“An unexamined life is not worth living.”  Socrates

In the beginning 

Ever been exposed to something that anchors a sense of purpose and reasoning into your core? Something that grants you control over your thoughts, even your emotions?  If not, then I wish you were a pupil at Simon’s Town School, a school of about 1000 learners from the Cape Peninsula and beyond, a school that granted us the opportunity to do something completely different.

Most students love the idea of taking a break from their usual classes, may this be through assembly, a free period or just leaving school early to attend a schoolwork-related event. On one particular morning that opportunity for grade 10s came in a form we had never heard of; a critical thinking and philosophy class (CT/Philosophy).

On that morning, two years ago, many of us wandered into a classroom slouching, chatting — typical teenagers — but the set-up was totally different from our other classrooms. We were welcomed enthusiastically by Polly Saul, our volunteer teacher, who smiled, made eye contact and greeted every individual who entered. In the room, the chairs were placed in a semicircle. There was no desk in sight. We were surrounded by colourful posters of world events that triggered memories and awakened our curiosity. The board had quotes and words we had never heard of before. We did not require any stationery, all we needed were our brains and our voices. Our lives were about to change.

Reader, at this point you must be wondering: what is critical thinking and philosophy? Well, critical thinking is a way of thinking where we are encouraged to develop a questioning attitude, where we learn to not simply accept all we are told or read but instead we learn to question concepts, to discuss and draw our own conclusions. It helps us to start making reasoned, well-thought-out judgments, to be objective and to express ourselves concisely.  

Our philosophical discussions helped us to understand the meaning of our existence and what is reality; what we mean by truth and knowledge; how we recognise what is of value and importance in our lives and how it should guide our behaviour.  We have to look at ourselves as individuals and our contributions to society and our natural world.

Tuesday mornings were never to be the same again.  We analysed: fear and otherness; greed and change;  power and consequences; love and kindness; choices and responsibility.  Even though the critical thinking class dovetailed with our English/LO classes, we did not feel deprived of any learning. Instead, it became a useful tool in all our subjects. Attendance was voluntary but our initial attendance reduced; many students were fearful of missing out on those two subjects so our final count was just 45. 

When she first met us, Ms Saul described us as “sheep” because she said we behaved like sheep i.e just obeying, unquestioning and unable to stand out and be independent.  She threw down the gauntlet and we were determined to prove her wrong. Soon we recognised our potential. We wanted to stop being sheep and because of our continued attendance we grew in our personal capacities to become the independent thinkers we believe we are today. 

As teenagers, we all go through a dreadful and draining period of self discovery. A sense of belonging develops but also being in the wrong spaces and crowds can lead one to deviate from the expected route. The themes we tackled each week in these classes were more like a manual for that self-discovery pathway.

Siphosethu described the effect the CT/Philosophy sessions had on her: “In a world full of dilapidation, challenges and disappointments, critical thinking has served as my walking stick in the midst of those adversities. And philosophy has served as my tool of reaction and direction.” 

Phinda also shared her thoughts: “One quote that stood out for me was ‘No one can be made to feel inferior without their consent’. This has been my weapon against insecurities and negativity.”

So, not only did these classes make us more open-minded individuals who can be more objective but our self-knowledge has deepened.  We decided as a whole group that we should share this experience by giving a presentation to the entire school demonstrating how critical thinking and philosophy had affected our lives. We delivered our PowerPoint presentation to an attentive and inquisitive assembly and we now have more recruits waiting in the wings.

Philosophy under Covid

Unfortunately Covid restrictions meant no philosophy classes for us in 2020. But, towards the latter half of the year, we were approached by Ms Saul who suggested we consider teaching philosophy to our grade 7s. We were in the right place at the right time and five of us were able to volunteer.  Interestingly we had already considered why it should start in the earlier grades and we were more than keen to feed those young minds for a lifetime. So, like soldiers preparing for war, every week we planned how we would educate those grade 7 fellas. We were given two classes with approximately 20 students in each. Because of Covid rescheduling, we worked  with them on our off-days and their on-days.  We were now the teachers!

“Initially,” said Ashley, “I was very nervous but as time passed my teammates were hyped, so I loosened up. The students were very welcoming and inquisitive. That encouraged me to interact and enjoy myself.”   

