The Joy of Not Knowing: A 4 Star Review

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Education today is incredibly problematic. In a statistically driven system, the focus of schools is no longer on learning but on training children to pass exams. This is done through mindless repetition and most lessons being structured like a test. Most schools are desperately trying to improve their standings in leader boards due to receiving inadequate funding. However, it has put significant strain on members of staff, teachers and children. With mental health services drastically underfunded, it has led to a crisis; the World Health Organisation found that 10-20% of children have mental health conditions. This is not ok and something needs to change.

Marcelo Staricoff (former headteacher and now a school tutor in education at the University of Sussex) in his book The Joy Of Not Knowing puts forward a fantastic solution to these problems. From the ‘Flying High’ research project, he developed an innovative new method of teaching based on philosophy. The book aims to provide a guide for primary teachers on how to further their students’ learning.  He gave me a free copy of his book to review.

Staricoff identifies that learning can only occur when a child doesn’t know something. Because of this, his book focuses on how to get children to be comfortable with handling the unknown (hence the title of the book, the Joy of Not Knowing™ or JONK™). He sees learning as a pit, where children come to terms with the fact they won’t always know the answer to a question. It is then the job of the teacher to provide the child with the methods on how to get to the correct answer, not to provide it for them.

This aim is superb and can have significant impact on a child’s mental health. Instead of framing the child’s lack of knowledge as a failing, it becomes a challenge. The child becomes curious about the topic and explores it. This leads to a richer understanding than if the child was merely looking for an answer. Furthermore, it better prepares children for when they leave education. It is an important aim of Staricoff’s to instil dispositions within children that make them lifetime learners. If using this approach, school no longer becomes a memorising task. It becomes a foundation for children that can be applied to whatever challenges they face.

The genius of this book lies in the recognition of the role that philosophy can play in the education of children. Most people see it today as irrelevant to their lives (ironic, as philosophy is the study of living.) However, Staricoff demonstrates why philosophy is the most vital subject a child could learn. As acknowledged previously, the point of the book is to make children comfortable with the concept of not knowing. This is key to philosophical discourse as philosophy is about tackling questions we may never know the answer to. However, it develops a deeper understanding of the world around us. Hence, using philosophy as an example of how to learn can lead to the better understanding of other subjects.

Furthermore, he notes the important role philosophy plays in motivating children to learn a subject. While teaching the children a maths lesson, Staricoff changed the learning objective from ‘Can we know the properties of 2D shapes? to the Philosophical question of ‘Do 2-D shapes exist?’ He noticed a significant increase in interest from the children. With the greater interest, the children developed a richer knowledge of the subject. In a small gesture, Staricoff highlighted the real difference philosophy can make.

The greatest complaint heard about philosophy is that it cannot be practically implemented. Staricoff demonstrates that this is not the case by providing practical activities of how such a stance can be implemented in the classroom. This can be demonstrated in my favourite part of the book – the philosophy chapter (no surprises here). I could not stop smiling while reading the Why Books’. One of the children at the Infant School where Staricoff was the Headteacher at, asked Staricoff if they could have special books to write down the philosophical questions they came up with after their philosophy lessons. The idea took off in the school. They would take their books home to discuss it with parents and jot down their conclusions. At the start of the school day they would jot down the ideas that came into their heads. To know how motivated children were by their why books and their philosophy lessons fills me with joy and is a clear example of Staricoff’s cleverness with his practical implementation of philosophy.   

There was only one thing that I didn’t like within the book and that was the discussion questions. These are aimed at teachers in to make them discuss how they can implement the JONK system within their teaching. I felt that these overstepped the line of a handbook and went more into the teacher training aspect. I feel it is better to keep these separate to the book but maybe offer training courses alongside the book if teachers were seeking more help within its implementation.

Something I would like Staricoff to consider in the future would be to include what aspects of the project proved challenging. This book prescribes drastic changes to the school environment. While these are definitely for the better, it cannot have implemented without a hiccup. It would have been nice for the book to discuss these challenges as an example for teachers who would have been facing their own challenges.

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