Philosophy for Children: A reflective approach to human rights education

By Michelle Sowey
Girl blowing on dandelion

By Michelle Sowey. This article is part of our July focus on the rights of children and youth. Read our Editorial for more on this theme.

Some years ago, in a paper on human rights education, Jim Ife observed:

The idea of human rights is far from non-problematic; it is highly contested, and so human rights education needs to incorporate the complexity and the controversy.

When educating children, how can we do justice to the complex and contested nature of human rights?

Human rights education has (at least) two distinct goals: to help children develop a critical understanding of human rights and responsibilities; and to foster the attitudes, behaviours and skills that children need to apply this understanding in everyday life.

I would like to suggest a particular model of inquiry-based learning that fulfils both goals, without overlooking the complexity and contestability of human rights. That model is known as Philosophy for Children.

Not only are children capable of grappling with such questions, but quite often they innocently articulate philosophical theories from the history of philosophy.

If the bearing of philosophy on human rights is not obvious, consider the following.

  • Investigating the justification, universality and objectivity of rights is a deeply philosophical exercise.
  • At the heart of human rights lie concepts that are essentially philosophical, whether social and political in flavour (such as freedom, justice, fairness and responsibility) or moral and humanistic (such as care, understanding, dignity, and identity).
  • The nature of human rights is itself philosophically complex. Human rights are inalienable, and yet they derive from negotiated decisions among international stakeholders. Implicitly or explicitly, lawmakers must grapple with challenging philosophical questions that underlie decisions on human rights issues.

When the techniques of philosophical inquiry are made properly accessible, even young children are able to share in the processes of deliberation, negotiation and decision-making on human rights issues.

As an approach to human rights education, the appeal of Philosophy for Children is twofold. Firstly, it offers a proven method for engaging children in the investigation of central questions concerning rights and values. It helps children develop a critical understanding of concepts as well as the capacity to make reasoned, ethical and informed decisions about human rights issues. Secondly, Philosophy for Children enables children to participate as responsible citizens in a democratic community. It cultivates the attitudes, behaviours and skills they need in order to express their views publicly, listen openly to other views, and resolve disagreements in a reasonable way.

The Philosophy for Children approach

It is often remarked that children are naturally disposed to philosophical wonder. As Ken Taylor says:

Young people are in the business of trying to figure out who and what they are.  Philosophy is devoted to answering just the sorts of questions that will grip any reflective human engaged in such a process:  “Who am I?”  “What’s right, and what’s wrong?”  “What things are worthy of my deepest allegiances and affections?”  “What is my place in the social world?”

For over 30 years, practitioners of Philosophy for Children around the world have harnessed children’s curiosity about philosophical questions such as these, building on the work of founder Matthew Lipman, who himself was greatly influenced by John Dewey. Strong empirical evidence of the cognitive and social benefits of Philosophy for Children comes from various studies and meta-analyses (see Millett and Tapper for a summary).

This facilitator’s neutrality ensures that children may freely investigate sensitive ethical or political questions without risking indoctrination.

In Australia, Philosophy for Children promotes critical and creative thinking among students in primary and secondary schools and, less commonly, in extra-curricular contexts. Trained facilitators help groups of children to wrestle with philosophical problems and arrive at considered judgements on the basis of thoughtful dialogue and critical reflection. Rather than teaching children the philosophical canon in a didactic way, facilitators lead groups of children in semi-structured dialogue or “collaborative inquiry” that encourages children to explore the philosophical dimensions of their own experience.

To begin, a narrative is often read aloud and used as a stimulus for inquiry. The narrative may be selected from classic or contemporary children’s literature, or purpose-written for philosophical dialogue. Either way, it is chosen for its philosophical interest, for its resonance with children’s experience, and for its capacity to fire their imaginations. Sophisticated picture books (such as Morrison and Morrison’s The Big Box, Cali and Bloch’s The Enemy, Trottier and Arsenault’s Migrant) offer rich stimuli for philosophical dialogues about human rights.

