The Little Book of Thunks (Part 2) :
'Questions Which Raise More Questions in the Minds of Children'
Mention the word 'philosophy' to the average person and you may see the colour instantly drain from their face. Philosophy has an aura of ultra high-brow pretentious debate, involving theoretical concepts, long winded jargonese, and arguments which go round and round in circles without ever breaking out to arrive at a definite conclusion.
Yet philosophy really should not be intimidating to anyone. In fact, it should be fascinating to everyone of all kinds and all ages because it deals with the most fundamental questions about the world, life and humanity, and it can deal with them using really simplistic questions. It is only the answers which are difficult!
In particular, this supposedly most intellectual of subjects should paradoxically appeal to children. This is because it enables children to argue (debate) endlessly without ever being told that they are wrong. And if it appeals to children, it should also appeal to teachers, who can use philosophy to investigate the mental agility of their students and learn whether they can get their minds around the most intractable of problems.
Alun Rhys Griffiths
The best way to show how this can work in practice is to take a few such problems or questions, and explore how they may be tackled by a group of children - or adults - and how the answers they give may then be turned upside down and inside out and stretched in every conceivable direction to create new questions and new answers which reveal the very thought processes going on in the heads of the group members.
In this article I select three examples of these types of questions, and I let my own mind wander freely round them to show the way in which a group discussion might develop in a class full of children. Hopefully this will help to conclusively demonstrate the value of philosophy for children. The examples are not my own - they come from 'The Little Book of Thunks', a small book of philosophy questions written by Ian Gilbert, and they are just a few out of the hundreds of such questions - or 'thunks' - which the book contains.
The Book Which Inspired Me to Write this Page
In the year 2007, 'The Little Book of Thunks' was published. This small volume by the writer Ian Gilbert has big ideas. It suggests nothing less than a whole new way of assessing the level of aptitude of children in the school environment, and how to bring the best out of them. It presents a convincing argument that by asking the right kind of questions of our children, a new generation of objective and enquiring minds could be developed - children who are prepared to listen to others whilst speaking for themselves, children who can appreciate the world for what it is whilst developing new ways of looking at it, and children who can consider strange ideas whilst challenging established truths.
And all this can be done by asking of the children the simplest, seemingly most banal of questions.
On Page One of this two part exploration of the concept behind the 'Little Book of Thunks', I wrote about the theory and its potential benefits, and I described the layout of the book. I also took a look at the kind of questions which are included as examples of good 'thunks'. But much of the appeal of this idea is not the answers you may give to the specific questions asked, but rather the way in which a session of 'thunk' can branch off into different directions, creating whole new questions and new answers which may conflict with the answer originally given. If that all sounds a bit convoluted, it really isn't, as will become clear as you read on.
On this page - Page Two or Part Two - the emphasis is not on the book, but on the questions. I take just a few of the questions in the book, and I show how a philosophical discussion session may develop, throwing up challenging ideas and debates among children of all ages - and adults of all ages too!
Page One Link
For information about 'The Little Book of Thunks', including a much more detailed description of the book, the philosophy, and the aims of its author Ian Gilbert, as well as some more examples of the types of questions posed, please visit my other page on this subject.
These Examples of Thunk
'The Little Book of Thunks' is just 96 pages long, but contained within it are 260 examples of questions any one of which has the potential to inspire discussion among any children who are prepared to allow their imaginations to break free from the restrictive confines of the right answer / wrong answer paradigm of conventional teaching and testing. A select few of those questions are included on this page.
Mr Gilbert is at pains in his book to point out that teachers should not volunteer answers to these questions, but rather they should allow their pupils to think logically, laterally, metaphysically, or any other which way they can to conjure up their own answers. However, I am no teacher and I'm not in charge of a group of children, so I've felt at liberty to explore these examples below, and consider them from all the angles I can, whilst hopefully resisting the temptation to supply a definitive answer - something 'The Little Book of Thunks' certainly wouldn't approve of.
I've tried to adhere to Mr Gilbert's way of thinking, expanding the questions into new areas, following where they lead me without too much preconception or prejudice. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate just how fruitful these kind of questions can be when introduced into a group discussion; how they can encourage analysis of words and concepts, debates on rights and wrongs, and interpretation of events and scenarios. I hope you enjoy them!
