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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.

Books Phil Cam Philosophy For / With Children
Books by Philip Cam

I'm a bit younger and come from the other side of the world and I still had the same experience in my education. And I teach in schools almost every day and I run different programmes, and the whole idea of inquiry is still kind of new. I think there is an opening for those new things, but we’re not there yet.

It's true that there is more emphasis upon inquiry-based teaching and learning and there's more emphasis in many places upon collaborative learning in school systems. But when you go out and actually look at what happens, as opposed to what professors write about in academic journals, it's pretty thin on the ground.

Yes, I agree. So I think it leads us nicely to the next question. So we were talking about creative thinking, collaborative thinking and critical thinking skills. And I had a feeling reading your new book, that you're not really fond of calling these "soft skills".

You're quite right to pick that up. The kind of skills we're talking about here are head and shoulders above the so-called "hard skills". To be able to explore a concept adequately well, or to construct and reconstruct ideas, for example, is something of a higher order than spelling and grammar. Outside of language, to be able to creatively apply mathematical ideas is very much more demanding than just being able to get the right answer to a so-called problem, which is no problem at all, except for the student who has to come up with the right answer. There's a lot of emphasis on basic literacy and numeracy, at least in the education system here. I'm not dismissing that, but I'm saying, well, all right, now what can you do with it? It requires skills of a higher order to engage in the kind of thinking that philosophers and mathematicians actually do. To think philosophically or mathematically is to move beyond being a slave to basic processes.

So, what does philosophy have to offer in this regard, I mean with those soft skills?

Clearly, philosophy is very good at probing problems and issues by putting your finger on what needs to be asked about and being able to ask the right questions. Now I'm beginning to repeat myself, but it's also very good at reasoning and logic. There’s formal mathematical logic, of course, but informal logic is a tremendous guide to keeping thinking on the rails. Philosophy teaches you to reason logically, rather than jump to conclusions or say whatever comes into your head. It also develops the capacity for conceptualization and the ability to work with ideas. You can examine them more carefully, compare them, pull them apart and put them together again in more productive ways. These are all valuable critical thinking skills. When I say they're critical, I don't mean to ignore the fact that they're also creative. To put your finger on something by constructing the right question, for example, is a creative move. The question wasn’t there before and you have generated it. To be able to come up with an idea and pull it into shape for a useful purpose is creative as well as critical. Critical and creative thinking is abundant in philosophy and if you can reconstruct it for the purposes in school education, it brings a strength that may not otherwise be there. 

The other side of the coin is the social dimension of all of this. After all, we’re talking about being able to bounce ideas off other people, consider what they have to say, and to put your heads together and work things through in a cooperative spirit. That kind of teamwork not only produces far better results, it makes for a different kind of society. It is one in which people bring themselves and their thoughts and feelings to the table in a way that is productive and humanly fulfilling. So it combines social with intellectual strength, which is what you want when it comes to thinking about concrete problems and issues in most contexts.

Also in the new book, Philosophical Inquiry, you explain how children should become good inquirers. There are some methodologies like Lipman’s and Sharp’s in which the emphasis seems to be put on children to come up with their own questions. But as great as it sounds, there seems to be this initial problem of how children will know what a good inquiry or philosophical question is. Some practitioners just directly ask philosophical questions as a kind of role-modeling to start an inquiry. How to start teaching children asking good questions?

The first thing, of course, is to remember that children at a young age are on the whole naturally inquisitive. They may not be able to ask inquiring questions as a task-demand in the classroom, but left to their own devices, or when bothering their parents, they have no difficulty pestering those around them with questions. So, that's something to build upon, the natural curiosity of children. 

To inquire is first and foremost to question, so that questioning is the starting point for inquiry in the classroom. Teaching students how to do this is a complex task. For a start, students need to come to an understanding of the task-demands of questions. There’s nothing more futile than kids asking questions that go nowhere through a failure to appreciate the task-demands of different kinds of questions and to recognise an inquiry question when they see one. But this is no reason for teachers to ask all the questions. It's okay if you're modeling such questions, but it's not okay if you fail to appreciate that it's your job to teach the students to ask them.

For students to get a feel for the sorts of questions that call for inquiry is our focus here. How to do that? Well, there's not just one way to do it. One thing to do is to engage students with stimulating material that speaks to the experience and interests of the students. That gives them something to think about and not just something to learn. That's why I call it a stimulus. If you've got rich material like that, where there really are questions to ask, and you create the right atmosphere, students will start to ask them and quickly get a feel for the task. 