After the reading, the facilitator asks children to raise questions about any aspects of the narrative that they find philosophically puzzling. Then in response to one another’s questions, the children propose possible answers, supported by reasons. The facilitator solicits multiple responses and helps children to test various answers against criteria for reasonableness.

It teaches children how to negotiate meanings and how to disagree with one another, sometimes profoundly, without resorting to personal attacks.

Tensions between conflicting beliefs and values make for particularly rich dialogues. Is it okay to lie in order to save someone from being bullied or oppressed? Is environmental pollution an acceptable consequence of improving living standards among the poor? What is the difference between secrecy and privacy, and under what circumstances should each be defended?

Not only are children capable of grappling with such questions, but quite often they innocently articulate philosophical theories from the history of philosophy. Recounting an example of this, academic philosopher Thomas Wartenberg recalls a third-grade class inquiry into the question of why stealing is wrong:

As expected, students began with a variety of answers, including one forceful young man who said that the reason that stealing was wrong was that you got punished for doing it. Suddenly, a young girl … excitedly raised her hand. “No”, she said, “that’s not right. Stealing isn’t wrong because you get punished. You get punished because it’s wrong.” As I recognized Plato’s argument from the Euthyphro, I was stunned.

I include the transcript below as a detailed illustration of how a philosophical inquiry might proceed with a group of seven- and eight-year-olds. This passage is excerpted from a dialogue in Sutcliffe and Williams concerning where the fault lies in instances of bad behaviour. (Grammatical errors in the transcript have been corrected for readability.)

Teacher: Do people behave badly sometimes, do you think?

All: Yes.

Teacher: So what is it that drives people to behave badly?

Alex: Other people … They can make you want to do something naughty. They can tell you to do something naughty.

Teacher: How do these people tell people to be naughty?

Alex: Well Nicholas once drove – drove Adam to do something naughty – sort of spying on me.

Teacher: So whose fault would that be, do you think?

All:  Nicholas’.

Teacher: Is it the fault of the person who tells the person to be naughty? Or is it the fault of the person themselves?

Peter: It’s the person that tells them.

Teacher: Earlier on Peter you were talking about, though, that it’s up to the person themselves to be good or bad, didn’t you? So is it up to that person to listen to someone else telling them to be naughty?

Helen: They should decide themselves … The person that’s going to do it.

Teacher: Would you all agree with that?

Gordon: Yeh.

Teacher: Would you agree with that or would you disagree with that? Does the fault lie in the person that tells someone to be naughty or does the fault lie with the person that actually carries out the action?

Alex: Both.

Teacher: Who’s most at fault, the person who does it or the person who tells them?

Emma: Both.

Helen: Both.

Teacher: Alex?

Alex: I think it’s both because the person (the person who’s being told) shouldn’t do it – they don’t have to.

Teacher: Ahh, so they’re thinking as well. They’re making a choice in their mind.

Alex: Umm. The person who tells them, they want to know the information but they don’t want to get told off – they want the other person to – the person that they ask – so they decide to use them so they won’t get told off themselves.

Emma: That’s not always true though.

Alex: They use them for a weapon.

Teacher: So that’s an interesting idea; who would like to follow on from what Alex says? … Why isn’t that always true?

Emma: I saw on a programme that one person died because another person told him to do glue-sniffing and the other person died.

Teacher: OK. So who was at fault there do you think?

Emma: Both.

Teacher: Right, that’s making a connection isn’t it? That’s making a connection from what we’ve talked about here to something that’s really happened.

Understanding human rights concepts and making reasoned judgements

Mature deliberation is a vital skill, not least in the high-stakes field of human rights where we need to assess the human rights impact of particular policies and practices. Today, children and young people are themselves called on to stand up for human rights in their schools and communities. As students and as citizens, they need to develop the capacity to make independent, reasoned judgements about human rights issues and other topical issues of pressing concern.

