Moving off autopilot: How to encourage children to think deeply

Steven Campbell Harris

Steven is a philosophy specialist and teacher trainer at the Philosophy Foundation. He facilitates philosophical enquiries in schools, in homes, and in the community. You can contact him on: [email protected].

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Image Credit: Airplane, Paramount Pictures Image Credit: Airplane, Paramount Pictures

As a Philosophy teacher in Primary schools I notice that children are surprisingly willing to offer quick answers to challenging questions. ‘What is fair?’ or ‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’ have readily accessible concepts and this triggers an initial feeling of complacency; they think they get it. If I ask a child ‘What is 24 x 367?’ or ‘What is the capital of Bolivia?’ there is no danger of such complacency; when they don’t know they know they don’t know, and they are more concerned about getting it wrong.

This difference in attitude is especially apparent when I ask the children what they think philosophy is. ‘It’s about thinking hard’, they say. ‘It’s when there are no right or wrong answers’. The combination is striking: ‘It’s about thinking hard when there are no right or wrong answers’. What would be the point of that? While the ‘no right or wrong answers’ doctrine encourages inclusion, it can also promote a culture of stasis; initial judgments are held onto and divergent "While the ‘no right or wrong answers’ doctrine encourages inclusion, it can also promote a culture of stasis."(and often inconsistent) answers are downplayed as mere ‘differences of opinion’. Without belief in the possibility and undesirability of error, an element of personal risk is missing that helps to motivate our deepest thinking.

This view has been echoed recently by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. Kahneman points out that most of what we call ‘thinking’ is automatic and fairly effortless. It is only when we perceive a difficulty that we switch to a more effortful, deliberate process. For example, most of the thinking that we do while driving is unreflective; we are on autopilot, going through the motions. However, if the car starts to skid on the ice we need to do something distinctly unintuitive - steering into the ice and taking off the brakes - and this requires conscious mental effort. In Kahneman’s terms, we switch from automatic ‘System 1’ thinking to deliberate ‘System 2’ thinking. This distinction is helpful for understanding the motivation behind children’s thinking in the classroom. As Kahneman notes, “System 2 is mobilized to increased effort when it detects an error about to be made”.

The danger with supporting the view that ‘there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy’ is that it is too uninvolving; a sense of personal risk is missing that motivates the switch to ‘System 2’ thinking. This clashes with perhaps the most famous saying of philosophy by the French philosopher Rene Descartes; ‘I think, therefore I am’. As James Geary notes in his book ‘I is an Other’, the Latin word cogitare (to think) comes from the roots co- (meaning ‘with’) and agitare (‘to shake’). A better translation might therefore be ‘I am shaken, therefore I am’. Children (and adults!) in philosophy class can feel personally ‘shaken’ by inquiring deeply into their beliefs. After a few sessions I have heard children joke ‘my brain hurts!’ or ‘oh no, please no more questions!’

These remarks highlight a particularly philosophical sensation of pained but pleasurable puzzlement. Painful, because we suddenly recognise how difficult something was that previously seemed easy. Pleasurable, because the disintegration of our accepted way of ‘seeing things’ can feel liberating and leave us enchanted with new possibilities. When children say these things, it shows their resistance to, but also the irresistibility of, resolving their intrapersonal conflict. They are motivated to switch from ‘System 1’ thinking to more deliberate ‘System 2’ thinking to resolve the tensions.

If we can encourage children to feel as if they are ‘on the ice’, with all the risk and personal responsibility that this involves, then they will be more motivated to engage in sustained critical reflection. Here are a few ways to encourage a shift to ‘System 2’ thinking in the classroom.


One way to encourage ‘System 2’ thinking in the classroom is to begin by asking the class about what they think the main concept is (eg lying, happiness, time, freedom etc). After gathering some responses from the children on the board, shared assumptions can be identified. For example, children will often claim that lying is simply ‘saying something that isn’t true’. If we wish to move from these pre-reflective, ‘System 1’ responses to a more critical understanding, we can tell stories that call into question these assumptions.

I sometimes get children to act out the following scenario:

A man is reading his newspaper out in the garden, minding his own business, when his daughter comes out and asks what the weather will be like tomorrow. Scanning the weather pages, he turns to her and says that it will be sunny all day. The following day, the girl is rained on as she walks back from school. She comes back home and confronts her father.

You can then ask the class: Did the man lie?

There are a number of questions hidden beneath the surface of the story to explore further:

  • Was what he said untrue?
  • If he said something untrue, was he lying?    
  • Can you lie about something that hasn’t happened yet?    
  • Can you lie about something that is out of your control?    
  • Can you lie about something if you believe it to be true?

Philosophy often begins with intuitive, pre-reflective responses that children can reason with and re-evaluate later on. This story and the resulting discussion allow the children to evaluate and perhaps re-evaluate their understanding of the concept of lying. They are taken out of autopilot and have to think hard to justify or overthrow their initial assumptions.


I often write down remarks that the children say in class. These provide useful starting material for the following week. I take a fairly controversial statement from the student and add this to an uncontroversial statement to make a"Children will often claim that lying is simply ‘saying something that isn’t true’." provocative conclusion. In one lesson a girl said that ‘the mind is inside the brain’. The following week I wrote up on the board:

1. The mind is inside the brain (Child’s statement)
2. The brain is physical (uncontroversial statement)
3. Therefore, the mind is physical (provocative conclusion)

The student who initially made the claim was ‘shaken’ out of her original complacency. She was left with three options: accept the conclusion of the argument (which was offensive to her), retract her initial claim, or argue that 1 was true but that 3 doesn’t necessarily follow from 1 and 2 (which requires careful, ‘System 2’ reflection on the structure of the argument’s reasoning).

In this case, after consideration she noted that the conclusion didn’t follow because you can have a non-physical thing within a physical thing; the argument wrongly assumes otherwise. Others contested this and a critical discussion followed on what it means to say that a non-physical thing is ‘in’ a physical thing. Can something non-physical be ‘in’ space?


Another way to encourage children to switch to ‘System 2’ thinking is by beginning with a series of straightforward, closed questions that build to the main question. By starting with questions that require only a recall of the facts, automatic ‘System 1’ thinking is activated and the child expects the questions that follow to be answerable with a similarly unreflective process. When they are then asked a more complex conceptual question they are likely to be struck by a motivating confusion that forces a switch to ‘System 2’ thinking.

In one philosophical enquiry, I ask the children to imagine that the whole class is on a train heading directly north at 50 miles per hour. A child decides to take a ball and stick it to the floor of the train so that it doesn’t wobble or shake at all. I then ask: is the ball moving?

During the discussion, I sometimes ask the children a series of questions to scaffold the main question.

Facilitator: ‘Is the ball on the train?’
Child: ‘Yes.’
Facilitator: ‘Is the train moving?’
Child: ‘Yes.’
Facilitator: ‘If the ball is on the train, and the train is moving, is the ball moving?’

The first couple of questions build up some momentum and lull the child into a false sense of complacency. When the final question comes along they are particularly likely to be struck by a feeling of puzzlement that motivates the shift to ‘System 2’ thinking.  

Do you employ such thinking in your classroom? Share your thoughts below.

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