In the workshops with teachers, librarians and facilitators offered by Wonder Ponder, attendants often voice concerns regarding participation in the dynamics of philosophical dialogue in the classroom or in non-formal educational contexts. Could philosophical dialogue be exclusionary to students with social anxiety and communication difficulties or who are simply more introverted than others?
What can be done to ensure that children who find it difficult to participate are not left out? How do you integrate in the community of enquiry people who don't feel at ease speaking in front of others or who find it intimidating to expose their views or who have difficulties communicating or who would simply rather not speak in that context?
Obviously there is no magic strategy to ensure that all members of the community participate equally. It will depend on the child in question, the specific group, the context, the group's familiarity with philosophical dialogue and the person acting as facilitator of the dialogue.
However, in this blog post our author Ellen Duthie shares three cases that helped her rethink participation and ease the pressure -on the kids and on herself-.
I don't have a magic strategy, no, but I do have three cases that have helped me think about this issue. Here are three pointers, one related to each of the cases, which I find useful to take into account when thinking about participation.
1. Define participation.
There's this ten-year-old boy who has been coming to every single one of the workshops I've done in Madrid for the last four years or so. He hasn't missed a single one. He insists to his parents he wants to attend. He is very chatty when one's alone with him, and when he is playing with his friends. He is articulate, has a broad vocabulary and is able to express complex ideas and to resolve conflicts during play. And yet, he hardly opens his mouth at the workshops. He may have uttered all of two sentences in all the dialogues of all the workshops put together.
When his mother asks me whether he has participated I say he has. I say that although he has not spoken out loud during the dialogue, he has been following everything everyone has been saying very attentively and with interest, smiling and reacting to what his fellow enquirers say. The mother tells me that later, when they get home, he tells her in great detail about everything that was said, who argued what, replaying the dialogue at home with her. This time he does participate orally, expressing his agreement or disagreement with the different arguments he has listened to in the morning, and he goes building an answer of his own.
Some children -and some adults- have a quick pace of thinking, while others prefer a slower pace. They like letting what they read and what they hear sink in, digesting it, and then speaking about it calmly, perhaps one-on-one with a friend, a mother or a father. Some people don't find it hard to go building their answers during the dialogue, rectifying and adjusting on the go. But others prefer or even need to think it over for a bit longer, to have that dialogue internally before making any utterance. This internal dialogue can also be part of the shared dialogue. It can be a form -an active form even- of participation.
2. Give time.
A girl who came to a series of weekly workshops did not open her mouth once the first two weeks. Her parents had 'warned' me of her intense shyness and said she might find it hard. The third week, mid workshop, she suddenly started talking. It was as if she had suddenly clicked that this was slightly different from what she had expected: here, unlike some other contexts, she did feel like participating. This is by no means the only time this has happened. I think it has something to do with the pace of thinking and arguing in philosophical dialogue.
In other contexts, inside and outside the classroom, people with social anxiety or difficulties to communicate can feel uncomfortable and pressured when asked questions. Most questions we are asked seem to requiere a quick answer (either in the form of the correct answer or in the form of a formed opinion).
But precisely in philosophical dialogue the pace is slower. It is not about getting rid of the question by solving it, 'shooting it down' as it were, with an answer. In philosophical dialogue questions are dealt with carefully, attentively, in as orderly a fashion as possible. It's not about getting rid of it but about staying with it for long enough to understand it better, getting comfortable with it, learning to see it from all possible angles. This unhurried pace can be comforting precisely for people who may feel intensely unconfortable and reluctant to participating in other contexts.
3. Consider different ways of participating.
There is another boy who has come to many of my workshops and who many might label as non-participative. He is quite similar in attitude to the boy in case number 1, what you might call a silent thinker. But what is interesting is how his attitude changes during the art work we often do after the dialogues at Wonder Ponder workshops. Here he transforms and becomes energetic, creative and delightfully spontaneous. This does not mean he doesn't enjoy the dialogues in silence. But I always pay special attention to his artistic contributions because they are fantastic (they are), but also to make him see that one kind of participation is not more important than the other and that I understand perfectly and see in his drawings all the work he has done in silence during the dialogue.
Even during the dialogue I try to incorporate different forms of participation. For instance, there are certain introductory, warm-up questions that invite sharing an experience of one's own that might have bearing on the issue we are about to explore. For some, participating in this kind of question is less intimidating than participating in more purely philosophical questions. And the other way around. Some would rather not share any personal experiences and focus on the issues themselves. In this sense, I try to pay attention and ask each of the members of the group the kind of questions I know they are more comfortable with and find more fun to answer. By making them feel at ease, with no pressure, they often do eventually and gradually start participating in ways other than those they were most comfortable at the beginning and start stepping out of their comfort zone.
I think the main thing is creating a pleasant, stimulating and safe space for dialogue. And making sure there is no rush. No pressure. No forcing anyone. Giving time. And paying attention to the different ways of enjoying that time where we stop and think together.
The Wonder Ponder series of Visual Philosophy for Children
The titles in the series: Cruelty Bites, I, Person and Whatever You Want
Wonder Ponder in the media
Ellen Duthie's blogs: Story Philosophy, Filosofía a la de tres (in Spanish), We Read it Like This.