More broadly, it seems to me that you need to have a structured program, where you introduce students quite explicitly to the task demands of different kinds of questions. In dealing with early childhood educators, one of the things that I discovered many years ago was that they use question starters. There's a standard kit for that: Who?, What?, When?, Where?, How, Why? Teachers usually don't appreciate that ‘why-questions’ are particularly relevant here. They call for a reason. That’s a basic move in inquiry. Teacher’s should also include questions of 'could' or 'might'. They deal with possibilities. What they require by way of response is not the answer, but possible answers, things to consider--another basic move in inquiry. There are also questions of 'should' and ‘ought’. This is how someone did behave. How do you think we should behave in such a situation? Questions of this kind are integral to ethical inquiry. Here I'm just hitting on one elementary thing (question starters) as an example of the kinds of things that teachers can do in the ordinary way of teaching. 

Many years ago I invented a device that has come to be widely used, called the 'question quadrant'. There are many versions of it and that device has proven to be a very effective way of teaching students to identify and construct questions for inquiry. Teachers need explicit teaching devices like that.

I've found it very useful. Actually there was a question about the quadrant here on my list, but I think we already covered it. So when we do inquire in the classroom, how much of intervention do you think is necessary to progress in the inquiry? I guess I'm asking about the skillful facilitation, not to quell the conversation, but keep it going?

That will vary depending on whether it's a beginning class or a more experienced group of students. Nevertheless, inappropriate intervention is all too common when I observe teachers. It's actually a bit more so in places like Singapore and Hong Kong than in Australia, but even here teachers spend too much of the time talking as well as not intervening when they should. One thing you need to do is multiply the opportunities for students to speak to one another. This can be done in various ways. You can break the class into pairs for a minute or two so that they can discuss something with one another. In a similar way, you can use small group discussion and bring that back into a whole class discussion. 

I also use a speakers’ ball. The idea is that, if you've got the ball, you're the speaker. Otherwise, you're a listener. The teacher should try to keep the ball in circulation as much as possible. A standard for middle primary school teachers, after two or three sessions with the ball, is to have at least four turns without teacher intervention. In other words, the ball goes from your hands to a student, then to another student, and then to another and another, before you need to call it back. We need to get away from discussion constantly moving back to the teacher rather than developing into this kind of collaborative mode. That's really important. 

As well as too much intervention, there can be failure to intervene when and in a way that is needed. Most teacher-interventions during a discussion-based inquiry should be prompts or requests for students to make the kind of move in their thinking that is needful at the time. I use a “thinking tools” approach, so that, in my terms, interventions are normally requests for students to use the tool that is needed at that moment to effectively accomplish the task at hand. It’s a bit like on-the-job instruction of trainees in a trade in the use of their tools. Insofar as we are employing collaborative inquiry to teach students how to think, skillful facilitation centres on this kind of intervention. 

Teaching Philosophy for children
Professor Philip Cam during an inquiry

Fantastic. We'll wrap up with this question. Because we're talking about philosophical inquiry, when someone runs an inquiry in the classroom, what constitutes a successful session? What would you say happened in the session that would make it a success?

If I were to say something general by way of summary, it would be that students have alighted on some issue or problem, have been able to make progress in understanding it or dealing with it, and that they can articulate that progress. In other words, they can run back through where they have come from to where they've got to and show how they got there. So it's not so much about the answer they might arrive at, but whether they've managed to make a good fist of things. 

We should also not lose sight of the fact that there are two levels operating here. On one level, we are dealing with progress in dealing with the particular subject matter under investigation. On the other, there is progress in developing the skills and abilities that I have been talking about. A successful session contributes to both.

The traditional focus on subject matter all too often leads to neglect of this second level. While teachers are usually familiar with the concept of metacognition from educational literature, they are less familiar with the cognitive surveillance of thought that is required for inquiry-based teaching and learning. That involves teachers and students not just asking questions, making distinctions, exploring assumptions, and so on, but being aware of the need to do so as it presents itself. You see the need to ask a question and you ask it. You see the need to make a distinction and do so. You see that an assumption is being made and you draw attention to it. Learning to do these kinds of things in a workmanlike way, knowing what you’re doing, is as much a marker of progress as is making headway with the subject matter.


Dr Philip Cam is currently an Honorary Associate Professor in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, where he was previously on the academic staff for many years. He has a DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford and is an international authority on philosophy in schools. He has run workshops for educators in many countries and, aside from his academic publications, has written numerous books for teachers and children, which have been translated widely. His books include Thinking Together, Twenty Thinking Tools, and Teaching Ethics in Schools, as well as philosophical stories published as the Thinking Stories series of storybooks, Sophia’s Question, a philosophical novella, and Philosophy Park, a history of philosophy in story form. His latest book is Philosophical Inquiry: Combining the Tools of Philosophy with Inquiry-based Teaching and Learning (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).   

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