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Literature Review - The Little Book of Thunks; (Part 1) Philosophy for Children and for Everyone Else

Updated on December 17, 2018
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The author has 2 unrelated science degrees to his credit and a deep interest in the dissemination of science-related information on the web


There has long been a debate about the best and most effective way to educate and test our children. Usually it will focus on whether examinations under supervision, or course work done in school or as homework, is really the truest guide to a student's knowledge and potential. Both these systems of assessing ability have their merits and advocates.

But there is another way in which a student's knowledge and intelligence can be tested. It is a method which tries to evaluate their ability to think for themselves - both inside and outside the box. And it is a method which can also test and develop the student's character and their interaction with their peers - and what's more, it does so in an inclusive and enjoyable manner. As such, this is a method which could be harnessed by all schools, and possibly even by many adult institutions too to discover more about the potential of their employees.

What is this method of testing? It is the asking of 'simple' questions which promote philosophical discussion - questions which have become known as 'thunks'. On this page I will look at one little book about thunk (appropriately entitled 'The Little Book of Thunks'). I look at the theory behind it, and the potential advantages when used wisely. I also include a few examples of 'thunks' from the book, as well as a few from my own thoughts, in order to demonstrate just how it works in practice. Then in a second article, I will explore the idea further, showing how seemingly simple questions can lead to wide-ranging debate and ever deeper thought processes.

N.B: Please note, all of my articles are best read on desktops and laptops

The Basics of Thunk

'Philosophy is what's left when science has answered all the other questions'

The idea behind thunks can be dated back at least as far as Socrates who, as 'The Little Book of Thunks' informs us, inspired debate not only through the wise words he spoke, but also through the asking of simple questions - now known as Socratic Dialogue.

A thunk can best be 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.'

So thunks are a method of posing and 'solving' philosophical problems, but in truth they can achieve a whole lot more than that. Indeed, ironically a solution is the one thing they may not achieve, because the key idea behind them is that these are questions without any definitive answer. Rather, they are questions designed to open debate. They are questions which are designed to lead on to more questions, to challenge one's view of the world, of human beings, of every day objects, and of life itself.

There is great value in this as a mental test for everyone but especially so for children, and the author of 'The Little Book of Thunks', Ian Gilbert, pays tribute to Professor of Philosophy Matthew Lipman who first put together a number of exercises for children to help encourage a more philosophical way of thinking. His ideas led to 'Philosophy For Children' (P4C) - a thinking skills programme in the USA, and it was Mr Gilbert's work with this in the UK, which led to his development of these thunks.

I do have one question of my own - why 'thunk'? What's wrong with the phrase 'simple philosophical question'? Perhaps that is not catchy enough. Maybe it is just too long winded for modern society? But whatever one makes of the word, the 'thunk' or 'simple philosophical question' is a great educational and developmental tool for all the many reasons which will be explained in the next section.

The Basics of the Book

'The Little Book of Thunks' was written by Ian Gilbert, and first published by Crown House Publishing in Carmarthen in Wales and in Bethel, Connecticut, USA in the year 2007. The book is 96 pages long and includes 260 examples of 'thunks'.

About the Author

Author Ian Gilbert is a former languages teacher, educational speaker and award winning writer. And he is the founder of Independent Thinking Ltd, a group which aims to promote innovative educational methods, quality teaching and motivation of children. The mission statement of Independent Thinking Ltd is:

'To enrich people's lives by changing the way they think - and so to change the world'

Links are included later on this page.

What Does the Book Include?

'The Little Book of Thunks' is divided into two main sections.

The first section gives an explanation of thunks, what they are, and how best to use them. It gives suggestions on how a teacher could organise a good session of questioning, and how development of a discussion can be encouraged to involve all students and take them in directions they never imagined they would go.

The second section is a collection of 260 questions of all different kinds. They do, however, have some things in common. None are very complicated or difficult to understand. All are simple and easy to answer - at a superficial level. But all are difficult and maybe impossible to answer with definitive or 'correct' responses.

The Value for Children

The merits of these kinds of thought provoking questions are almost too numerous to mention, although 'The Little Book' makes a very good stab at listing them. Broadly, the benefits can be categorised as follows:

1) The Discovery of Knowledge

  • Thunks will cause children to look at the world in a new light, and indeed to consider all of the 'Big Questions' of life. If a session is handled well, they will hopefully be stimulated to research further into the scientific or technical subjects at the heart of some questions and learn more about things which they previously took at face value.

