Meditations Upon Rational Thought,
Possibility and Education
by Francis Gilbert
Having been a teacher in various comprehensives throughout England for over ten years now, I have been struck by how rare the phenomenon of rational thought is in schools. Since 1989 when the National Curriculum was introduced in English schools, teachers have had their thinking done for them; documents prescribing what should be taught and often how it should be taught are expected to be implemented with little chance to question or think about what these documents actually amount to. Unfortunately, this attitude is then passed onto pupils. Teachers have a certain amount of content to deliver and have certain views upon this content; pupils are expected to absorb this content with varying degrees of success and then regurgitate what is generally the teacher's view of the content in an exam or a piece of coursework.
If an educational Descartes came along and shone "the clear light of reason" upon much of the curriculum, calling into doubt much of its content, I suspect much of it would be cast aside in much the same way that Descartes swept away the content-heavy Scholasticism that so preoccupied medieval scholars. The blinkered, irrational prejudices of a certain group of educationalists have determined the content of the National Curriculum.
This is ironic because one of the main aims of the curriculum is to "promote an enquiring mind and capacity to think rationally."  However, my purpose here is not to dismantle the National Curriculum by shining "the clear light of reason" upon it. The National Curriculum's core aim as opposed to its content is laudable. If pupils were to leave school with the ability to be curious and to think rationally then I believe society would benefit immeasurably. Clearly, society is not overburdened with these sorts of people; irrational, emotional and violent responses to problems are commonplace. Obviously, the fault is not purely the education system other factors such as social class, family upbringing, the culture at large are probably far more influential but nevertheless it could play a role, and certainly set an example, in encouraging humans to think rationally.
As a teacher I have seen first hand how destructive irrational behaviour can be. Pupils who are ruled by their emotions often bully other pupils and teachers for no good reason. Usually, they are unable to articulate what motivates them and prefer to opt out of the system than to engage in any meaningful analysis of it or themselves.
Unfortunately, the curriculum as it stands encourages this sort of behaviour because, by and large, it operates in a similar way. When pupils ask why they are learning about Shakespeare's prolix language, or mathematical equations, or the Tudors and Stuarts, many teachers have no better answer than it "just is", this just is what we have to learn.
Rhys Griffith, in his exhaustive study National Curriculum: National Disaster? Education and Citizenship, argues that in most schools today pupils enjoy "no interaction, no stimulus, no new experience that changes them in anyway. Nothing happens to them" . He argues for a much more pupil-centred approach to learning which involves them working on meaningful projects in groups using modern technology and reflecting upon what they are doing and why they are doing it. His arguments are convincing. Although he doesn't mention it in his book, many of his ideas owe a great deal to the French eighteenth century philosopher Rousseau (1712-78).
Rousseau's contention that children should learn through experiencing the world rather than analysing it, that they should be free to express themselves, is the underlying message of Griffith's book. I believe there is a sound philosophical basis for thinking like this, but I would contend that it isn't enough. It may promote an "enquiring mind" but will it nurture "rational thought"?
At the opposite end of the spectrum, are what I would like to term, somewhat satirically, the "Gradgrind" educationalists who currently have a grip upon the establishment unlike the 'Rousseau-ites', who had their day during the 1970s. Dickens' wonderful novel Hard Times satirizes a particularly rigid and unbending version of utilitarianism in the form of the school master Thomas Gradgrind, who has an obsession with the facts and nothing but the facts. This sort of highly prescriptive, very directed teaching is currently in vogue. The new "Literacy" strategy is a prime example of it. Teachers are expected to teach explicit rules of English grammar and children are not encouraged to explore language for themselves. 
This approach would be valid if it wasn't so rigid and unbending. There is a rational basis for teaching language in this way. How can a child be expected to master subordinate clauses if he is not explicitly taught them? Subordinate clauses aren't spontaneously discovered. And there are some very good reasons why children should be taught them; without being able to use such clauses, I can't see how any person can be capable of thinking to their full potential. It is debatable whether pupils should be taught the explicit terminology of this grammar but very few people in education would deny that children shouldn't have a grasp of subordinating conjunctions like who, which, if and so forth.
