Epictetus once said that: “Whoever is going to listen to the philosophers needs considerable practice in listening”
I would like to update this and write whoever is going to participate in a philosophical dialogue needs considerable practice in listening, children and adults alike. Working philosophically with preschoolers soon revealed itself as a mission for myself to explore listening.
I needed to learn how to listen to the children without a learning agenda – to be open to their creativity and to become a facilitator of the dialogue rather than a leader of the dialogue. The children needed to learn how to listen to each other – so that it was not a series of monologues listened to by the teacher. Most importantly there was a need to listen to understand rather than listen to answer.
I remember the day before our first structured philosophy session thinking “this is never going to work”. The children could barely sit in a morning meeting without testing how much space they could take or exploring how others would react to pokes and prods – and then it struck me… a circle of chairs, dimmed lights and candles in the middle. The children gathered the next day, they sat quietly and they participated in a ten-minute philosophy session. I was over the moon.
We also used talking rings (essentially serviette rings) – a silver one for the facilitator and a perspex one for the children. The idea is that if we want the children to listen to each other, then we as adults should not elevate our listened to status. We too need a ring to allow us to talk, just as the children. The talking rings are a concrete way for the children to see the turn-taking of dialogue, and that there is both talking and listening. Those with the ring can share their ideas and opinions, the others listen – never be just quiet, as being quiet is passive, and listening is an active verb. Having a second talking ring (it can be a stone, stick, ball etc) allows the facilitator to fluently support the children to communicate their ideas through open questions.
After each session I would read back to the children the notes I had taken during the session, trying my best to write verbatim (including pauses). The children are encouraged to correct or adjust their ideas – in the early days of our philosophy sessions when the children were 2-3 years old, this was our meta-dialogue. Now, two years later we have explored different ways of engaging in a meta-dialogue – from exploring their ideas through play to actual dialogues about the dialogue.
Listening is a skill that takes time to develop – we do lots of listening games, art explorations and activities to support listening, self-regulation and collaboration. Philosophy is, after all, a community of learners, and building the community is an essential part of the process. These listening games and play have been an important part of the pre-verbal philosophy. For example, passing an object around the circle requires the children to not only give but also to receive – just as a dialogue is about talking (giving) and receiving (listening) – without both parts the object does not get around the circle easily – it also requires taking turns – if we all talk at once there is no-one left to listen. The bubble game has also helped a great deal with turn-taking and self-regulation. We sit in a circle …
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This is an extract of an article first published in the September 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine. Read the magazine freely online by clicking here. The online version of this article first appeared in 2015 and updated in 2020 by the UKEd Editorial team in accordance with website and policy changes.
Suzanne Axelsson @SuzanneAxelsson is a teacher at Filosofiska Preschool in Stockholm, Sweden. She shares her learning journey on her blog Interaction Imagination at interactionimagination.blogspot.se and has given listening and play workshops and presentations in Canada, Sweden, Palestine, USA, UK and Iceland.