Creative and critical thinking in schools

A conversation with professor Phil Cam about inquiry-based learning, philosophy in schools and the art of questioning.

I always start with a simple question. What was your inspiration and motivation that started you on the adventure with philosophy with children?

That's a good question. I was a secondary school teacher before I went back to the university to study philosophy. Then, when I was in my early career as an academic philosopher, which was pretty standard, I became aware of the work of Matthew Lipman through an Australian colleague. As luck would have it, I had a study leave coming up and it gave me the opportunity to change what I was going to do. I was going to do research at one of the Ivy League universities in America, but changed that to work with Lipman at Montclair State College, which people thought was rather odd. But it was quite a find for me. Eventually Lipman and I became good friends and I worked with him over many years. So it was the combination of my background in teaching school and love of philosophy that led me into this venture. Not to go into depth psychology about this, but I think that it also involved an element of the recovery of childhood. My own childhood was very remote from anything of this kind, not just in education but at home as well. So the idea that I might bring the things I discovered through philosophy later in life, the joy of it and the way it opens up the mind, into the life of children who otherwise have nothing like this was very enticing.

A quote by dr Phil Cam about critical and creative thinking in education. Philosophy for children.

So what do you think was your biggest learning along the way? I mean, did your approach change over the last 30 years doing this since you started?

I was initially trained by Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, his colleague at Montclair State, and at home I began by working with Mat’s materials in a local primary school near my university in Sydney. So I began with the straightforward Lipman process I had been taught. Then, bit by bit, I began to move into my own way of interpreting this because I found some issues with it. You know, when you get out into the real world of the classroom you need to be guided by what you experience there. 

A second thing I should add is that I was brought up, first at the University of Adelaide, and then later at the University of Oxford where I did my doctoral studies, in the tradition of linguistically based analytic philosophy. Coming in contact with Lipman brought me to look more closely at John Dewey, whose work I had read only in a disultary way as an undergraduate. I became very interested in Dewey, not just in his educational writing, and more broadly in American pragmatism. That was quite a departure for me. I think that the combination of the analytic tradition in which I was brought up and the Dewyan pragmatic tradition that I came to know has deeply informed my work. 

The other thing that took quite some time for me was to bring the artistic side of things to bear upon what I was doing. My approach was first of all as an academic and teacher. But there is also an artistic side to me. I spent three years in an art school when I was young. So the idea of writing philosophical fiction was certainly appealing and I gradually made my way into it.

Interesting, because my next question was exactly about that. So, Mathew Lipman was a follower of Dewey's idea of pragmatism. You also have Catherine McCall, who created CoPI and rooted her method in realism because she disagreed with Lipman on this. So what do you think is the underlying philosophy of your approach? Is that the analytical philosophy and pragmatism, or is there something else?

My approach is somewhat eclectic. I think that there is a great merit in both analytic philosophy and pragmatism and I don't see these two things as being necessarily opposed to one another. The analytic tradition focuses on the analysis of concepts and reasoning of a painstaking kind. Pragmatism looks to ground philosophy not in language, but in problems and issues that matter in the lifeworld, whether of society at large or, in this case, of children. Doing so, however, is perfectly consistent with a careful exploration of these issues through logic and reasoning and the analysis of ideas. It seems to me those two things fit together. The thing that troubles me about analytic philosophy as it's usually practiced in the universities, where I have spent most of my life, is that so many people in that tradition are Ivory Tower philosophers. They don't see themselves as practically useful. I think that's a great pity. People tend to see what's loosely called Continental Philosophy, which of course incorporates various traditions, as more socially and politically engaged, as is American Pragmatism. Yet I don't see things in these watertight compartments. I think it's important to be socially useful as a philosopher; but, in order to be useful, you need to have the skills and abilities required to address issues well. That brings us back to conceptual exploration, reasoning and that sort of thing. So we should put these things together, it seems to me. 

To be honest, when I studied philosophy, I only did Masters in philosophy. I never pursued an academic career. My disappointment with this was the Ivory Tower approach to philosophy. And there was very little or nothing of inquiry based learning in my philosophy studies. And when I discovered that later in life, it brought me back to philosophy again. You seem to join others in voicing a concern about the way we educate children. So why are arithmetic, spelling, grammar and all the usual subjects not enough? What is lacking? And why do you think it is lacking in traditional educational settings?

What we might loosely call traditional education is not the same throughout the world and the education that I had as a child is in many respects quite unlike the sort of education that kids have today, certainly in Australia. Nevertheless, there is a kind of continuity between the education I had in school and the school education that I see about me today. For one thing, the curriculum, wherever I have looked at it - and I've worked in various parts of the world--is very heavy in content. That tends to lead students into a great deal of reliance upon memorization and replication. It may be something of a caricature, but much of the curriculum looks as if it aims to turn students into walking encyclopedias. If that ever had a proper place in the socio-economic world in which people lived at one time, it's completely out of date now. What students really need, and what they don't really get, is the ability to be able to think about proposals and possibilities, to be used to exploring differences of opinion, and to be able to examine a case and assemble a coherent argument. They need to be able to think critically about what's put to them, but also to be able to creatively make use of the possibilities that present themselves. That's what is required of education in this fast-moving world. And it isn't just about the use of electronic technology, as much as that is the vehicle for so much today, but about a way of thinking, which is not really encouraged by the kind of curriculum that still persists. So we need to move beyond that. We need to acknowledge the value of learning to think in education, and focus on the kind of thinking that will serve kids well in the world they are going to inhabit. 

By the way, since I didn't mention this explicitly, I should add that the social dimension of this seems to me to be highly important. That's something the analytic philosophers never really saw, but educationalists like Dewey and Lipman in the pragmatic tradition saw it quite clearly. So I have tried to the best of my ability to draw on both of those traditions, combining intellectual development with the social growth of students. The traditional curriculum doesn't do that at all. It has no social dimension as such. When I was in school, and this really is traditional education, to speak to another student in the classroom was usually regarded as a misdemeanor, and you often put your hand around your work so that the student next to you couldn't copy it. There was no collaboration in the classroom. It was completely individualistic. That isn't the world in which we live or should want to create.