Homeschooling / Unschooling

Philosophy Hour: Encouraging Critical Thinking

Some of the best parts of learning and homeschooling are things you can’t actually see. The questions, the conversations, the debates, the wondering, the thinking. We do a lot of this, and one thing we’ve always enjoyed is philosophy. The girls and I have read a few philosophy books together and pondered over many big ideas.

How do we know we exist? Is God real? What is truth? What is beauty?

These are fascinating things to wonder about and hear other people’s perspectives on.

Apart from reading books though, we were really stuck on how to ‘do’ philosophy. What else could we do? How could we take this interest further?

And so… I bring you ‘Philosophy Hour‘!

What is Philosophy Hour?

Philosophy Hour is a dedicated time each week to explore a specific philosophy question together as a family! For us, that’s usually a Sunday afternoon/evening. Here’s how we do it…

1. Decide on a Question

At the start of the week, decide on a philosophical question to pose to the family. You can choose together, or just get one person to decide. We started out by deciding on the question together, but to be honest it wasn’t working out easily getting this done at the start of the week. It was tricky to get everyone in the same spot and all agree on a question. So, we decided that I would just come up with the questions. Of course, they can offer suggestions, but they generally trust I’ll pick a variety of things and we’ll have something interesting to talk about. I think they were happy to offload the pressure of having to come up with something. So far they’ve all been interested in every question I’ve chosen so it’s working out.

2. Stick it on The Wall

Grab a big piece of cardboard, write the question at the top, blu tack it to the wall, and sit some markers next to it. We put it in the dining room because we’ll see it regularly and that’s where we’re going to be sitting to discuss it. There’s plenty of space for multiple people to gather around it at once. A big canvas to write on is good because everyone can see easily and there’s lots of space for ideas. Some of ours have gotten very full. I recommend using cardboard though so any markers don’t go through onto the wall!

3. Get Writing!

Add your ideas! I always add a few things on there to get the discussion started. For example, today our question was ‘What is Freedom?’ and I started by writing things like, ‘What does freedom mean to you?’, ‘Can we ever have 100% freedom?’, and ‘Is freedom a human right?’. Explain to everyone that they can write whatever comes to mind on the topic, they can reply to others, they can agree or disagree, and they can debate ideas. Draw lines connecting thoughts, ideas, and rebuttals.

4. Discuss it

Now, theoretically, we do this over dinner on a Sunday night. That was the original idea. What is actually happening is that we just can’t wait until then. Someone starts writing, and the next minute multiple people are there adding their thoughts, asking more questions, and debating with each other. This inevitably leads to us talking right there on the spot. This might happen once and we might fill the whole cardboard up in one day, or might happen multiple times during the week. On Sunday what we end up doing after dinner is nominating someone to read everything we have written so we get a summary of the whole thing. This can be difficult, there are thoughts going everywhere!

5. Repeat

Come up with a new question and do it all again!

The Benefits of Exploring Philosophy

“By engaging in philosophical discussions, children develop independent thinking, the confidence to speak their minds, as well as a sense of responsibility for their opinions and actions. Philosophy also raises children’s awareness of the ethical issues that touch their lives, and gives them tools to begin developing their own values and principles.”

The Philosophy Club

There are so many reasons to explore philosophy with your kids! Number one on the list for me would have to be that it’s just enjoyable! I love having these discussions with my children and hearing their thoughts. They have such interesting things to say! It’s actually a really connecting time and gets us talking about topics that otherwise might not come up. I think we’ll be continuing Philosophy Hour for a long time.

Some other benefits:

Developing critical thinking and reasoning skills.
Learning to communicate ideas and thoughts effectively.
Constructing arguments and debating.
Encouraging curiosity and an open mind.
Taking others’ perspectives and empathy for others’ experiences.
Self-awareness and reflection.
Moral development.
Cultural and historical awareness.
Confidence in expressing ideas and seeing that their thoughts are valued.

Some Tips for a Successful Philosophy Hour

Do it Imperfectly

This is something Philosophy Hour has taught me! I’ve had this idea for a while and knew the kids would like it but felt that I had to work out exactly how it would go and what the best way to do it was before I started. One day I decided that if I didn’t just start, I was never going to know what worked and what didn’t, and it was unlikely that I was going to have the time to sit down and make sure everything was perfect. So I just got on with it. We worked out what worked and what didn’t along the way. Sometimes we were busy and I didn’t put a question on the wall until Sunday, sometimes we didn’t get to it until Monday. We tried reading about the question in a book before we wrote down our ideas, we tried reading about it after instead, sometimes we don’t read anyone else’s thoughts at all. Just get started and work out how it works best in your own unique family.