I'd Love to Hear Your Comments. Thanks, Alun
An Explanation of Thunks
A thunk is described as:
'a beguilingly simple-looking question about everyday things that stop you in your tracks and helps you start looking at the world in a whole new light.'
The above definition of a thunk is included in 'The Little Book of Thunks' and it pretty much sums up what the theory is all about. It is about asking questions. But not just any questions. It is about asking questions which have no clear answers, but which encourage the mind to explore the question and think around it.
Example 1 - Definition, Interpretation and Perception
Is black a colour?
If I switch the lights out, does the wall change colour?
The two questions here illustrate how relatively simplistic questions can lead us into a veritable minefield of issues all concerned with definitions, interpretations and perceptions.
Is black a colour? Well, ask a scientist, an artist, and a member of the general public, and you may get three very different answers. The scientific definition of colour is to do with how we interpret different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation emitted or reflected within the visible spectrum of light. But black is the result of a total absence of any visible light radiation, so on that basis, black cannot possibly be a colour. However in the art world, black can be created by combining pigments of many different colours together. If black is created by combining colours, then surely black must be a colour?
Which is right? The word 'colour' is very much in the public domain, so maybe we should just use the definition the majority of the public use? But what is that? Definition is everything.
Shall we move on to an even more interesting follow-up question. If I switch the lights out does the wall change colour? Simplistically, most of us would immediately answer no. Of course the pigments in the paint on the wall are still the same, so if the wall is - say - a very pale green, then it will remain very pale green. But wait a moment - if colour is how we perceive electromagnetic radiation emitted or reflected from an object, then surely the wall is now black because there is no light being emitted or reflected (and if the wall is now black, one could ask does it have any colour at all?)
One could take this question much further. Suppose an intense red light is shone on the wall, so bright that it drowns out the original colour? Is it still pale green (the colour reflected by the wall pigment in normal white light), or has it become red (the colour we interpret it as now)? Interpretation is everything.
And what about colour blind people? Do they not have the right to consider the wall as grey, if that is how they perceive it? And what if no one is in the room? If colour is all about how we perceive it, does the wall have any colour at all if there is no one there to see it? And what about insects, many of which can see different wavelengths of light to us. Some insects can see in ultraviolet light, but not red light, and therefore may see the wall in very different colours. Perception is everything.
And if you still think a wall is one colour regardless of any of our definitions, interpretations or perceptions of colour, well, let's leave aside walls for a moment, and consider water. We are happy to talk about the water in the oceans being blue, or green or grey or black depending on how light reflects off it at different times of day, even if the water still has the same chemical constitution at all times. If water can change colour without any change in constitution, why not walls?
One can easily see how this particular thunk can be answered in many different ways, leading on to a multitude of further questions.
Example 2 - What Are You Talking About!?
If I fill a vase with concrete is it still a vase? What if I fill it with flowers?
If I stick a bunch of flowers in my mouth do I become a vase?
These questions are all to do with defining words. How do we accurately define something? Can anything in the world - even the most mundane of objects - be defined precisely?
A vase is generally described in dictionaries as 'an open container used for holding flowers or for ornamentation'. So is an ugly trash bin with flowers in it a vase? After all it's an open container which holds flowers. Does it have to be decorative as well? If the 'vase' is designed for the purpose of being a vase, but it's ugly and filled with concrete, then it is neither decorative nor open, so do we still have a vase? What if it's painted to make it ornamental? What if instead of concrete it's filled with thick mud? What if flowers are then stuck into that mud? At what stage does it become a vase? Suppose the vase is heavy and we decide to use it as a doorstop? Is it now a vase or a doorstop? Or is it both? If I stick a bunch of flowers into the mouth of a supermodel, the result may be decorative and it certainly contains flowers, but have we turned her into a vase?
'The Little Book of Thunks' develops this to question whether the hole in the middle of an open vase is part of the vase. After all, the hole is of really integral importance. Without it, it wouldn't be a container, so is the hole and the air it contains a part of the vase? If it is, the air is constantly changing, so is the vase also constantly changing?
