PHILOSOPHY EDUCATION IN FLANDERS, BELGIUM : SOME HUMBLE STEPS IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?
More than ever our society needs reflection. Learning, and this should be clear by now, is more than swallowing what the teacher spoon-feeds. Children and youngsters want to develop a personal view on the world, a positive self-image, a cultural identity. It is the challenging task of all educators to guide them in this search. The development of social skills, a sense of citizenship, and the competence to live together in a complex world, has become an indispensable aspect of our education programme. Philosophy is a very powerful and effective means to this end.
That is at least what VEFO, and many along with us, believes. VEFO stands for ‘Vlaams Netwerk voor Eigentijds Filosofie Onderwijs’, a Flemish network for contemporary philosophy education. It was founded in 2002, within the frame of the UNESCO-programme ‘Philosophy and Democracy in the world’, which asked for more philosophy education all over the world. The Flemish Parliament approved of a resolution that, amongst other things, asks specifically for the need of contemporary philosophy education and the training of experienced philosophy teachers and facilitators.
This is one of the main concerns and aims of our organisation: to strive for the realisation of thorough and profound contemporary philosophy education in Flanders. That implies: unbiased, disseminated, socially relevant, didactically accessible teaching. It emphasises skills and attitudes rather than knowledge, and takes into consideration the acquired skills in other school subjects.
Our Ministry of Education acknowledges the need for equal educational opportunities for everyone in a complex society in which the un- or less educated will be the poor of the future. The globalisation of our society causes cultural changes and growing contrasts between different groups within our population. People are confronted with different ways of living and thinking, diverse values and expectations. ‘Old’ values which they have always relied on are disappearing and gradually replaced by new ones, and that creates feelings of insecurity and fear. Many of us have great difficulty with the languages, traditions, religions, convictions, habits… of ‘the others’, which we perceive not only as strange, but also as inaccessible and incomprehensible. This sometimes results in tense ‘us versus them’ feelings, which not seldom lead to intolerance and hatred. And we all know where those can lead to... It is especially in education, and more specifically in philosophy education, that we can raise the debate on ethics and identity, and that we can encourage our pupils to reflect on who they are and who they want to be. Philosophy teaching can be an ideal platform for the confrontation with the many problems, viewpoints and arguments of the others, and can lead to the insight that the fundamental questions on life can bring people together, rather than split them apart.
It is very clear that something moves on the field of philosophy education in Flanders. This article will give a concrete example of some successful projects VEFO has recently launched.
On the 18th of November 2005, the international UNESCO Philosophy day, VEFO organised a conference to give an impulse to the teaching of philosophy and philosophical skills. The meeting took place in symbolic surroundings: the Flemish Parliament. It was intended for teachers, teacher trainers, headmasters, inspectors, policy-makers etc, who were invited to think of ways how to stimulate the teaching of philosophy in the Flemish schools.
It proved to be a great success: more than 200 people (that was the maximum capacity) came together that day, to listen to what university professors (from the 4 major Flemish Universities Antwerp, Brussels, Ghent and Leuven) had to say about philosophical reflection in Flemish Education, and to talk this over in several workshops dealing with more specific topics such as comparative philosophy and diversity, philosophizing with students in secondary schools, philosophy in technical and vocational courses, guiding a Socratic dialogue in class, experiences with philosophy in other subjects etc.
This conference was the first part of a 3-step-project, spread over the school year 2005-06. The following step was a process that had to take place in the different participating schools. Teachers who attended the ‘trigger-day’ in November, were invited to work out a project in their own school or class. The project had to deal with philosophy in one way or another. The intention and aim was that students all over Flanders were engaged in a process of reflection and thinking, but this in a creative and innovating way. The results would be presented on a come-back day in April 2006.
Many teachers felt attracted to the appeal, but most of them made clear that they needed some guidance, for there is not so much experience to rely on in Flanders as it comes to the teaching of philosophical skills. That’s where VEFO tried to fill the gap: we brought together the interested and enthusiastic teachers, and together we tried to find a way to put the theory into practise. We organised two more workshops, one in January and one in March 2006, in which we brainstormed about various ideas and plans, and gradually the projects in the different schools were getting more and more concrete.
This resulted in a fantastic ‘come-back’ day on 28 April, where pupils and students presented their project to the other guests in several morning sessions in small groups. Some of the presentations and projects were absolutely stunning. One of the groups showed us a film they had made themselves, entitled ‘Socrates in the shopping Mall’, where they invited people in the mall to answer philosophical questions in the same way as Socrates did on the Agora back in Ancient Athens. People were asked to answer questions such as ‘What is happiness to you’, ‘what does justice mean to you’ etc. Quite a challenge, so it appeared…
Other students organised an exhibition of ‘see-through-boxes’, in which they presented a philosopher or a philosophical movement in a very creative, plastic and artistic way. The students commented on their work for the other guests. And then there was a group of students who acted a dialogue between Sartre, De Beauvoir, Freud and Darwin, and afterwards they talked it over with their audience. These are only three examples of the many projects the pupils had engaged in. They had all done some great work, and the enthusiasm and competence with which those young people got committed, was admirable and worked contagiously!
We had also invited a performer, who gave a one-man-show with a comical philosophical touch: a mixture of humorous sketches and songs that somehow encouraged the audience to think further than 2 plus 2 equals 4...
