'If's and 'But's and what thoughts wear at night

In my last couple of blog posts, I’ve written about David Fisher and his work in developing a pragmatic approach to encouraging children to think. I also wrote, “...we believe teachers and students need to experience generating their own ideas to discuss. Effective frameworks for learning and teaching are great – as long as the content that’s generated using those frameworks is original. If both teachers and students don’t have at least one ‘Aha!’ moment a day, there’s something wrong.”

In his book, Teaching Thinking, David Fisher offers some really interesting examples of how this works for him in practice... through questioning... to develop imagination, autonomy, empathy, thinking ahead and beyond the immediate situation, being sensitive, developing and testing hypotheses, being able to justify standpoints, and examining ideals.

Anyone getting 9- to 10-year-old children to come up with questions such as, ‘What is a thought?’; ‘Where do thoughts come from?’ or ‘Does your brain talk to you or do you talk to your brain?’ is on to a good thing.

One of the frameworks he recommends is Matthew Lipman’s Philosophy for Children programme, a resource with lots of teachers’ aides and prompts. Fisher himself provides lots of facilitation questions as well, such as, ‘What do you mean by that?’; ‘Can you repeat that in your own words?’; ‘Can you give an example?’ ‘Do you know what we said a few moments ago?’ or ‘What question are we talking about?’ Much of the success of these questions depends on these being asked in an open-ended, non-judgemental way. Questions are presented in useful categories, with 25 possibilities given to help teachers direct a Socratic discussion.

I tried this approach out on my long-suffering 13-year daughter – I’d read up on the approach, decided to question her about thinking, taking a list of Lipman’s questions Fisher includes in his book as starting points. To my chagrin, I found I was so engrossed in trying to remember the questions, I’d lost sight of the point Fisher makes, quoting Plato – ‘Philosophy begins in wonder.’

I wondered at my own inadequacy and went back to the drawing board to try to understand what underlying framework would help me – and hopefully other teachers – generate meaningful questions naturally and spontaneously. Here's what happened...


I’m no Socrates, but I knew it wasn’t rocket science, and that it was humanly possible, so I set to.

It took a while, but when the answer came, it came in a flash – a serendipitous ‘aha!’ moment. Rereading the book, I decided to analyse what was happening in an annotated transcript of a discussion sparked by the question, ‘Is there such a thing as the most interesting thing in the world?’ (pages 44-49 in the 2nd edition if you want to look it up).

The spontaneity I was looking for came from two very simple words... ‘if’ and ‘but’. Of the 32 statements quoted, a cursory analysis returned 15 ‘buts’ (nearly 50%); 12 ‘ifs’ (nearly 25%); around 10 questions that depended on good listening skills, quite a few ‘I think’s/’I don’t think’s and some ‘possibly’s and ‘unless’es. The numbers aren’t important – the mental positions are.

How much more liberating for a teacher to go into a classroom, armed with a starting question they’re really passionate about – mine, as I’m writing this is, ‘Where did the idea of ‘if’ come from?’ (anyone out there who wants to engage in a dialogue of enquiry, let me know – I’d definitely be up for that) – or (back to the point in question), as Fisher encourages, get the children in the community of enquiry to come up with some and choose the most promising – then tackle it with the simple tools of ‘I think’/’I don’t think’; ‘but’ and/or ‘if’ for starters... the rest will flow naturally, spontaneously, organically.

The challenge in a classroom is feeling able to be spontaneous. Teachers’ aides and downloadable lesson plans help – but do they encourage or stifle spontaneity and creativity?

Given the choice between a prescriptive and an open-ended framework, I know which one I’d choose.

And having developed the confidence to lead a discussion from these simple open-ended beginnings, I’d lead teachers on to using Cicero’s 16 logical topics of invention to generate new questions. After all, Lipman’s questions, I also realised, in another ‘aha!’ moment, are based on them...

Do you think all the time, or just some of the time? (When)
Do you think while you’re asleep? (Active, Passive, Posture)
Can you think without thinking of someone or something (Relationship)
Do you think in words? If so, do you think in sentences? (Notation, Conjugates)
Can you have thoughts without actually thinking (Passive)
Can you think of something, without it making you think of something else? (Relationship, Active, Passive)
Can you think of more than one thought at a time (Quantity)
Can a thought be divided, the way pies are divided? (Division)
Can thoughts be beautiful? (Quality)
Can thoughts be beautiful, even if they are (not) true? (Quality, Relationship)
Which would you rather have, lots and lots of thoughts, or just a few nice thoughts? (Quantity, Quality, Comparison)
If your body is the same age as you are, does that mean your thoughts are the same age as you are? (When, Relationship)
Can other people let you think their thoughts? (Relationship)
Not to mention Definition, Genus, Species, Adjuncts such as Posture, Habiliment, Antecedent, Consequent, Cause, Effect as well. Who knows how many wonderful questions, how many ‘aha!’ moments those could generate?

And if you’re wondering about how Habiliment could ever apply to thinking, to quote loosely from Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon, which takes me back to when I was 13, ‘You change your shirt once a day... how often do you change your mind?’ – I’m now off, armed with nothing but a few ‘if’s and ‘but’s to ask my daughter how often she changes her mind. Wish me luck!


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