Roger Scruton, in his book An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy, points out, while summarising the philosophy of Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), that there is a "deep relation between language and truth."  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Scruton's argument is the way in which he makes connections between the fundamental grammar of language with truth. He writes:
The emphasis on truth provides a clue to the structure of language. When we join two sentences with the word 'and' we form a new sentence which is true when its component parts are both true, otherwise false. That is how we grasp the word 'and'. It refers to an operation defined in terms of truth-values. The same goes for other words which form new sentences from old ones including 'if', 'not' and 'or'. Seeing language in this way, we begin to make sense of its structure. We see how it is that, from a finite array of words, infinitely many sentences can be constructed and understood. We begin to distinguish the valid from the invalid arguments, the well-formed from the ill-formed complexes, and the different functions of the parts of speech. For example, we can begin to describe the real logical differences between names, which refer to objects, predicates, which refer to concepts, and 'quantifiers' like 'some' and 'all', which have a logical role of their own." 
Scruton's argument that it is connectives (conjunctions and adverbial phrases such as 'and', 'but', 'if', 'or') and negatives that enable us to formulate truthful statements is crucial. Too often, children are taught grammar that is abstracted from meaning and fail to become aware of the astonishing feat that the smaller words in the language manage to achieve. As Scruton shows, without them logical, truthful thought would not be possible. It is remarkable that an "infinitely many sentences can be constructed and understood" when connectives and negatives are brought into play successfully in sentences.
These words give us the tools for analysis. As Scruton says, "we can begin to describe the logical differences between ...objects...concepts...and quantifiers". Rhys Griffiths points out, entirely correctly in my view, that one of the problems with the National Curriculum at the moment is that it leads to a "didactic transmission of factual information unrelated to the real world" . Griffiths' solutions, while entirely valid in certain respects, do not address the central problem. Time and time again Griffith shows in his detailed observations of teaching in comprehensives throughout the country that teachers never go beyond transmitting "factual information". The grammar of the lessons is always, "this is the case...you should know this....". The vital connectives such as "if" and "or" rarely come into play.
As a result, children are seldom given the chance to hypothesize, to speculate, or to think. And when they are given this chance, it is always made clear to them that there is one correct answer which the teacher knows about. This is a shame because it can create a lack of curiosity and flexibility in children's thought processes and it certainly doesn't encourage them to think rationally; two central aims of the National Curriculum are evidently not achieved.
While Griffiths' argues for a much more child-centred approach in order to promote a spirit of enquiry in children, other thinkers such as Edward De Bono  has put forward the theory that language is part of the problem. It encourages children to think in terms of rigid categories, to sequence material in a linear and uninteresting fashion, to learn by rote.
Tony Buzan  argues that an advanced form of spider diagrams which he calls 'Mind Mapping' should be taught in schools. Children should be encouraged to use pictures, colours, to devise notes in a non-linear fashion, to think in terms of loose overall categories and think of off-shoots from each categories. Buzan's methods are now used widely in schools and certainly have enabled children to be more creative about their learning. 
However, while excellent aids to learning, these methods do not get to the root of the problem; children are still describing what "is" rather than speculating in coherent, clear sentences about what might be or might have been, if certain conditions were taken into consideration. Therefore, without being aware of the possible answers, alternatives or ramifications to a problem or phenomenon, pupils never are actually able to see the problem clearly.
In his book Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom Philip Cam says "people who seldom consider more than one possibility, or tend to reject alternative courses of action without weighing their merits, show themselves to be unimaginative, dogmatic or inflexible thinkers, who haven't learned how to make the best of their opportunities" . Cam argues that there are two types of learning in school; the routine and the reflective. The routine describes what children learn so that certain processes become automatic; spelling, punctuation, addition, multiplication and so on. Reflective thinking is a "persistent act of inquiry, where there is order to our thought, and it builds in one way or another toward considered judgement". 
Cam points out what words indicate that children are exhibiting signs of rational thought: "Since reasoning is a connected sequence of thought that is directed towards a conclusion, in discussion you will frequently hear children using forms of words such as:
We know that....and therefore...
Here we can see that Scruton's analysis of language has very real relevance to the classroom. These connectives are the building blocks of thought, of speculation, of hypothesis. Without them children are not able to fully extend their thought. Cam goes onto to say: "We argue that since such-and-such is the case, so-and-so must be (or is likely to be) the case too. In the conduct of inquiry, however, we also explore what would or might be the consequences of some mere possibility. This may be because we are trying to see whether that possibility is worth pursuing, or because we are looking for evidence that it has already been realised, or because we are interested in the general connections between it and other states of affairs." 