In the afternoon the pupils could follow and engage in several workshops, guided by professional and experienced philosophy trainers. Subjects were: moral dilemmas, the art of convincing, Socratic dialogue, senses and tastes in connection with philosophy, music and philosophy, a philosophical café etc. Our Flemish Minister of Education, Frank Vandenbroucke, came to have a look and participated actively in one of the workshops, which was a great experience for the pupils in the audience. It does not occur every day that they have a minister as one of their classmates! Furthermore, we saw his presence as a token of the support from the government.
We ended the day with a debate between the public and 4 university philosophy professors. A journalist presented questions prepared by the students to the panel of professors, who tried their best to answer them as clearly as possible, although this proved to be more difficult than assumed: the language they use is somewhat different from the language the teenagers are used to, which made it perhaps a bit too abstract for some…
Anyway, the come-back day was a great success, and students and teachers were exhausted but happy. One of the teachers ended her report of the day like this: “About half past 5 there was silence on the train. Our heads were filled with many thoughts and even more questions. One thing is for sure: philosophy is necessary, certainly at school, but also elsewhere (in companies, in youth movements, in families, in the media,…) Our day started with flowers for Joe, and it ended with the same flower mountain. And in between, there was philosophy… Philosophy is necessary to make these flowers, and the flowers for Oelemata, Luna and the Turkish lady redundant.” Note: Our comeback-day took place only a few days after a young man (Joe) had been stabbed to death in clear daylight in the hall of the Central railway station in Brussels (apparently because he refused to give his mp3-player to his 17-year-old attacker), and a few days later in Antwerp a Malinese woman (Oelamata) and the little girl she was baby-sitting (Luna) were killed and another Turkish woman seriously injured by a school boy who shot them (this for racist motives as it seemed). Heaps of flowers were laid down by passers-by at the murder sites.
The come-back day may have been the final step in the 3-part-process we had intended, but in fact it was only the beginning of a new process: the search of many teachers for ways how to teach contemporary philosophy skills to children and young people. We at VEFO consider it as our task to help them in their search. Philosophy is –unfortunately, and in contrast to the situation in other European countries such as France, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries - not a compulsory subject in the curriculum of our Flemish schools. Nevertheless, schools are given a certain autonomy in the organisation of their curriculum, and are free to organise the subject, and more and more schools appear to do so. Sometimes in a separate subject, ‘philosophy’, and very often embedded in other subjects such as modern and classical languages, religion, ethics, culture, history etc… We are trying our best to support all these enthusiastic teachers on their way to become experienced philosophical facilitators. It was and still is our intention to launch a process of intervision and active reflection on the extra asset that contemporary philosophy offers in the process of learning, teaching and educating.
Another project that we started last school year, is called ‘philosopher in the classroom’, and is inspired by a successful similar project ‘artist in the classroom’, set up and supported by a work group of the Flemish Ministry of Education. This same cell now supports our project, that allows eight teacher training colleges to engage as many philosophers, with a certain degree of expertise in philosophy with children, to guide them during a whole school year. The philosopher works together with a team of motivated college teachers, and together they should think about possible ways how to introduce philosophy in the college curriculum, so that eventually, in the long run, each and every teacher-in-training is introduced in the skills and attitudes, and also –but to a minor degree- the theoretical backgrounds of philosophizing with children and youngsters. One of the college headmasters, who already introduced philosophy in the curriculum, said “It is of the utmost importance that teachers learn to step back from their ‘I know everything’-position, and that they should take on a more humble, inquisitive, and probably wiser attitude. Teachers don’t have all the answers, not all questions have an answer, and teachers should dare to ask these questions too. Apparently sometimes a whole new world is opened once they’ve learned how to ask the ‘right’ questions now and then, the questions that really matter, and be genuinely curious for what children have to say. Philosophy teaches us how to ask authentic questions, and that is perhaps more difficult than give the right answer to cognitive questions, or organise non-committal class discussions in which everyone sticks to his or her own opinion. We live in a zap-culture and we tend to ‘be lived’. It is the duty of all educators to stimulate children to linger or dwell longer on a subject, to reflect, to be critical, not to take everything for granted, and, yes, to sometimes swim against the stream. We used to have a clear frame of reference (e.g. our religion), but this is no longer evident, and it is good that we teach our children to form a new frame of reference and put things to the test before expressing a judgement (or prejudice).” It is VEFO’s dream that all future teachers could have at least an introduction in philosophy with children.
The results of this project will be published and distributed amongst the other teacher training colleges, and if the outcome is successful, it might be continued next year. But in the end the schools will have to do it without the subsidized help of the philosophers. It would be fantastic if more and more schools and colleges realized the importance of and became convinced of the necessity of philosophy in the curriculum, and that professional philosophers would be employed to teach it.
That is our final goal, but there’s a long way to go, and we need a very powerful platform (not only and not primarily of policy-makers, but much more importantly of teachers at the basis) on which to build this dream. Other countries have realised it, so why wouldn’t it be possible in Flanders? The time is right, people are beginning to be aware of the need for reflection in our multicultural and more and more complex society. We cannot and will not force schools and colleges to organise philosophy sessions, but experience taught us that once they’ve come to realise the surplus value of it, they turn into the most fervent advocates!