Furthermore, describing her first encounter: “By the time we went to the second group, I was at ease but they were much less responsive. So, from that first lesson, I — and the rest of the team — made it a priority to work on that group and eliminate that sense of dormancy.”

In the first session Iviwe explained: “No one is cleverer than another. It’s just that our level of knowledge differs.” 

This seemed to place them at ease and instil a sense of security in them. It enabled them to feel confident in forming their own ideas and to deliver them clearly and boldly.  We also introduced the concept of owning one’s opinion by starting each contribution with “I think”. At this point everyone wanted to be attentive and gather all the knowledge flying around the room and feed their minds. 

Although we worked on our own ideas, we met with Ms Saul for a debrief at the end of each week. This provided a platform for reflection and discussions around our input and output. At the end of the term we needed feedback from them because we needed to know if we were heading in the right direction. Their responses were wondrous and some examples of their reflections show how valuable teaching philosophy can be:

“I like philosophy because it opens up your mindset. In other words, you have to be creative. It teaches you  more about life and the future. It is also about learning to think about others — helping one another and treating each other fairly.”

“Philosophy has helped me to think out of the box in class and at home. When I go home and tell my siblings what I have learnt at school — particularly in philosophy  — they think more and ask questions. This helps me to also think more and has helped me to understand myself better and to see myself in a different light.”

“This term has been amazing because of philosophy. It has helped me with how I think and do things. I am grateful that our Gr 11 philosophy teachers spent their time with us and I just want to say keep up the good work because it is extraordinary.”  

“I have learnt that no question is right or wrong because everyone has different thoughts about things. In philosophy I learnt a lot of things about life and how to communicate with other people and respect their ideas. And that we must not judge other people about what they wear or what they think’.

“I think philosophy should be taught in every class. It helps us to think and extend our curiosity and learn from our mistakes. It is to help us with the future.”

They also asked interesting questions such as: “Why are we here?” “I wonder what my role is in the world and what was I born to do?” “Why does emotional pain hurt so much?”  “Why do we get fake news?” “Do we learn philosophy to learn new things in life or to learn more things about ourselves?” “What is a human being?” “Why is it that we did not get to do philosophy as a subject in our past grades?” 

It was quite evident that we had opened the window of independent thinking for these grade 7s. They were challenged and stimulated — and we all had fun. They have shown how they grew and learned each week incorporating the vocabulary introduced to them during our sessions

We also received incredibly warm feedback from their teacher. He  too attested to the growth, self-confidence and improvement in the students’ ability to think, reason and engage in meaningful discussions. He went on to share with us that he has noticed how these changes took place even outside the philosophy sessions.

We, the above, are the authors of this article because we wanted to highlight how teaching thinking skills benefits all ages but we represent the thoughts and feelings of our whole CT/Philosophy class.

At the end of our 2019 course we reflected upon the role these sessions had played in our academics and our private lives. We know our journey has been remarkable.  It has brought out the potential within us and created room for thought, reason and objectivity in our lives. This objectivity helped us to realise that if more schools were aware of and granted the opportunity to teach CT/Philosophy we could become a nation of thinkers.  

Stacey shared her concerns after understanding and falling in love with the fundamentals of critical thinking: “I feel like philosophy is not fully understood by society. There is a huge lack of independent thinking and we spend the rest of our lives relying on the next person’s thoughts, information from the internet and the memory box in our brains as a crutch.”

On 25 February, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced at the 2021 Virtual Basic Education Lekgotla that there will be a national roll-out of the Coding and Robotics curriculum at schools. But, as a country, we cannot successfully prepare for a 4th industrial revolution until the greater part of our population is taught to think critically and independently. Today schools teach cramming and memorising with little room to be analytical or think beyond the textbook or any other educational resources.

We believe if Critical Thinking/Philosophy was introduced as an integral part of our South African curriculum, it would better equip our future leaders and citizens to redress the difficulties of the past and better the economical state and wellbeing of our country for the future.

“A mind once stretched by a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Siphoseuthu Bitsoli, Phinda Ngxangxa, Stacey Marks, Ashley Marufu and Ivewe Gcali are now in grade 12 at Simon’s Town School. The Mail & Guardian is committed to developing tomorrow’s thought leaders through writing and editorial partnerships with groups such as the critical thinking and philosophy learners at Simon’s Town School

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