2) Revealing Intellectual Ability

  • A session should bring out the mental agility of children which may otherwise not be apparent. It can identify true intelligence and the capacity to think and understand concepts, rather than the ability to merely learn facts. A thunk encourages children to develop their own ideas rather than just repeat verbatim what others have said, or say what they think the teacher wants to hear. Thunks encourage critical analysis of statements of 'fact'.

3) Harnessing Team Working Skills

  • Questions of this kind posed to a group will encourage discussion. Children have to listen to what others are saying and appreciate their points of view before proffering their own thoughts. They may change their own minds or change the minds of others in the group. They may add the ideas of others to their own to formulate new ideas, or to push the discussion into new areas.

4) Character Building

  • Thunks will help children build confidence in their own thoughts. Conventional questions which require 'factual' answers will often cause 90% of the class to just clam up and say nothing at all, either because they just don't know the answer, or because they are scared of saying something 'stupid'. These kinds of questions or thunks in which the teacher does not offer a 'right' or 'wrong' answer, teach children that it is OK to think differently to everyone else.

Types of Thunk, and How They Create Debate

Common themes keep cropping up time and time again which make a question a good philosophical area for discussion. These themes include:

  • How one defines and interprets seemingly simple words and phrases.
  • How one understands concepts such as being human, being conscious, being alive etc.
  • How one identifies which 'facts' are really opinions, suppositions and prejudices.
  • How different types of people may have their own different perspectives (for example scientists and artists, adults and children, rich people and poor people).
  • How one judges an action which has both good and bad consequences, or an action which may be carried out to a moderate or to a more extreme degree.
  • How one views issues of morality.
  • How much one can control one's own thoughts and feelings.
  • How one deals with a question which includes abstract or impossible concepts, or insufficient information, or ideas which may be non-sequiturs.

To see how this works in practice, it is easiest to just take a handful of examples of thunk questions, including a few of my own, and some from 'The Little Book of Thunks', to see how they work within some of these themes.

  • Can you have a friend you don't like?
  • Is butter man-made or natural? What about plastic (which comes from oil, which comes ultimately from trees)?

Questions of Definition and Interpretation

Many of the questions in the book are to do with definitions. How, for example do you define colour? Or sound? Or what about the specific sound of music? And in the examples given here, how does one define or interpret the word 'friend'? As for the other example, 'man-made' is clearly a term which could be viewed in a simple or a more complex way. Where does one draw the line between what is man-made and what is natural?

Possibly the simplest question of all in the book (at least in terms of the number of words) is:

'How many bricks is a wall?'

How simple is that!? But how do you answer it? Do you need two bricks? Twenty bricks? Does it depend on the size of the bricks? Does it depend on how many layers of bricks there are? Walls don't even have to be made of bricks. So how do we define a wall? Something we have to physically climb over? Something a child cannot climb over? One can already see that answering this question depends on your definition of a brick and a wall. One can also see how any child - even the most shy and reticent - could have a go at answering it.

  • If I have a pig's heart valve implanted in my heart am I part pig? Am I more pig-like than someone without it?

Questions of Degree and Comparative Values

The solution to some of the questions can be seen as being one of degree or comparison. Questions of degree and comparative value occur every day in determining, for example, whether one has performed well or badly in an event. What if you come first in a minor athletic event you're expected to win? What about coming second but in a personal best time? What about coming a 'disappointing' eighth in an Olympic final? Which is the best performance? The first is a victory, the second is the best one could achieve, whilst the third is the greatest performance in absolute terms. How do we compare these performances?

The question included in the book could be thought about in more than one way each leading to different answers. It may be considered as a matter of degree, or it may be considered as a matter of what constitutes humanity. As far as degree is concerned, if a heart valve doesn't make you part-pig, what about other internal organs? What about replacing external body parts - legs and arms - with pig's trotters? Just what percentage of the body can be replaced before you consider it to be part-pig? As far as humanity is concerned, can everything be replaced apart from the brain, without removing the essential human quality? What about the soul? (Whatever that is?)

  • Would you rather be a brave fool or a clever coward?
  • Can you choose who to love? Can you choose not to love someone?

