Welcome to my classroom, where kids are never too small to think big.
When you picture a philosopher, who do you see? A white-bearded, toga-wearing Athenian? The classic professor type, hunched over stacks of essays in a university office? Do you imagine someone pretentious sitting at a café, smoking a pipe while expounding his views of existence?
How about eight-year-old Kelsey with grass-stained knees and a drink carton, which she plops into the recycling bin?
"I think the meaning of life," Kelsey told me, "is to play, have fun, but be good to Mother Nature."
As an elementary school teacher, I have witnessed children doing philosophy, and the process always amazes and inspires me. I remember facilitating a particularly spirited session with grade three students. We explored the question "What would be your perfect playground?"
During this dialogue, talk moved naturally from listing the basic features of a fantasy playground (like lots of swings, cotton-candy machines, bumper cars, etc.) to eventually the ethical and metaphysical realms. For example, the students wondered aloud, "How should we solve conflicts on the perfect playground?" and "Is it possible to be perfect?"
Following up this discussion, my students worked in teams to design and build 3D models of their versions of the perfect playground. They wrote and presented short speeches explaining the philosophical significances of their choices. For example, Immanuel wrote, "I put in lots of ramps to help kids who use wheelchairs because I think a playground is perfect only if all kids can play on it."
So often the problems and solutions of children can be microcosms for those of the larger world. Much of our discussion on the perfect playground was philosophically rich and would apply to a discussion on an ideal society. For example, students reasoned that, "we should create a place where no one would get hurt... where everyone got a fair turn... where there was enough of everything to go around."
Big questions? Dive right in
I have found that by way of analogy to their immediate experiences, children begin to meaningfully address abstract issues. And through their eyes, we adults learn to see our world afresh.
Of course my pint-sized philosophers aren't as rigorous in their practice as their university-trained counterparts. Still, their philosophical efforts are valuable since they are the first pieces of a larger puzzle. People learn to walk before they run. Through increased exposure young people become more versed in the procedures of a community of inquiry. They become more fluent in the language of logic, more adept at uncovering their own views, and more creative and confident in their self-expression.
That is why I wrote Q Is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy, an illustrated children's book to inspire philosophical discussions, published this spring.
And it is why I foster philosophical exploration in my classroom.
Although it can be helpful to look at what eminent philosophers have said on certain issues, I rarely pull out a classical text. I have found that, at the elementary level, it is often better to help the students dive right in and actually do philosophy themselves through discussion.
As a teacher, I take on the role of discussion facilitator, letting students engage in philosophical dialogue about issues that are important to them. Through this process, I aim to scaffold students' learning in acquiring the skills of effective inquiry.
Some Tips on Doing Philosophy with Children
DO create a safe atmosphere for children to share their ideas.
DO weave philosophy into the regular curriculum.
DO look for and respond to natural "teachable moments".
DO let children have a choice in the questions they debate.
DO draw out the philosophical significance of a child's own ideas.
DO model skills for good inquiry.
DO encourage students to continue class dialogues with their friends and families.
DO read up on philosophy so you can be a better resource for your students.
DO present a wide variety of perspectives on any given topic.
DON'T shy away from "heavy" topics, but use discretion.
DON'T affirm every opinion -- some arguments are stronger than others.
DON'T allow any one voice to monopolize conversations.
DON'T emphasize your personal views; let students make up their own minds.
DON'T be afraid to let the conversation wander.
Running a good mental workout
We may think of the practices of a good elementary philosophy teacher as similar to those of a good physical education teacher in some ways.
For example, when teaching basketball, the good P.E. teacher doesn't only lecture from a podium about bygone sports heroes. He doesn't assign overly complex readings from sport annuals. She doesn't hotdog and slam-dunk the ball, yell discouragements from the bleachers, or force kids to strain unsafely beyond their capabilities. A good P.E. teacher wouldn't do things that inhibit learning and hurt the students -- and neither would a good philosophy teacher.
Rather, in both cases, the good teacher takes a hands-on, student-focused approach. She lays down the ground rules and safety procedures, offers a few examples, sets up the court, and ultimately turns the game over to the students. Finally, a good teacher provides support from the sidelines and helps students to meaningfully debrief the event when it's over.
In the case of basketball, these teaching strategies help students develop a life-long appreciation for sport, strategies for self-improvement, and teamwork. And in the case of philosophy, these strategies help children develop skills to live an examined life, which as Socrates said, is the only one worth living.
Still, I have encountered skeptics who say children needn't bother with philosophy at school. Given that it is the job of a philosopher to anticipate and answer her skeptics, here is a collection of possible concerns, each followed by my response.
Concern #1: "Teaching philosophy is pointless because children don't learn anything by regurgitating the opinions of dead scholars."
Response: Children need philosophy. But that doesn't mean we should push them into dusty copies of ancient, difficult text. I don't mean we should pump kids full of aphorisms so they can recite them for our amusement at dinner parties.
What I mean is that children should be educated in the discipline and process of philosophy. That is, children should learn to do philosophy: to ask important questions; to create, debate, and evaluate logical arguments; and to analyze how their own philosophical arguments are connected to their real life experiences.
Philosophy is a constructivist task that demands the highest order thinking skills -- so if students are merely regurgitating others' doctrines, they are not actually doing philosophy.