While Scruton is talking specifically about philosophical inquiry, Cam is showing how the tools of philosophy can be used to assist any sort of inquiry. Cam suggests that it is only when children start entering the realm of what might be possible that true inquiry can take place. What Cam is saying is that all children should learn to become philosophers from a very early age and learn how to apply certain processes of reasoning to all subjects.
This concept of possibility could be applied to all subjects from Science and Maths to History and Physical Education. For example, a science lesson could start with the teacher asking the question: "What if there was no gravity on earth? What would be the logical consequences of that?" Pupils would automatically be thinking. They would need to find out what gravity was, find out what it does and then work out what would happen if there was no gravity. They could research the experience of astronauts in space. Ultimately, they would have answer the question; is a world possible without gravity?
Lessons could be structured around the notion of possibilities rather than the notion of imparting and instilling bits of information. Pupils would learn the information as a by-product of exploring the possibilities of a chosen subject.
In my own subject, English, the concept of possibility is significant, particularly with reference to fiction. Aristotle contrasted history and poetry (by which he meant fiction) in his Poetics by saying: "the one describes the kind of thing which has been, the other a kind of thing that might be...Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature of universals, whereas those of history are singulars. By a singular statement I mean one as to what such and such a kind of man will probably or necessarily say or do..." 
Fiction deals with what possibly could be the case. As Klempner notes: "Even the most mundane piece of fiction describes a possible world: it is the way things might have been, or might yet be." . One of the problems with teaching fiction is that pupils' accept the reality of a writer's vision of the world without realising that it is just one possible world, one possible version amidst an infinity of choices. Essays about literature nearly always are descriptions of what is happening in a text. Pupils rarely grasp the essential point about fiction, namely that it deals with the conditional and, as a consequence, never perceive the freedom that fiction offers.
Having realised this recently, I have started teaching fiction in a different way. By focusing upon certain sentence frames: "If this...then this could have been the case...Therefore the reader/ the audience feels this...However, the writer chose to do this because....", I feel I have begun to force pupils to think at a deep level about stories. I have also asked pupils to think about how they might have done things differently and to think through what the logical consequences of their own decisions.
These sentence frames can be used to focus upon both the specific and the general. At the beginning of a course, I have started to encourage pupils to ask some very fundamental questions. One productive one has been: what if there were no stories in your life? This exercise involves pupils eradicating every single made-up story from their life and thinking about the consequences of this: a world of no soap operas, no jokes, no novels etc. This, in turn, leads onto a multitude of further questions; why would our lives be so barren without stories? What do stories give us that are so unique? What is the defining characteristic of a story?
I then ask pupils to think about the essential ingredients of a story but using the same format. What if there were no changes, no characters, no action or conflict, no language or settings or ideas in a story? What effect would the removal of these things do to the story? I ask pupils to think about stories they like and know and cut out each of these facets, and think through the logical consequences of taking them out. By the end of the session, pupils are beginning to grasp the inherent logic of storytelling; that there are certain key ingredients without which the story wouldn't work. Pupils emerge ultimately with their own theories about fiction; the "possibility" framework avoids the trap of dictating information but it also avoids the vagueness of just asking, "what makes a satisfactory story?". A question like that fosters a degree of thought but doesn't enable children to really think about the logic inherent in stories. I can see now that this sort of approach can returned to again and again; as pupils become more mature they can develop their theories in a more sophisticated fashion.
As well as being useful for tackling the more general issues about fiction, the "possibility" framework is good at facilitating logical thought about specific texts and questions. For example, while studying Shakespeare's Henry V recently, I invited pupils to think what might have happened if certain key elements of the plot were missing. One pupil suggested that the play might have turned out very differently if Henry V had not discovered the traitors who were plotting to murder him. He could have been murdered or that particularly subplot could have rumbled on until the last scenes of the play. My pupil felt that actually more tension and suspense would have been created if the traitors hadn't been discovered. She was also able to point out that Shakespeare couldn't have had Henry V murdered because he was constrained by certain historical facts; that he lived to fight the battle of Agincourt. This then led onto a discussion about what a writer can and cannot do when writing about a historical figure.
What I like about the "possibility" framework is that it manages to straddle a happy middle ground between child-centred educational theory as exemplified by Griffiths and Rousseau and the more rigid, prescriptive educational theory as exemplified by the theorists who drew up the Literacy Strategy. It initially makes heavy demands upon teachers; they need to ask the right questions that direct pupils towards specific learning goals. But once pupils have been given a framework for thinking, they are then free to follow their own possibilities to their own logical conclusions.