Questions of Choice

When it comes to personal choice, how can one argue what is right and what is wrong? After all, it's a personal choice. No one can really say if one job is 'better' than another one, or whether ice cream tastes 'nicer' than chocolate, yet we all have our own firmly held views on such questions. Children or adults could no doubt put forward constructive arguments in support of their own favourite. It seems in many such cases any answer may be correct, unless you decide that majority opinion rules. But is it valid to take majority opinion into account in deciding such things?

In the first example given in the book, one would have to argue the worth of bravery against wisdom, stupidity against cowardice. And on what basis do you argue? On the basis of which is of more value or detriment to society, or on the basis of personal choice - which condition allows a person to lead the most contented life?

In the second example, is there any choice involved? Can one 'choose' what feelings one has, or are they purely innate and uncontrollable?

  • Can you be racist against your own race?
  • Is it natural to be greedy? If so, is being greedy OK then?

Questions of Morality

Everyone will recognise that questions of morality can be among the most difficult of all to provide an answer to. Everybody's sense of morality is different, and morality differs between societies and different generations. In the 21st century we would regard those who went to watch gladiatorial combat to the death, or kept slaves, or employed children as chimney sweeps, as being despicable in the extreme, and yet many of the most respectable and otherwise decent minded people did such things in the past. Can we judge them? What gives us the right to think our own society is moral? How may the next generation judge activities such as hunting and fishing, keeping caged birds as pets, or watching people punch each other to the cheers of the crowd in the boxing ring? Will they regard such behaviour as sick, cruel or brutal? Are we moral?

The points raised above are generalisations about morality, but what about the two specific examples posed in the blue box here? Is there a definitive answer to either of these? Think about them. How would you answer these questions?

  • When you are scared by a scary film, is the fear real or imaginary?
  • If you always got everything you ever wished for would you always be happy?

Abstract Ideas - Impossible Questions to Answer

Finally a few of those questions which not only lack a definitive answer, but maybe don't have any sensible answer at all. Depending on one's point of view these may be the most satisfying of all philosophical posers nurturing endless hours of debate, or they may just be irritating, because no possible conclusion can ever be reached. They are the sort of questions which when asked in a classroom could lead the children off into directions where no child has gone before, or they could just lead to arguments which circle endlessly round and round, until everyone's brain feels dizzy. If nothing else, such questions should sort out the children with a mischievous desire to outsmart their teachers, from the children who want to do nothing more than to sleep unnoticed at the back of the class!

Look at the questions in the box. How would you answer them? Not easy are they?

Page Two

Literature Review - The Little Book of Thunks; (Part 2) Questions Which Raise More Questions in the Minds of Children

In my companion piece to this review, I include 3 further examples of Thunks and go into much greater depth to show how discussion and debate can proliferate from an intial question posed. I allow my own thought processes a free rein to wander through the types of topics which may be covered through the asking of a very simple question.

A Few Recommendations

The philosophy of asking challenging questions may be as old as civilisation itself, but perhaps it was never more worthwhile than it is today. I would suggest this for two reasons:

1) Answers to questions are almost too readily available today. Whereas once each human being or community had to work out the solutions to problems for themselves, now there is instant access to a whole encyclopedia of answers in books, on television, and most of all, on the Internet. No one is challenged to find their own solutions.

2) Children may think less in the 21st Century than ever before. Whereas once they had to invent games for amusement, or build things with play bricks, or create with crayons or paint, now all they have to do is press a few buttons and entertainment happens in front of them. Thinking and creativity is of benefit to mental health and needs to be encouraged among children.

And it's not just children who benefit. Adults too can gain a lot by asking themselves these kinds of questions, and they can be a fun group activity which is much more productive than gossiping about last night's television, or discussing the latest fashions.

But the book focuses on children, and therefore so will I. The philosophy of tackling questions such as these, can have all kinds of advantages for those who try it. It can character build, it can educate, it can create a whole new way of looking at the world about us. It would surely be beneficial for any school to introduce sessions of such debate into the curriculum. It can only help to bring about a better, more rounded population who can learn from their peers, yet think for themselves. And the 'Little Book of Thunks' is one way in which we can get children - or adults - to start thinking.


Please feel free to quote limited text from this article, on condition that an active link back to this page is included

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