My students have learned to listen to each other’s ideas and add to them and they feel free to disagree respectfully with another’s idea. In philosophy I hear students who hardly raise their hands in class give intelligent thought-out opinions or challenge another’s idea.” — Fourth grade teacher, Whittier Elementary School, Seattle
What is philosophy?
The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek, meaning “love of wisdom.” In ancient times philosophy was understood as the search for wisdom. Many of the concepts philosophers explore have been examined for thousands of years: What is time? What is beauty? What is a good life? What is knowledge?
Although it is one of the oldest academic disciplines, traditionally philosophy has not been considered a subject for children. Yet, in many ways, young people are natural philosophers. They ask philosophical questions and are curious about philosophical issues: how do we know things?, what is beauty?, how are the mind and body connected? Young people do not need to learn philosophy; it is something they do.
Philosophy explores fundamental questions about the world and ourselves, and is therefore not restricted to any particular subject matter. What characterizes a philosophical question is not what it is about, but at what level it is asked. For example, someone might ask whether some social arrangement is fair; a philosopher will ask, “What is fairness?” Philosophy demonstrates that some of the simplest questions we ask are also the most difficult to answer.
Why introduce philosophy to children?
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that do not include philosophy as a required subject for high school students. As a result, the subject is unfamiliar and seems esoteric to many people. Really though, children start asking philosophical questions early in life. Why should I be fair? What makes someone a friend? Why I am alive? Are stories real? Children are always wondering about the world in which we live and the meaning of human life.
Philosophical communities of inquiry emphasize thinking for oneself. Exposure to structured philosophy sessions encourages students to explore the big questions that matter to them, and supports their development of strong critical and creative thinking skills. Philosophy is the oldest and most effective discipline for learning how to think independently, helping students better express their own perspectives, challenge and build on each other’s thinking, and make clearer sense of their own views and ideas.
Philosophy emphasizes excellence in thinking by posing questions about the basic concepts that make up our understanding of the world. Students engage in philosophy by inquiring about the meanings of these concepts. Encouraged to ask and construct relevant questions, students develop their own views and articulate reasons for them and to listen to and learn from one another. Philosophical inquiry enhances student competence in reasoning and logic, increases young people’s confidence and ability to examine novel issues critically and imaginatively, and deepens listening and empathy skills.
Young people find philosophy discussions compelling, in part because there are no settled answers to the questions being examined. The environment created by this open inquiry illuminates ways for students, and particularly those students who may be otherwise somewhat disconnected from school, to become involved in an intellectual adventure.
What happens in a pre-college philosophy session?
Philosophy sessions typically begin with some introduction to a philosophical question or questions, which could be a story, an activity, a puzzle, or just the posing of a question. It is most helpful to engage the students in identifying the questions in which they are most interested. Then the bulk of the session is spent discussing these questions. At the end of the session, closure can be provided by summarizing what has been discussed.
Philosophy discussions do not involve talking to students about what philosophers have said, but inquiring with them in open-ended and thoughtful dialogues about philosophical ideas. As part of the work of exploring these ideas, we ask questions, suggest imaginative and new ways of approaching philosophical problems, read stories, draw pictures, role-play, create poetry, and engage in other forms of creative expression.
For example, the philosophy teacher might read the story The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes with the class. This story raises questions about nature of friendship, the ethics of being a bystander, and what moral duties we owe to others. It is a long story and best read with a class over three or four sessions. After the reading, ask the class what questions the story raises for them and list them on the board. You might also have some questions to add to the list; for example: Why do some people have no friends? Is teasing cruel? Then the class spends the next 20-40 minutes, depending on the age of the students and the way the discussion flows, talking about some of the questions listed on the board. (For tips on facilitating the discussion, see “Tips for Successful Pre-College Philosophy Sessions”). You can then spend 5 minutes or so summing up what the students have said, what conclusions have been drawn and what questions left open, and where the discussion has left the group. Or you can close with a reflective activity that involves the students writing or drawing about the central issues that have been discussed.
Studies on the Impact of Philosophy in Pre-College Classrooms
In 2007, Drs. Keith Topping and Steven Trickey conducted a series of studies in Scotland, and found that 10-to-12-year-old students who participated in one hour of weekly philosophical discussion over 16 months improved their verbal, non-verbal and quantitative scores on the widely-respected Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT3, 2001) by an average of 7 points, compared to a control group whose scores remained steady.
Especially exciting was the finding that gains made during the initial 16-month study continued in the experimental group two years after the sessions had stopped, while the scores of the control group marginally declined.
Further, analysis of video-recordings and student questionnaires administered seven months into the study revealed increased participation, better behavior, and self-reports of greater confidence, empathy, and control.
For a more complete compilation of the many studies that have been conducted about the impact of pre-college philosophy, see this Google Doc Spreadsheet »
For more information, read this article: Philosophy and Education: A Gateway to Inquiry