Concluding report on a philosophy project at the Norwegian Telecom Museum

The idea

The idea to have philosophical dialogues with pupils in connection with their guided tour at the museum was to give the children a chance to reflect upon questions related to communication and technology. In partaking in dialogues they could themselves join in in creating a philosophical frame to complement their thoughts and experiences on these matters. The philosophical dialogues were a supplement to the tours which of course focussed on conveying knowledge about the exhibition itself. In the dialogues we started out with the children's own thoughts and tried to open up to new and deeper aspects of both communication and technology—concepts that most of us, children and adults, are inclined to take for granted in our daily lives.

How did we do it?

The project lasted for five days. Three days we had 6th graders (12-year-olds), the first and the last day we had 9th graders (15-year-olds). Each day we had two classes coming (approx. 30 pupils in each class). Each class was divided into two groups. Before lunch one class had philosophical dialogues directed by us (i.e. in two groups) while the other class had a guided tour and time to free disposal respectively. After lunch we simply inverted the programme for the two classes. In all we had ten dialogue-groups each during this project.

Organising the groups

Each group consisted of 10 to 15 pupils and one philosopher acting as facilitator. Mostly the classes teachers joined the groups—not to participate, but to observe. Sometimes the teacher intervened in order to calm down pupils who had trouble sitting still. It also happened that the teacher had comments on his or her own, but not very often. In a group where it was very difficult to make the pupils come forward the teacher started organising the children herself. She divided them into smaller groups and told them to discuss some questions she suggested. Probably she had hoped that we as facilitators would have done more to bring about some activity. But by so doing she took away the opportunity for the pupils to try out the philosophical dialogue in their own pace, to find a safe harbour in the community of enquiry itself.

Some of the dialogues commenced with the children asking us questions: Who were we? Were we real philosophers? What did we do here? Did we make much money on this (many pupils were very interested in money)? When we had questions like these coming up, we did our best to answer them and tried thereafter to move the conversation on to themes relevant to our specific context. For instance we asked them what they expected from this visit, if they felt a museum like this to be a meaningful thing, what their relation was to telephones, why we communicate with each other at all and whether it is possible to imagine a life without any kind of communication.

What happened in the dialogues?

Most of the pupils were definitely not used to this form of communication with a purpose to plunge deeper into a question or a set of questions. They had no difficulty in giving examples for instance of using a mobile telephone, but when we asked them whether they talk in a different manner or about other things when using the cellphone as opposed to speaking to someone in real life, they were often confused. Then we had a pause after which we tried to help them back on track. To do that we could ask them how a certain message or speech act best could be conveyed: as an electronic message, by telephone or face to face. It was also difficult for them to suggest reasons why we talk together at all. Now, it isn't very peculiar that they needed some pushing and pummeling here. Neither adults nor children are quite used to talk openly about such matters today. These "odd" questions are mostly left unmentioned—unreflected, unexamined and even undiscovered.

Therefore it was rewarding to see that in some groups we managed to develop threads of thought that clearly penetrated the surface of the initial question. For example one pupil thought that chat on the IRC could be more interesting than other kinds of conversation simply because it had no particular purpose or direction. Another, in concluding a lengthy discussion on happiness, thought that happiness has a paradoxical nature: we attain it only when we stop pursuing it. And the pupil added, somewhat pessimistically, yet nonetheless most perceptive: all the technology in the modern society makes it quite impossible for us to achieve happiness because it demands of us that we constantly exert ourselves trying to develop the technology even further. It seems we are never quite satisfied with the technological level we possess at any given time. However this pupil did not think that we should abandon all use of technology. But we ought to be more aware of the contradiction that existed between technology and happiness.

Thematically we covered a great many areas during these ten dialogue-groups. As already mentioned we tried to focus the dialogues on questions related to communication and technology. This heading, however, brought about many different questions, for instance that of truthfulness and cheating. The groups reached different answers here. Some thought that it is easier to lie when we use mail or text-messages because it is less binding. Others claimed that it is easier for us to resort to white lies when we are faced directly with a person because we dare not to offend this person when he or she is standing right in front of us. Similarly they thought differently about the acceptability of breaking up with a boy- or girlfriend via a text-message: those who thought it would be tempting to resort to white lies when being face to face, claimed that this would be an acceptable way to do it, the others did not.

We discussed different forms of communication, also how telecommunication affected the daily life of the pupils. Many supposed that they would feel great distress if they suddenly should lose the possibility of telecommunications, if so they would bore themselves to death! Yet they thought that people didn't have more boring lives before the telephone was invented, nor that they talked less. They just talked to fewer people during the day and those who hadn't the possibility to meet other people, sung instead or talked to the animals! A girl suggested that it must have been much more exciting to receive letters in the old days when communication was slow and one hadn't the chance to call each other every day. In some of the groups we examined the possibility of a non-communicating human being, but this possibility was downright rejected: we cannot stop communicating, if we don't communicate voluntarily, we do it involuntarily, without being aware of it. Besides it is both important and fun to talk together even if we sometimes do our best not to communicate—for instance mental states that we wish to keep to ourselves.

In one group we had a very intriguing conversation about "meaning", "death", "soul" and "truth". Here the pupils were obviously interested and when the time was up, no one wanted to quit. In another group we spent most of the time discussing "teleporting" (wireless transportation of physical matter), e.g. the possibility of moving a human being from one place to another through a telephone wire or radio wave. Teleporting is a well-known concept within science-fiction and apparently the children were familiar with it. We also discussed whether it is possible to reduce a human being to a formula that a machine can interpret and thereby transmit via for instance radio waves. The main conversation in this group, however, circled around the question what a human being is, the relation between humans and animals etc.

Conclusion

We did our best to make the children come forward with their own thoughts and opinions. As already mentioned this sometimes led to more or less embarrassing pauses in the conversation. Obviously they were not used to the fact that adult leaders actually refrained from taking charge over the group at all times. They took it for granted that we were there to entertain them. But it didn't take long before they got the hang of it and after 5-10 minutes we had a fine conversation going in most groups. However, despite this, and despite the fact that we had divided the classes into two smaller groups, not all pupils made a contribution during the 45 minutes. We estimate that about 50% of the pupils said something during the conversations. This average is to be understood so that in some groups the participation was about 70-80% while in other groups we were down to 20-30% participation.

After the dialogue was over many children said that they found the session exciting and amusing. They definitely wanted to do this again. Others signalled that they felt a bit estranged while doing this. But we are ourselves convinced that everybody got something new and different to consider. This goes for us as well.

Page created: 28.09.06. Page last modified: 10.10.06 15:01.