Let me expand the theme into a totally different direction. Is the air in our lungs a part of us as a living human being? Our legs are definitely a part of us, but we can take away our legs (a little drastic as philosophical examples go) and we will still be a living human being. But take away the air, and we wouldn't be a living human being. So is the air more of a part of us than our legs? If not, why not? You may argue it isn't a part of us because the air is constantly being replaced. But so are our skin cells. Are they not a part of us? The air - unlike skin cells or legs - is not solid, but neither is blood. Just like blood, and just like skin cells, the air in our lungs is constantly being used up, replenished or replaced. As these are all constantly changing, are we all constantly changing into new people?
So what are we talking about when we describe something as a vase? What are we talking about when we describe something as a human being? What are we talking about when we describe anything else in the English language?
Example 3 - 'Proof' of a 'Fact'
Can you prove that all ravens are black?
I have to include this one because this is a theme very close to my own heart! In the scientific world, and indeed in all kinds of other worlds such as politics, history, religion and conspiracy theories, questions of proof and fact are key to many of the arguments raised and the evidence presented in support of the arguments. 'Proof' and 'fact' mean different things to different people according to their own standpoint and the agenda they are arguing on.
Ravens are big birds which are black - it's a fact. Or is it? How do we define a fact? Perhaps we can only call something a fact if we can prove it to be so. But then how do we define a proof? Maybe one raven in a million is white. Maybe no one has ever seen a white raven, but that doesn't mean they don't exist, merely that they haven't yet been seen to exist. Do we have to simultaneously spy on every single square metre of the planet just to be absolutely certain that no ravens other than black ravens exist? If we have to do this - clearly an impossibility - then are we saying that it's impossible to prove this as a fact? If that is the case, do the words 'proof' and 'fact' have any meaning at all? Can anything be proven absolutely 100%? Or should we accept a more lenient definition of 'proof' and 'fact' such as the judicial courts' definition of 'beyond reasonable doubt?'
Setting aside the question of proof, let's suppose there is one white raven somewhere in the world (think albino birds). Can we nevertheless reasonably describe ravens as black birds, or do we have to be precise and say that 99.9% of ravens are black birds?
Understanding the significance of these concepts and how literally or loosely they are applied by someone in support of a theory, is all important when it comes to assessing their credibility. Should their facts and proofs be questioned? Too often whether or not we accept them seems to depend more on whether their theory suits our own prejudices, than on whether they actually have a basis of evidence behind them. It should not be that way.
N.B: If all ravens are black, are they also all colourless? Well, we've already travelled far too far down that road, so I think we'll stop here. I hope I've made my point!
A Few Recommendations
I hope that I have indeed made my point. I suspect many school children will avoid thinking for themselves. If they are asked a question they will give the answer they are supposed to give, the answer the teacher wants to hear. They will avoid using their brains to critically evaluate the question and its answer. And they may never develop the ability to make up and explore their own questions. Such children will grow into adults who have exactly the same limitation in how they use their minds.
By asking questions such as those I have explored above, I hope everyone can see that a whole new world of thought processes, speculations and hypotheses can be opened up. Some of these may seem quite trivial or banal even to children, but that is not the point. The point is that by posing questions like this, children will begin to think about the true meanings of words and phrases, and how they perceive the world around them. That will enable them to make their own judgements, and critically evaluate anything they see and hear.
I would say that 'The Little Book of Thunks' is well worth checking out by teachers, and by parents for the benefit of their children, but also perhaps by any other adult who just likes to indulge in good verbal discussions. Because asking questions like this can be good fun. Philosophy is certainly not for high-brow elitists; it's for everyone.
Websites Associated with this Philosophy
Independent Thinking Ltd
The organisation set up by Ian Gilbert which works for the improvement of thinking skills among children.
Thunks - Get Thunking
An online forum for Thunks. Answer questions or submit your own thunks.
Crown House Publishing UK
The web site of Crown House Publishing in the UK - an independent publisher of educational, self-help and personal development books
Crown House Publishing USA
The web site of Crown House Publishing in the USA