The Australian Human Rights Commission recommends that human rights education be discursive, that is, “based on discussion, exchanging ideas and values [and] understanding human communication”. Philosophy for Children goes further: beyond supporting an exchange of ideas and values, it teaches children a range of high-level thinking strategies they can use to test these ideas and values.

Children become familiar with key concepts in human rights and learn how to clarify these concepts, provide justification for their beliefs, make distinctions and uncover assumptions. They learn to imagine the implications of hypothetical scenarios, consider alternative interpretations, and produce examples and counter-examples. In the course of dialogue and subsequent reflection, children come to understand that certain values – such as logical consistency and relevance of reasons – are crucial to the fair-minded assessment of arguments.

It is a hallmark of Philosophy for Children that the facilitator remains neutral and avoids disclosing his or her personal opinions while drawing forth discussion among the children. This neutrality ensures that children may freely investigate sensitive ethical or political questions without risking indoctrination.

… children are greatly excited by the invitation to think for themselves, articulate their views, engage with one another’s ideas and modify their beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.

Ground rules for philosophical inquiry demand that all participants be treated with respect. The expression of diverse opinions is welcomed and all views are taken seriously. However, not all views are endorsed as equally valid. While philosophical questions generally have no clear “right answer”, there are various ways of being wrong. Learning to recognise logical and interpretative mistakes is a powerful tool for critically evaluating beliefs and deciding when a change of mind is warranted.

In exploring contested issues through reasoned dialogue, children develop habits of constructive scepticism, recognising that no claim deserves to be unquestioningly accepted. Children learn to assess suitability of criteria, weight of evidence, reliability of sources and robustness of ideas in the face of criticism. These considerations enable children to draw tentative conclusions in the face of doubt, so they can act decisively in the world.


Towards democratic citizenship

Groups of children engaged in sustained philosophical dialogue develop a community of inquiry­: a pluralistic and democratic community built on principles of participation, deliberation, mutual respect and tolerance. As it develops, the community becomes increasingly self-governing, such that the facilitator intervenes less frequently and the children become more competent at regulating the dialogue themselves.

Participating in a community of inquiry affords children a meaningful way to exercise their rights to freedom of thought and expression as well as their right to develop their individual judgement and sense of moral and social responsibility (as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child, respectively).

Additionally, the community of inquiry prepares children for active citizenship in multiple ways. It offers them opportunities to experience genuine civic participation, on a small scale, within their classroom or peer group. It cultivates the skills and dispositions they need to express their views publicly, and to act responsibly and assertively in the wider world. It teaches children how to negotiate meanings and how to disagree with one another, sometimes profoundly, without resorting to personal attacks. It empowers children to reflect critically on proposed solutions to real social problems. And it prepares them to be meaningfully involved – even while still very young – in democratic decision-making, community participation, consultation and self-advocacy.

Collaborating for human rights education

Philosophical inquiry is a powerful tool for illuminating human rights concepts, bringing their meaning and relevance into sharper focus. Through Philosophy for Children, educators can convey the significance and complexity of human rights while avoiding both dogmatic instruction and traditional adversarial debate.

Collaborative philosophical inquiry provides a means for children to participate actively in a reflective community. In my experience, children are greatly excited by the invitation to think for themselves, articulate their views, engage with one another’s ideas and modify their beliefs on the basis of reason and evidence.

Eventually, each child develops a habit of “silent dialogue”, enabling them to test their own ideas independently. As one child put it: “Philosophy is like having a conversation with a voice in my head.” It is my hope that by introducing human rights education through philosophical inquiry, that inner voice will become more informed, more imaginative and more compassionate.

Michelle Sowey is a researcher and practitioner of Philosophy for Children. She directs The Philosophy Club which offers extra-curricular Philosophy workshops for children. She also works with universities, schools and community partners to develop Philosophy for Children initiatives. Michelle has been involved in both the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools and the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations.