Interview to Eugenio Echeverría, PhD. Philosophical Enquiry Communities based on Philosophy for Children and Teenagers. Educational News Bulletin No. 54
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In the newsletter of June, we have included an interview with Eugenio Echeverría, PhD, who was one of the speakers at the International Conference for Teachers (Jornadas Internacionales para Docentes in Spanish) of Buenos Aires Book Fair 2014. From Mexico, Echeverría introduces the pedagogical proposal of the Philosophical Enquiry Communities based on the Philosophy for Children and Teenagers.
Generally speaking, this proposal addresses socio-cultural problems of students prompting, at the same time, a sensible view on them. In order to do this, a set of philosophical concepts are used as tools of analysis and reflection.
On 14th October, the video of Eugenio Echeverría’s conference will be already uploaded to the Foundation`s video library. This video will come with a teaching guide to work with teacher colleagues and teacher training course groups on the subject matters and concepts discussed at the conference.
Eugenio Echeverría has a postgraduate degree in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy (Aston University, Birmingham, England) and a master’s degree in Philosophy for Children (Montclair State University, New Jersey, USA). Afterwards, he did a PhD in Teacher Training (Michigan State University, USA). Currently, he is the president of the Mexican Federation of Philosophy for Children and head of the Latin American Centre of Philosophy for Children, San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico. He wrote Philosophy for Children (Ediciones SM) and Philosophy with Teenagers (Continuum)
What is the work philosophy you develop at the Latin American Centre of Philosophy for Children (known as CELAFIN by its initials in Spanish)? Do you focus on teenagers, teacher training?
CELAFIN is the Latin American centre of philosophy for children and young people; it was created in 1992. It has three fundamental tasks:
- Translate, adapt and publish material of philosophy for children, mainly by Matthew Lipman.
- Produce local material of socio-cultural relevance; train teachers around Mexico and even in other countries where we are called.
- Carry out research, for instance, about the quantitative and qualitative results of the work of philosophy with children and teenagers.
What is the aim of the work of philosophy for children and teenagers in children and teenagers?
The aim is to get young people to develop thinking skills, build concepts, become aware of the philosophic dimension of their own experience and, from a practical aspect, ensure that they have tools to make better decisions in any sphere of life.
What does the method of philosophy for children consist of? What age groups does it include and what are characteristics of each of those groups?
Philosophy for children is a pedagogical proposal rather than a method or programme because it has a conception of the intended person and society that we want to help shape. Ages range from preschool to high school, from the age of 4 to 18 or 19 years old. In our proposal, we use material designed according to each age taking into account developmental psychology guidelines of the socio-cultural contexts where we work. In Chiapas (a southeastern state in Mexico), for example, where CELAFIN works, we border on Guatemala and we are surrounded by indigenous population, most of which don’t speak Spanish, so we have designed material to make philosophy for children and teenagers available to that type of population as well.
The philosophical proposal you develop is conceived as a proposal of thoughtful thinking since it’s based on Socrates’s maieutics which, summarised in basic terms, involves encouraging a person’s reflection based on the elements surrounding him or her. In this sense, what are the triggers or references that you usually use for designing materials? What kind of materials do you design?
The philosophical concepts of reference are universal; they don’t relate to a specific culture; we are talking about justice, dignity, freedom, what a person is, what reality is, what the meaning of life is, what alternatives I have in life in order to make decisions and build a meaningful existence. All this has nothing to do with where you live, whether you have money or not and that sort of things.
The materials are tales, novels designed for children in the case of young children. The characters of the novels used for high school are teenagers. What’s different is the context of the stories. In the novels, characters go through daily experiences in their family, at school, with their parents, their friends, at work. The plot includes literally hundreds of philosophical concepts.
After reading part of a novel, children are asked to make questions about what they have read, then there is a group discussion in which they deal with those questions and they choose one they consider the most interesting or which has caught their attention the most. This is where the community of philosophical enquiry comes into being; it’s the space where all the aims of philosophy for children are fulfilled. It’s a democratic space; a space where the part played by the teacher is crucial and the part of mediation, as understood by Lev Vygotski, Jerome Brunner or David Ausubel, is crucial as well on the grounds that, through the teacher’s interventions, which are mainly questions, students are guided on the practice of reflection, thinking skills; for instance, they are encouraged to learn to give reasons, make questions, identify presuppositions, search for alternatives, foresee consequences. These thinking exercises serve as elements and tools which, once internalized, offer a better, more thoughtful, more analytical, careful view of things. This process improves decision-making in life.
