I have the good fortune of living near a bookshop. When I walk in, I do not blindly grab at any book from any shelf, purchase it, read it and then form an opinion on it. As I walk in, I look first for the shelves that I am already interested in – often religion, photography, society, and children’s books – and begin browsing there. This won’t help me get better at the things I don’t care about, but that is fine – I do not seek to know everything about everything, I just want to know more about a few things that I am interested in. That’s really all most of us can aspire to.
Having orientated myself in the bookshop, I will browse the shelves I have selected and find things that interest me. Sometimes I will want to read things that extend what I already know and think, sometimes I want to explore a seminal or notable text, sometimes I will dabble in something vogueish, sometimes I will be enticed by an interesting book cover, and sometimes I pick something eccentric and odd that loiters on the fringes of my interests.
Opinions are informed and shaped by the knowledge that you can access, but we only actively seek knowledge about things for which we already have an interest or an opinion. To have an opinion but inadequate knowledge is ignorance. To have an opinion and no interest is lazy thought.
We are all ignorant of the things we ignore, and we start off ignorant. We are all mostly ignorant – there is more that we don’t know than we do know. Primary children are even more ignorant, because they haven’t had much time to pursue and access knowledge, because they haven’t been alive very long, and not even the fiercest critic could begrudge them that.
This is one of the reasons why children’s discussions and opinions matter, particularly in the primary school. It is through discussion, reflection and the exchange of opinion that children lay the foundations for their future interests and knowledge. Some children, of course, will bring in more knowledge than others, and this enriches the quality of discussion for the children taking part. All children can benefit from the sharing of ideas and opinions because it is through this that their own thinking is prompted – once an interest develops, children are far more likely to effectively seek out, embed and apply knowledge. To know things is in itself interesting, and we can becoming interested in things by becoming more knowledgeable about them, but outside of compulsory learning, we do not choose to know about that which does not interest us. Lessons from this could be diverted into the way we think about children’s knowledge, ideas and opinons in school.
Discussion and the exchange of ideas is not a waste of time because children’s ideas and opinions are valid as ideas and opinions. Their opinions are not knowledge, and any teachers who solicit children’s opinions, then pat them on the back and consider the lesson to be done…are wrong to do so. It will make them think (if done right), which is good, but it doesn’t necessarily take them any further. Their opinions and ideas can be the starting point, and then you can expose them to what is known. That way, their knowledge, interest and opinions are refined, improved and developed.
If we spend some time in class discussing what the children think happens after you die, we have a great plurality of ideas, which draws upon the diverse religious make-up of the class. This can hook them in and can prompt some children to begin thinking of things they had not previously considered. Then we can begin explicitly teaching belief-ideas such as reincarnation, karma, the Day of Judgement, the Paths of Enlightenment, Heaven and Hell, and we can share the science of respiratory systems, and life expectancies and fact that scientific explanations differ from religious explanations, and that this is true for all sort of ‘Big Questions’ such as ‘How did Earth begin?’ and ‘Why are we here?’.
When I think of my school-friends who have gone on to the greatest depths of the pursuit of knowledge – throwing themselves into Masters Degrees and PhDs – I can remember back in our primary classroom how the seeds were sown. With one guy, who is now reading for a PhD in Early Saxon History now, I can remember him being animated and contributing loads when we studied the Tudors in Year 4. I remember him getting praised a lot for his interest in History, and remember my envy of him when the teacher gave him a personal copy of Ivanhoe to read. What he had at the beginning was not knowledge – though this quickly followed – but he had interest and opinions.
An opinion is not something that is gifted to you once you have graduated from university, but along with the burgeoning of interest, it catalyses the pursuit of knowledge.