“The University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has thought-out a plan to provide philosophy lessons to adults and make teachers feel comfortable with the uncertainties and ambiguities of having philosophical conversations with young students. We are able to build faith among ourselves to have the conversations with our students and use the same processes that we have learned from the University’s student teachers. As we move further into this process, these philosophy lessons are something that is an option for schools and an option for teachers so we can use it in our classrooms in a variety of ways. For example, when we use more techniques from philosophy to teach literature, the students find more much meaning in what they are reading.”
— Fourth grade teacher, John Muir Elementary School, Seattle
What does the “Philosophers in the Schools” program do?
“Philosophers in the Schools” brings regular philosophy classes into schools around the Seattle area. The classes are taught by Center staff, UW graduate students and undergraduates, and community volunteers trained in philosophy education.
The program includes three undergraduate Philosophy for Children courses, one each quarter, and one graduate seminar. Our courses introduce UW students to methods of doing philosophy with young people by stressing the formation of a philosophical community of inquiry, in which students are encouraged to ask their own questions, develop views and articulate reasons for them, and learn from one another. Students facilitate philosophical discussions on a variety of topics, including the nature of mind, time, knowledge, identity, ethics, art, and freedom. The emphasis is on learning by doing. Students discuss their experiences in local classrooms and are assisted in developing engaging ways to introduce philosophy to K-12 students.
As part of each course, students are assigned to various local schools for regular philosophy classes with supervision and mentoring from experienced instructors. These placements take place in part through partnerships with the University of Washington’s Riverways Education Partnerships, an outreach program that connects students with tutoring and mentoring opportunities in local schools, and the University of Washington College of Education. Students are welcome to take all of our courses, each of which involve different topics and materials.
How does this work affect university students?
The Center’s work was highlighted in the 2014 Provost’s Report on innovative teaching approaches. Involvement in the Center’s classes has inspired hundreds of undergraduates over the years. As one student wrote:
“During my time in this class I have had many realizations, one of them being that asking a question is the answer to all questions. I’ve taken away so much from this class much more than any other course I have taken at the University of Washington. I say this because this class encouraged me to be an individual and I felt that I was always pushed to think differently, as opposed to the usual classes here where you are graded by your ability to be smarter at something than someone else in this class. The class encouraged us not to be the same and we are embraced for our individuality. This class has taught me to ask questions and to realize that there are so many answers to one question, but the answers we seek are not to fulfill our need to know what’s right or wrong but to fulfill our curiosity about the nature of things.”
A “Philosopher-in-Residence” Project
With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, the Center has expanded its program by creating in 2013 the first Philosopher-in-Residence project in the Seattle School District, at John Muir Elementary School, and in 2018 the second philosopher-in-residence project at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. Both schools are culturally diverse K-5 schools in Seattle’s south end, and many of the students at these schools are among those least likely to have access to academic enrichment programs. Center staff have facilitated regular philosophy professional learning communities for teachers and staff, and many teachers from both schools have attended at least one of the Center’s workshops. Both schools now offer philosophy in multiple classrooms.
What Teachers Say
“Philosophy has been an authentic way to connect the children and their thoughts about the world, allowing for meaningful conversations. I have seen significant social and emotional development throughout the year, which I believe has been positively influenced by the philosophy sessions.”
— Second grade teacher at John Muir Elementary
“Philosophy in my first grade classroom has been a powerful means through which my students have been able to wrestle with questions and express their thoughts in a safe yet challenging environment.”
— First grade teacher at John Muir Elementary
When teachers have ongoing philosophy sessions in their classrooms, frequently they become inspired to make philosophy part of their curriculum. This can happen either through regular sessions facilitated by Center personnel, or by teachers themselves following up with students to explore topics discussed in philosophy, eventually leading entire philosophy sessions on their own, and attending Center workshops for more training.
The philosopher-in-residence project strengthens the development of strong and sustainable philosophy programs in schools, by providing an ongoing model for teachers of philosophical engagement, regular support and training, and outreach to the school’s parents. The Center hopes to replicate this project in more Seattle schools.
Read the UW Columns Magazine article on the Philosophers in the Schools Program: Playdough to Plato: Children as Philosophical Thinkers