You’ve talked about an intercultural working context in Chiapas. How do work with the culture of the other?
What’s different when we work in indigenous communities is that we refer to the context where they live; we talk about the countryside; the fact that they go to the cornfield to work the corn and not, for example, that they go to McDonalds to have an ice-cream because this doesn’t exist in these communities. That’s mainly adaptation to the cultural context, but the methodology is virtually the same. Something we must change in that context is the form of intervention since culturally, in the communities surrounding Chiapas, the role of women is still very traditional and it’s difficult to make them speak. For this reason, we must build trust, acceptance, make them feel that this is a safe space, where gender equality is fostered. In many of these communities, the issue of gender equality is disapproved of because women have a submissive role and, when they reach the age of 13 or 14 —and parents think the girl may like some boy—, they are pulled out of school. We must get used to all these things when working with indigenous communities. But we also work with children and teenagers who are at high risk, who don’t go to school, are in conflict with the law, stay away from home, are drug addicts. In these cases, philosophy for children and teenagers is also regarded as a very useful tool so that they aren’t so impulsive and have the ability to plan ahead not just in the short term (what I’m going to do tomorrow, what’s going to happen tomorrow), but also in the medium and long term. It’s important that they realise they can live a life looking ahead. Many of these children and teenagers think of the short term as a period of one or two weeks; the work of philosophy for children helps them begin to see that they have a future which is worth it.
In relation to the way you work, what you say reminds me of Paulo Freire’s philosophy; for example, when it comes to the recovery of expressions of the cultural and vocabulary universe of the other in order to determine the problems faced by each child. What is the approach you take in teacher training to be able to work this way? Do you base work on specific field experiences which are later conceptualised?
The philosophy by Paulo Freire has considerable relevance.
More than 60 countries are working with philosophy for children and teenagers. Each country has its own outline of work in their teacher training programs. Mexico’s outline of work is considered to be one of the most serious in terms of quality and completeness. There’s the Mexican Federation of Philosophy for Children which was founded in 1993 and is backed by Mathew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, creators of Philosophy for Children. There is a letter in which they support the work of the Federation because it encourages teacher training watching over quality and completeness. Teacher training mainly consists of a 150-hour course which includes three modules of 35 hours. Between each module, students are required to do practices of 25 hours of work with their groups, record two or three of those practices and bring them to be examined in order to get some feedback and brush up on the mediation they conduct with their students. This type of training can prove very difficult for many teachers because they’re used to know all the answers and feel compelled to answer students’ questions.In philosophy for children, the mediator should have —among other qualities— intellectual humility; he should be aware that there are things in the world which surprise us and for which we have no answer. That’s why, rather than someone who teaches, the teacher should be a companion on the journey of knowledge acquisition with the student. In other words, the teacher must stop being the protagonist and allow the student to play such role since it is the student who should become the protagonist of his own learning while the teacher is a companion, a guide in this search for knowledge.This is hard because the traditional system in Mexico and many other countries in Latin America is characterised by a slightly authoritarian teacher who knows everything and has all the answers, who has to be respected and obeyed. Knowledge simply no longer works that way. The explosion of knowledge, the coming of Internet, shows us that the amount of information stored in our head isn’t the most important; what matters is to know how to deal with a problem, identify what kind of information I need to solve it, where I can get that information from and how I can apply it successfully to solve the problem. So this is a bit of what the teacher has to deal with. Besides philosophy and philosophical concepts don’t provide a perfect and unique answer. If you are talking about justice, truth, freedom, situations in the world for which there is no explanation yet, we all have different answers; for this reason, the role of the communities of philosophical enquiry is to help us enrich with the different conceptions of this view of life and our point of view with the critical contributions of our classmates or colleagues. When my colleagues tell me, “Eugenio, I disagree with what you say for such and such thing”, they force me to review my opinions either to find stronger arguments to confirm them or transform them in the light of that criticism.
In other words, a community of trust is built both in the instance of teacher training —when the teacher explains what he or she did and opens up a debate which includes colleagues’ critical views— and the teacher’s role as mediator with students. The teacher takes a horizontal approach and, in turn, keeps distance in order to observe certain tensions that may arise within the group of students.
The teacher always has a responsibility that goes beyond students, this is not a completely horizontal relationship because the teacher must ensure that the group is a safe place; for example, so that students aren’t heckled, they don’t insult each other, there’s no discrimination, all of which is the teacher’s responsibility. At the same time, the teacher should foster implicit values of the community of philosophical dialogue; for instance, the concept of democracy which is a feature of the community of philosophical enquiry. Mostly the concept of creative democracy, as John Dewey calls it, or caring or deliberative democracy, which favours caring cooperation, as opposed to liberal democracy which favours individualism and competition. This concept of democracy, as used by Dewey as well as other American progressives, is a fundamental principle of the work of the community of philosophical enquiry on the grounds that it suggests a vision of a just and caring society, in which individuals who belong to that society indeed take part in the creation of the norms by which they are governed and, in turn, there’s freedom of thought and ability to make decisions collectively. In this sense, Freire is very relevant in relation to the concept of social justice.
One of the results we try to achieve in the philosophical enquiry community work with children and teenagers is that they envisage a world where they are not alone with their family, school and friends, but that they are part of mankind which has a lot of needs and in which they —acting locally and thinking globally— can be at least not part of the problem but become aware that they can be part of the solution.
How do you deal with the issue of coexistence of teenagers from the perspective of your proposal? For some teachers, this is a problem that usually crops up when giving classes. Do you consider this issue a sign of the need for some transformations in the educational system? Are you called as a pedagogical working group to address this problem?
Yes. As regards the work with teenagers, just recently, the Public Education Ministry, which is the highest authority in education in Mexico, reintroduced philosophy to high school two years ago. This subject had been removed to prioritise technology while humanities had been left in second place. Two years ago, there were more than a hundred thousand deaths in the country mainly due to drug trafficking. This leads us to wonder where these young people had been, how they had been through primary and high school. I know that, partly because of this issue, humanities have regained their position: first logics, this year ethics and next year select subject matters of philosophy. The Public Education Ministry itself asked us, the Mexican Federation of Philosophy for Children and Teenagers, to include the methodology of the philosophical enquiry community within this reintegration of philosophy. That is to say that all the teachers in the country will be working with the proposal of philosophical enquiry. This means working on topics which are meaningful and interesting to students because they coincide with what they are going through in life and, at the same time, are philosophical subject matters; for instance, bullying, drug use, staying in school, sexuality. All of these topics have a philosophical dimension and significant relevance especially at that age of teenage years. Work in philosophical community opens up spaces of freedom where students can say what they think the way they want; that’s why they appreciate this type of space and, for this reason, I think they take advantage of it by interacting and becoming aware of alternative possibilities and consequences in each situation.
But the main problem is teacher training. In other words, it’s not easy that thousands of teachers handle this pedagogical proposal properly; for example, by exercising intellectual humility, trying to understand teenagers, allowing them to express themselves even though I may not like it as a teacher.
What you are suggesting students to do is interesting since they can develop a forward-looking view that allows them to be conscious when they make decisions and perform actions.
Yes. To know that they have a future, options, that there’s something ahead. To be aware that there’s a future and, most of all, that they start developing a personal and social project. Personally, they should ask themselves, “what kind of person do I want to be?” and think whether my daily actions are taking me closer to the person who I want to be. And, as regards the social project, “what kind of world do I want live in? How can I build the path to it?”
Taking into account that many teachers weren’t trained in philosophy to carry out thoughtful work in which reality is problematised, I suppose there must be tension when facing that challenge since teachers aren’t trained in mediation and they must create bonds with students which they didn’t create with their own teachers.
That’s true. It’s not easy, but I believe in people’s power of transformation and, even if you were raised in an authoritarian setting, you can change and see the virtue and value of a different form of education.
Look, we’ve been called by the Public Education Ministry, but we are about 30 teacher trainers and that’s certainly not enough. The Public Education Ministry calls the 30 of us so that we train, in the rest of the country, groups of 30 teachers who, in turn, will train 30 others. This is what they call waterfall model which, we know, doesn’t work.
That kind of training is a process that takes some time as it involves going through experiences, where results don’t appear immediately, but over the course of a process. Often, in many educational programmes, measurable results are expected over fairly short periods which are linked with the period of the political administration of a country. Can you describe a training instance of these groups of teachers? What is the methodology like? How long do you work with them?
