Matthew Macaulay
8 mins
Our Matthew Macaulay explores how philosophy can teach children the thinking skills necessary to navigate the AI revolution

A threat to independent thought

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend a thought leadership panel entitled A.I. in Education. The event was organised by London Academy of Excellence and hosted by Dawn Capital. The conversation was wide ranging and I came away from the event struck by the tremendous potential AI has to improve the way we teach children and support teachers, but equally pondering the threats this evolving technology poses. 

Chief amongst my concerns is the prospect of AI becoming yet another channel through which children passively consume information; a means of easily obtaining information but not critically engaging with it. 

Children spend far too much time passively consuming information already. This is something I have experienced first-hand, having researched children’s media and entertainment habits for close to ten years. 

At home children spend hours on platforms designed to capture their attention - from YouTube to TikTok - scrolling through video after video. Rarely do they take the time to question what they are hearing or seeing. 

The development of the internet and technology has done many wonderful things for education, but it has also led to the rise of digital devices being used as a means of pacifying children. Look around any cafe and you’ll see children accompanied by their parents, all clutching smartphones with glazed expressions and screen lit faces.

The danger is that AI becomes an escalation of this worrying trend with children being the passive recipients of the information it brings them, incapable of independent thought. 

What we can learn from philosophy 

Fortunately, there is an ancient discipline - philosophy - that can assist in guarding children against the potential pitfalls of AI. One of my good friends, Steven Campbell- Harris, works for a charity called The Philosophy Foundation, which focuses on bringing philosophical ideas into the classroom. This work is vitally important; in a world in which AI is in danger of doing the thinking for us, it is essential we teach children to flex their thought muscles.

Steven says, “we spend a lot of time talking about The three Rs of reading, writing, arithmetic, but not enough time talking about the fourth R, reasoning. You’re not really taught reasoning and yet it's a critical tool that people need”. He teaches primary school children to reason through thought experiments (stories with questions attached to them). These stories encourage children to ask themselves questions and challenge each others’ answers and reasoning. 

Combating misinformation

It is clear that AI in the wrong hands could be a powerful tool for nefarious actors to spread misinformation. The deep fake scam video which surfaced featuring a computer generated version of Martin Lewis, the money expert, was a concerning example of this. 

Steven notes that schools can prepare us to be quite deferential. In the words of Cicero: ‘The authority of those who teach is very often an impediment to those who want to learn’. We rely too heavily on teachers to package up information for us and tell us the answer. This is problematic at a time when it can be increasingly difficult to discern fact from fiction, and the need to question is increasingly important. 

When I use ChatGPT - and it has become an increasingly useful tool for my work as a strategist - I always ask myself what is the source of this information? When I ask ChatGPT a question, I am careful to check the answers it gives me as it’s perfectly capable of coming up with something which is completely spurious. On one occasion I asked it to recommend some books about child development. When I then went to look them up on the internet, they didn’t exist. 

Teaching critical thinking skills 

Children of a certain age are particularly prone to taking information at face value. This is something I’m keenly aware of in my job at Kids Industries and why we and the brands we work with are so careful about the information we put out into the world which may be seen by kids. 

A key skill children will need going into this brave new world of advancements in AI, is critical thinking. This is the ability to critically evaluate the information to which they are exposed. As Steven says, “if people don’t think, they are more susceptible to propaganda and bad decision making… There’s a sense in which they’re not free and that’s ultimately a challenge to democracy”.  

AI as a catalyst for questioning  

The thinking Steven encourages children to do elicits a strange yet positive sensation in them. As he explains, “they say things like my head hurts and you’re asking so many questions. But they say it in a way that they are both enjoying and not enjoying it. And that’s a good feeling. Thinking shouldn’t be easy”. 

The application of AI in education needs to encourage children to do this hard thinking. AI will only enhance education if it encourages questioning and new discovery. We also need to equip children with the intellectual defences to cope with this brave new world - pushing children to be independent thinkers, not slaves to this new machine. 

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