broaden our students' experience and demand of them a willingness to think about things that may make them feel uncomfortable if they are not discussed at home or, generally speaking, in their culture.

Exercises based on themes from each level of North Star are available
in the Student Learning Centre and eventually will be stored on the University server for general access.

Critical Thinking Slideshow

This deals with the Six Types of Question, with exercises, and is available here on Scibd:


R. W. Paul, Critical Thinking (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Foundation for Critical Thinking, 1992