 Aim 1: The school curriculum should aim to provide opportunities for all pupils to learn and to achieve. The school curriculum should develop enjoyment of, and commitment to, learning as a means of encouraging and stimulating the best possible progress and the highest attainment for all pupils. It should build on pupils' strengths, interests and experiences and develop their confidence in their capacity to learn and work independently and collaboratively. It should equip them with the essential learning skills of literacy, numeracy, and information and communication technology, and promote an enquiring mind and capacity to think rationally.
 pg XV National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and Citizenship by Rhys Griffith
 pg 29 An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy by Roger Scruton
 pg 29,30 Ibid.
 pg 105 National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and Citizenship by Rhys Griffith
 De Bono
 pg 14 The MindMap Book by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan
 Times Education Supplement June 14th 2002, pg 24: "thinking skills should be taught across the curriculum, not just as a separate subject, through classroom teacher-led activities like mind-mapping, followed by discussion and reflection among pupils".
 Pg 6 Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom by Philip Cam
 pg 86 Ibid
 pg 149 An Introduction To Literary Criticism by S.M. Schreiber
 Pg 2 PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY, Program A: Introduction to Philosophy, The Possible World Machine by Geoffrey Klempner
Aristotle The Poetics Penguin Classics
Buzan, Tony The MindMap Book by Tony Buzan with Barry Buzan, published by BBC, 1990
Cam, Philip. Thinking Together, Philosophical Inquiry For The Classroom Philip Cam. Primary English Teaching Association in association with Hale and Iremonger
De Bono, Edward.I am right, you are wrong. Viking
Department for Education and Employment: The National Curriculum for England Online:
Department for Education and Employment:
Dickens, Charles, Hard Times Penguin Classics
Griffiths, Rhys. National Curriculum, National Disaster? Education and Citizenship published by Routledge Falmer
Honderich (edited) The Oxford Companion To Philosophy. 1995
Klempner, Geoffrey. PATHWAYS TO PHILOSOPHY, Program A: An introduction to philosophy, The Possible World Machine Unit 1 Introduction
Schreibner, S.M. An Introduction To Literary Criticism Pergamon Press, 1965.
Scruton, Roger. An Intelligent Person's Guide To Philosophy Duckworth, 1996
Appendix: Rhys Griffith's criteria for independent learning:
Collaborative groupwork: a group of between three and five pupils, preferably mixed gender and self-selected, working in partnership to research a subject chosen by the group.
Cooperative groupwork: non-competitive agreements and exchanges between the collaborative groups; the cooperative group to encompass all involved in the project including adults;
Individual responsibility; to contribute, and adhere, to the formulation of codes of practice for both groups above;
Pupil designed tasks; each collaborative group should define its own project tasks and the range of outcomes;
Pupil designed assessment: each collaborative group should decide what aspects of its work should be assessed, at what stage of the project, to what criteria and by whom multiple assessors should be encouraged (e.g. peer, a teacher, adult other than teacher)
Pupil-negotiated deadlines: pupils should be entitled to plan the progress of their own project.
Pupil-initiated research; pupils should have the opportunity to interview and conduct questionnaires, to use databases, to communicate directly with living authorities, to access information centres off campus, to make site-visits;
Pupil-use a range of language technology: (synthesizers, cameras, audio and video editing and recording equipment) pupils should have the opportunity, by creating their own media artefacts, to experience and interpret the effect of language in a post-literary, audio-visual, high-tech society;
Community involvement and use of the environment:
Community: education should be seen as relevant to real life; by allowing pupils to make a choice of topical issues for their collaborative topic and by relating the work of all groups to the community of humankind, pupils may be encouraged to see global society as a series of concentric cooperative groups (starting with the cooperative group undertaking of the project)
Environment: taking the learning experience beyond the classroom walls; a stimulus to experiential learning in the environment in which the local community lives; an awareness of a shared global environment.
A sense of audience: lending purpose to the project and shaping its presentation differently for different audiences, thus encouraging the critical awareness that messages can be put across more effectively with specific audiences in mind; a way of giving back to the community;
Presentation in various forms;
Reflexivity; the sense of a personal stake in one's education, and the development of the capacity for critical and self-critical reflection;
© Francis Gilbert 2002