Philosophy in K-12 classrooms is still a rarity in the United States. My work over the past 20 plus years has involved introducing philosophy into schools and helping educators and policy makers to recognize young people’s philosophical proclivities and the benefits of bringing philosophical inquiry into their lives. This involves a lot of “selling” of the strengths of philosophy for young people, of focusing on all of the reasons this effort is important — philosophy’s unique advantages as a discipline for teaching critical thinking skills, the ways in which philosophical inquiry helps young people to recognize the multiplicity of perspectives in our world, the confidence in expressing one’s own ideas and questions that can come from thinking about philosophical issues with others, and the importance of encouraging young people to continue to wonder about the world.
What we don’t talk about very much are the challenges. This is due, mainly, I think, to our status as a still-new field, seeking to gain credibility and visibility. However, I think that at least some of the challenges we face are endemic in schools, and perhaps our experiences as relative newcomers can provide fresh perspectives on some of the issues faced by many or most teachers.
The specific challenge about which I am reflecting today is the goal of engaging all of the students in a class. In philosophy, we often talk about how children and youth are curious about philosophical topics and come to philosophy sessions with philosophical interests of their own. We also point out that the fact that philosophical questions have no final and settled answers creates spaces for students to discuss issues of interest to them without fear of getting it wrong, and that open and student-led philosophy sessions appeal to many students who might not be otherwise engaged in school. I believe that all of this is true. But what we don’t, at least in my experience, talk openly about is that despite our efforts, it is often a challenge to involve all of the students in a class, as some or many are disinterested and disengaged.
I routinely facilitate regular weekly or bi-weekly philosophy sessions in classrooms of 28-32 elementary school students. I use a variety of prompts — picture books, activities, games, philosophical puzzles, journals, small groups, “turn and talk,” silent discussions, etc. There are many sessions in which the students end up discussing deeply and intently a philosophical question that matters to them, and some continue the conversation with me and/or each other after the session concludes.
However, there are almost always some students who are clearly checked out. Not just not speaking, as I am very aware that there are many ways to participate and not every student is comfortable speaking in a group, and I routinely read student journal entries from students who never speak but are clearly absorbed by philosophical inquiry. But there are also students who just don’t seem to be at all interested in philosophical inquiry, who are bored, and to whom almost no philosophical topic seems to appeal. In some sessions, these students are the majority. And I hear the same thing from other K-12 philosophy instructors.
Is philosophy for everyone? I have written elsewhere about my belief that we all engage in philosophical thinking at some point, whenever we consider questions like what is the right thing to do, is someone really a friend, do we really know something, etc., and that philosophy is much broader than the academic discipline as it is practiced in college and universities. But does that mean that regular involvement in philosophical inquiry with others is something that is necessary or even beneficial for all students, even if some of them aren’t particularly interested?
Of course, not all students are attracted by math, or reading, or history, or science, yet these subjects are routinely taught because we as a society think they are important for students to learn. Is philosophy like this? We don’t tend to speak of philosophy in this way, in part because, at least in elementary school, we are not “teaching” the subject of philosophy, lecturing students about Descartes’ dream argument or Kant’s metaphysics, as most young students are not ready for this and would have no interest in it. Our focus is on creating spaces in which students can discuss topics of interest to them, with the facilitators helping them to listen closely to each other, give good reasons for their views, anticipate objections, ask clear questions, etc. What K-12 philosophy instructors tend to say we are doing is responding to a children’s propensities to ask philosophical questions and think about philosophical topics. But is this true of all children? And if not, is it valuable for children not drawn to philosophy to be exposed to it?
If it is important that all students be acquainted with philosophy, what are strategies we can use to engage all or at least most of the students who don’t seem inclined to it? If it is not important for all students, where do we go from here?