Concern #2: "Teaching philosophy at school opens the doors to brainwashing and indoctrination. Philosophy is the job of the parents."
Response: This fear stems from confusion about what is involved in teaching children to do philosophy. A teacher's role is to instruct students in understanding the difference between philosophical and scientific questions; in logic (valid and invalid arguments, fallacies of reasoning, etc.); in constructing, clearly expressing, and fine-tuning their own arguments; in listening to, understanding, appreciating, respecting and fairly considering arguments of others; and in generally acquiring the skills to dialogue in a community of inquiry.
In my class dialogues, I am a facilitator -- not a guest speaker. My opinions are not the focus because the developing views of my students take centre stage. As an educational professional, I am bound by a code of ethics, and my student's needs are the priority.
Concern #3: "There is no time in the crowded curriculum to squeeze in another subject."
Response: The idea that we have time for either the regular curriculum or philosophy is a false dilemma. Teachers can do both by fostering philosophical exploration through the teaching of other academic subjects.
Teachers can begin by helping students choose meatier, more philosophical books to read and by encouraging meaningful group discussion.
Also, instead of having students write an essay titled "What I Did On My Summer Vacation", teachers could tweak the topic to include a moral dimension, like "What I Should Have Done On My Summer Vacation And Why."
And for younger students building with Lego -- or even older students rebuilding a car engine -- a teacher could retell the story of the "Ship of Theseus", inspiring minds to ponder the persistence of identity through time.
Concern #4: "Kids should learn practical things at school, like job skills."
Response: As a teacher, my task is to equip students with the most important life skills so that they might be prepared to succeed and make the best choices on whichever life path they choose.
There are millions of different jobs that a child can grow up to do. And although not everyone grows up to be a professional mathematician, we still teach basic math operations since these are useful in the general course of life.
Philosophical training in a classroom that includes facilitated group dialogue can enhance students' cognitive as well as social-emotional development. Students gain skills for self-knowledge and self-expression. They learn to test generalizations, make connections and draw inferences, find analogies, formulate and test criteria, take multiple perspectives, cooperate, build on others ideas, and so much more.
All of these skills are useful to those entering the job market. They are important to daily life. At the very least, they are useful when negotiating your turn on the swing at the playground.
Concern #5: "Talking about big issues, like death and poverty, might scare kids. Let them enjoy their innocence."
Response: Innocence is one thing, but ignorance is another. We can't ignore that children are, from a very young age, exposed to "difficult" concepts through their own experiences, omni-present media, etc.
If we pretend things like death and poverty don't exist, we fail to prepare children for coping in our world. We need to be sensitive, but also help them acquire the cognitive and emotional tools to deal with tough issues they will face or are already facing.
Professional educators must use discretion when teaching any subject. They must consider the needs and emotional maturity of their students when planning their lessons.
Concern #6: "What happens when kids have offensive views? When kids start talking, it could open a can of worms."
Response: Teachers need to create respectful classroom environments and support the guidelines set by the school as appropriate conduct.
I remember a wonderful class discussion about freedom of speech: the students themselves came to a conclusion that with freedom of speech comes responsibility.
And since some offensive views are based on flawed reasoning, philosophy training is all the more important because it helps children think critically about the views they hold. I believe our class discussions support democracy by preparing critical thinkers able to live among cultural, theological, political, and economic diversity.
Concern #7: "Kids don't need formal instruction in philosophy. They will discover their views naturally."
Response: True, people develop and operate under personal philosophies of some sort, even when they don't know it. Still, isn't it better to have awareness and to be able to articulate one's views in the form of convincing, well-supported arguments?
Being able to reason well is a part of a balanced education. Children who aren't given the tools to identify bad reasoning and to recognize, formulate and defend their own beliefs are more likely to get taken advantage of by their peers, the media, and anyone else who can turn a phrase.
Concern #8: "Philosophy is too rigid with its fixation on logic. Childhood is a time for possibilities and magic."
Response: The universe is governed by some basic logical truths, and children, as they are ready, deserve to be let in on the secret. In this universe, 2+2 will always equal 4, and "If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal."
That is not to say that philosophy is the end of creativity; rather it can be the beginning of it. Children can find that playing with ideas in a community of inquiry is a magical process that opens minds to new ideas.
Concern #9: "Kids don't want to do philosophy. It will bore them."
Response: How much fun children are having in a lesson often relates to how much fun and creativity a teacher brings to it. Generally, I find, children appreciate and enjoy opportunities to voice their views.
Once they start, I find I can't get them to stop being philosophical -- it's as if something has been awakened inside of them. Over and over again, my students ask to do more philosophy and they report it to be one of their favourite activities.
Philosophy conversations can explore animal rights, friendship, goals, dreams, reality, time travel and more. And when you add in fun philosophical games, stories, and art projects, there can be something to capture the imagination of every child.
Concern #10: "Many kids are not cognitively ready to deal with abstract concepts."
Response: A good teacher is sensitive to his or her students' developmental levels, and he or she teaches with instructional scaffolding to help students get to the next cognitive stage. While they may not be able to read Plato, even kindergarten children have meaningful answers to questions like "What is fair?" "What is real?" and "How should we treat others?"
The bottom line is that for students to grow, teachers should open doors. With support, and when they are ready, students will walk through them.