There’s a 150-hour course which combines theory and practice; some teachers have completed that course with us, but it will be replicated. We know that the system of replicas doesn’t work, so what would that philosophy reintegration to high school be like with teenagers? In a way that gradually has an impact on the reflection processes within the philosophical enquiry communities. This would mean ongoing teacher training. Some teachers will never be able to work with this method, others will find it difficult, but little by little they will be able to embrace this proposal. That’s why there must be ongoing and continuous upgrading. If we —who are teacher trainers— are still learning, what can you expect of teachers who have just started working on this?
Ongoing training involves working in processes, and this isn’t solved by learning a method of application of a technique in order to achieve a result. In this sense, I present a problem, which has probably been presented before. Often, when discussing assessment, people refer to it in terms of how programme implementation is assessed, how to measure it to be able to prove it, almost quantitatively. What is the assessment plan that you propose in this form of work?
Assessment in groups is based mostly on observation plans; there are different forms of assessment in philosophy for children and teenagers which are related to the skills students acquire in the process: whether they listen to others, they give reasons or they look for alternatives, that is to say, each of the skills, which are more than 20. We observe if and how those skills are displayed within the community of dialogue.
When it comes to teenagers, assessment involves self-assessment; for example, how well I am fitting into the philosophical enquiry community, how I am as a member and what that means to me.
There’s also the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills, which is slightly more quantitative and based on 50 reagents. In many studies carried out in several countries, students who have taken part in the philosophical enquiry community for 6 months perform significantly better in these reasoning skills tests than the groups who haven’t taken part. All this is done with control groups, there’s also follow-up. In some schools, this has been done during 3 or 4 years both with control groups and experimental groups.
What is a control group?
In order to explain what a control groups is, I’m going to describe a real experience we had in Monte Rey, at a primary school where there were 3 groups for each year: 3 groups in first year, 3 groups in second year and so on up to sixth year. The programme was implemented in a whole school year, for example, in 3 sixth-year groups of primary school made up of children aged 11 or 12 years. Philosophy for Children, through the enquiry community, was applied to one of the groups but not to the other 2. This experience lasted 2 years. The control group was the one in which the philosophical enquiry community wasn’t set up, but whose students did the test at the end of the programme. The result was that there was an improvement in the groups that had put the philosophical enquiry community into practice. Then parents learned that this programme was yielding good results so they wanted their kids, in the control groups, to take philosophy. In the end, the programme had to be implemented in the entire school.
That’s the experimental group-control group design. In one there’s philosophy for children while in the other there isn’t. The same test is applied half-way through the period to both groups and then the test is repeated at the end of the cycle. There‘s a quantitative result, but from a pedagogical perspective it’s less important because how do you measure whether the student is more tolerant, thoughtful, analytical, careful when making decisions or expressing his or her ideas? That’s very hard to measure. At least, quantitatively it’s impossible to do so.
I think an evaluation matrix could be created to organise the record of specific perspectives or lines of thought. A record that could be kept in a sort of logbook of each student by himself and a logbook of the teacher about the group and its members. This way, there would be a record of the experiences over time in which, in certain situations, one of these dimensions of thought you’ve just mentioned becomes evident: critical, caring, thoughtful, constructive.
That’s true. It’s an excellent idea. At the end of each session of philosophical work in the community of dialogue, children are asked to write a paragraph about what they’ve learnt, whether it was something new, whether they built something with their classmates’ ideas, what they didn’t know they had. This way they are asked to make a record in a logbook because, over time, students themselves realise how their thought is transformed and, if they don’t write, it’s very difficult for them to notice this change in different stages of the process.
Bibliography on Philosophy for Children:
- Lipman, Matthew. (2003). La educación para el pensamiento de cuidado. Capítulo 12 de la segunda edición del libro de Matthew Lipman (2003) Thinking in Education. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Traducción hecha por Mónica Cuéllar y Armando Verdín. (CELAFIN)
- Echeverría, Eugenio. Prospectiva de la filosofía para niños. (CELAFIN)
- Echeverría, Eugenio. El papel de la comunidad de diálogo filosófico en la formación de la identidad del adolescente. (CELAFIN)
- Miranda Alonso, Tomás. (2007) M. Lipmann: Función de la filosofía en la educación de la persona razonable. Crear Mundos
- García Moriyón, Felix. (2010) Filosofía para niños. Genealogía de un proyecto
In Argentina, a reference group of the pedagogical proposal of Philosophy for Children is El Pensadero.
Their blog is the following: http://grupo-pensadero.blogspot.com.ar/
On Facebook: https://es-es.facebook.com/grupoelpensadero