Try and set a regular time in the week for Philosophy Hour so it becomes part of your routine, but don’t stress if you can’t fit it in that week. Be flexible!

Have Some Ground Rules

Debates are good, putting down other people’s ideas is not so great! Before you start it might be helpful to talk about what is respectful i.e. there are no silly questions, all thoughts are welcome, you can disagree respectfully, everyone gets a chance to speak, and everyone’s voice is valued. Emphasize that there are no ‘wrong’ answers in philosophy.

Include the Whole Family

We chose Sunday night for our Philosophy Hour because everyone is home! I think so often with homeschooling we focus so much on doing activities for kids, that we forget how valuable it is to actually join our children in their learning. Philosophy is for everyone and kids know the difference between an activity set up for them so they learn something and an activity that you’re all doing together because you enjoy it. The latter is much more fun, less pressure, and more meaningful.

It’s also a chance to model those critical thinking skills that we want our children to have!

This is Not The Time for a Spelling Lesson

There will naturally be a lot of writing happening, but this is not the time for spelling lessons or lecturing about messy handwriting. Just let people get their thoughts out and enjoy the process, that’s what it’s all about. It’s all going to be ok.

Make it Special

I am a fan of making things feel special! You could do this with a fancy meal, decorations, getting dressed up for dinner, or whatever is fun to you! For us, we have designated Sunday night as the night the younger two girls get to make dinner, and also dessert which we don’t usually have. They definitely participate in the philosophy discussions but since they are younger naturally don’t write as much as the older two so this is another way to make sure they are equally included.

Encourage Deeper Thinking

If you haven’t explored philosophical questions before, you might need to help things along and encourage people to think deeper. Here are some general questions you can use and adapt to different topics:

What would you say to someone who sees things differently?
What if the opposite were true?
Can you think of a real-life story or example relating to this?
How would people from 100 years ago answer this question? What about someone from another country?
What would be the consequences if everyone thought this way?
How could this view impact people’s choices?
How does this question make you feel?
What evidence do you have that this is true?
Can you try arguing the opposing view?
Do you think most people agree with you? Why or why not?
What influenced you to think this way?

Philosophy Question Ideas

And now, some ideas for questions you can use if you’d like to try Philosophy Hour in your home!

How do I know I exist?
What is human nature?
What is right and wrong?
What is freedom?
Is it ever okay to break a rule or law?
Do we have a responsibility to take care of the environment?
Does God exist?
What is truth?
What is beauty?
What is art?
What is an individual?
What is gender?
Why do we exist?
Why do we love?
What is imagination?
Is an ideal society possible?
What is a soul?
What does it mean to be “normal”?
Do animals have rights?
Is it possible to be truly selfless?
Do we control our emotions, or do they control us?
Do we need to experience sadness to appreciate happiness?
What is the difference between justice and fairness?
Can technology replace human connections?
Do we have free will?
Are humans innately good or evil?
Do all people deserve respect?
Is one human life worth more than another?
Is ignorance really bliss?
Is it ever ok to lie?
What brings true happiness?
Where do morals come from?
Does morality come from within or outside ourselves?
Can anyone ever really understand another’s feelings?
Is free speech a universal right?

Philosophy Book Recommendations

So far the questions we have explored have come from philosophy books we have read and loved. After we’ve finished thinking over the question ourselves, we often find a chapter or page in one of our books on the same topic to hear what others have to say and how our own thoughts were similar or different. If you’re looking for some philosophy books these are our favourites:

Big Ideas for Curious Minds
Big Ideas for Young Thinkers
Philosophy for Beginners
The Complete Philosophy Files

And that’s how we do it! We’ve been having Philosophy Hour for the last couple of months and it’s definitely here to stay. We’ve just finished up this week’s where we looked at the question, ‘What is Freedom?’ We had such an interesting discussion about whether we can ever have 100% freedom, if we even want that, how we give up some of our freedom to live in community with others, how our choices are influenced by societal conditioning, if the amount of freedom we have depends on age, how freedom is related to trust, and so much more! Super interesting!

If you give Philosophy Hour a try, I’d love to hear about it!

Happy questioning!


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