Would you rather eat a worm or be bitten by a spider? Is it always wrong to tell a lie? What if you didn’t have to go to school? Last week I ran a Philosophy for Children (#P4C) lesson at Gallions Primary in Tower Hamlets, a primary school in a run down area of Tower Hamlets. To get there you take the DLR train to the end of the line, within sniffing distance of Beckton’s sewage treatment works and along litter-strewn estates.
Inside, the school the atmosphere is calm and the children are focused. I attended a training for artists there a few months ago and learned how the school hosts a resident gardener, artist, musicians, poets, and a chef (with an MA in food ethnology) as well as investing in children from nursery age upwards with weekly philosophy lessons. Behaviour has turned around, playground bullying has declined and children’s attainment is improving which is a major achievement anywhere, moreso here in this difficult area of East London. Deputy, Lisa Naylor, who is passionate about P4C explained to me that these developments have taken years to achieve. In exchange for the training, artists are invited to bring in a piece of their art which is a stimulus for a philosophical enquiry and which is donated to the school.
For starters Year 4 Calypso class chewed over warm up questions, swapping places if they preferred school dinners to Macdonalds or thought swimming was better than football. For first course I offered them a ‘playful ponder’: “You have a super power for 24 hours. You can choose to be invisible, have super strength, be able to fly, build anything of your choice or to make people happy when you touch them”. The children jump onto a circle I’ve prepared, to make their choice, then justify it to the whole class. Calypso are patient, impressively listening to each other reasoning and articulating their choices. They have the opportunity to swap places and explain how their thinking was swayed. Then onto mains. I presented the children with my artwork, Colourfield, and asked the children to draw how it made them feel. Their answers varied from ‘confused’ and ‘happy’ to ‘inspired’ and a profound ‘it makes me feel like anything is possible’.
The thrust of these enquiries is that they are child-led so the children debate a question they have formulated themselves and chosen to discuss. I invited them to ask the artwork a question and then had the tricky task of categorising them, for example “What are you made of?” questions, “What are you about?”, some more random queries and then this gem… “Can just a line be a piece of art?” The children and teachers voted for this as their discussion point. Arguments were eloquent and I was blown away by the children’s patience and clarity. It’s evident these 8 and 9 year olds are well-versed in debating and to the possibility of disagreement and a range of valid opinions. Inspiring indeed.
So can a line be art? Calypso think so, by a vote of 16 to 8, but they’re open to suggestions.