Friday, June 17, 2011

Now You Know

I did the same exercise in Ms. Barnes’ class today as I did in Ms. Mazaheri’s class on Tuesday. I ask the kids to tell me things they know and we wonder together about how they know those things. Then, I pass out to them something to eat—a Hershey’s kiss or a strawberry—and have them tell me everything they know about that item and how they know it. Typically, they know what they know because they’ve seen it, or touched is, or heard it from somebody else. But then, we wonder together about times their eyes, or their sense of touch has deceived them or about times when someone has told them something that isn’t true. How come, therefore, we can say that our eyes, our fingers, or our teachers and parents are reliable sources of knowledge? And consequently, how can we ever say we know anything?

The students in both classes mainly wanted to tell their stories of times they thought they saw something that turned out to be something else. (At least half a dozen kids have, at one time or another, mistaken someone else’s car for their moms’ and most of them actually climbed in and sat down before realizing it.)

In Ms. M.’s class, we sort of stayed there; in Ms. B.’s class the students did a more complete job of connecting the business about unreliable sense information to knowledge claims.

But those kids have had nearly a year of philosophy, not just with me, but with a student from the UW. So, I shouldn’t have been surprised (but I was), when I asked the class, “What can you be sure you know?” and one girl responded, with a half-smirk on her face, “Well, I know I exist, because every time I doubt that, it proves that I do.”

(This marks the last entry in Sabblogtical; I’ll probably start posting again more regularly to my personal weblog, 327 Words.)

Friday, June 3, 2011


The kids in Ms. Barnes’ fourth grade class didn’t get quite so exercised over the Red/Green game as did the students in Ms. Mazaheri’s room, but they, too, never really got to cooperation, either.

One difference was that, by and large, they recognized that everyone would do better if no one tried to beat the other team; oddly enough, though, this realization didn’t cause them to play the game in the manner that would have had the best outcome for all.

I asked the class why this was, and A. had a very astute, and, I thought, quite hilarious answer: “It’s because we’re human beings,” he said. “And we’ll do whatever it takes to win: lie, cheat, steal, you name it.”

From the mouth of babes, no?

I tried to make the point that this is where ethics comes in. What could we have done during the game to make sure that everybody cooperated?

J. suggested that we could have punishments, like we could pinch people for cheating.

But A. countered that this would make the game incredibly boring; in fact, it wouldn’t be a game at all anymore, since everybody would always do the same thing.

So, does abiding by ethical norms make us boring?

No, continued A., but life would be more interesting if you could do whatever you wanted whenever you wanted to.

But would it work if everybody did that?

N. said that it wouldn’t, because his little brother always wants to cheat in Monopoly to win and he, himself, always throws a tantrum when he loses, so there’s going to be conflict there.

At this point, a bunch of the class wanted to share stories about their favorite games and how they react when they lose—or how they, too, cheat to ensure that they don’t.

This led us to wondering whether a game has to have a winner and loser. Can something be a game if no one wins?

Sure, said, P., but it would be a very boring game!

I wonder about that; I don’t think anyone won today’s game, but I sure found it interesting.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


The fill-in-the-blank “poem” at the end of today’s philosophy for kids session in Ms. Mazaheri’s 4th grade class was “One way I could be nicer is…” but the way that A. filled it out was to say “if the other team would stop drinking HaterAde on us!”

I laughed and cringed at the same time at how exercised the students got over the game we played, a kind of Prisoner’s Dilemma activity I call “The Red/Green Game.” The “point” of the game is to illustrate how, in some cases, the only way to “win” is to refrain from trying to beat the other side. Certain kinds of problems have this shape: if everyone behaves in a stark self-interested way, everyone will do worse than if everyone cooperated.

Usually, students get it after the third or fourth go-round in the game. In today’s class, though, the team that scored more points in the first couple rounds kept lording it over the other side; feelings got hurt, and cooperation became an impossibility.

I introduced the concept of “ad hominem;” lots of the kids picked up on it, but it didn’t stop them from committing them one after another.

Ms. M. was pretty relaxed about how agro the room got; she chalked it up to end-of-year emotions and said that as long as I was okay with the mood, it was fine with her; it would give the class a lot to talk about in days to come when everyone settled down.

It just goes to show you (that is, me) how unpredictable philosophy can be. Things didn’t turn out as expected, but they were fruitful nevertheless.

I felt a little bit like a favorite uncle: you know, the kind who gets the kids all wound up, and then gets while the getting is good.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Doing Philosophy

Sometimes we do exercises that explore philosophical content; other times, we try stuff to get a better sense of how philosophy is done.

In Ms. Barnes 4th grade class on Friday, we were all about the latter; I led the kids through two activities that I think did a pretty good job of encouraging them to engage in the practice of doing philosophy, and we even got to do a bit of philosophizing at the end.

The first exercise was just a simple word-association game. I make the point that, in philosophy, it’s important that we listen to each other and, by drawing upon the ideas of others, come up with new ideas of our own. So, we go around the room, student by student, doing word association. I time the class and we try to increase our speed with each successive iteration of the game.

The first time, E. started with the word “philosophy.” The next student, M., said “falafel.” When I asked her to explain the connection between those two words, she said that the sound of “philosophy” makes her think of the sound of “falafel.” Fair enough. The subsequent student, however, didn’t know what falafel was, so that slowed down the associations. Eventually, though, the class got back on track, and there was a stretch in the middle, where everyone was doing food items; that moved thing along with reasonable alacrity.

Afterwards, we reflected on what could be done to make us go faster; the general consensus was that too much thinking was going on; a person should just say the first thing that came into his or her head. When we tried that, things went faster for a bit, but then, some of the associations were so random that making connections was difficult and the process slowed down again.

The fourth and last time we played the game, I turned it into word disassociation; students had to say a word that had nothing at all to do with the previous one; this proved harder than they thought it would be. Having practiced making connections, now it was more difficult not to. We wondered together why this was so and it seemed like the listening that went on during that discussion had been enhanced by the exercise.

Next, we did the exercise called “blind painter,” where students work in pairs, with one student being the “eyes” and the other the “painter” to copy a drawing I do on the board. This is always a laugh riot especially the second time we do it, when I draw an almost unrecognizable Fred Flintstone on the board. Still, students had a lot of fun and seemed to get the point: the importance of listening actively and communicating clearly when doing philosophy.

We ended things with a brief discussion about whether some art is better than other art. Predictably, most students said that it was all just a matter of taste. I think I’ll poke at that belief next time.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Fair or Equal?

When I brought out the bag of Starburst candies in Ms. Mazaheri’s fourth grade class today and asked the students what would be the fair way to pass them out, they pretty much all agreed that everyone should get the same amount.

M. said that I should give every kid 5 candies. I said that there weren’t enough in the bag for that. T. said that I should just go around giving every student one candy and keep going until they ran out. “But that means some of us won’t get the same amount,” complained A.

“Suppose I start with two each?” I proposed.

“Then, whatever’s left you can see if there’s enough to go around again,” said X.

So, as I was passing out the treats, I wondered aloud if there could ever be a time when it would be fair that people got different amounts. “Well, if you did good on a test or something,” said T.

“Or if you gave a good answer to one of your questions,” said M. eagerly.

I wanted them to think about whether or not fair always means equal, so I got four boys to volunteer to come up to the front of the room. “These gentlemen and going to make us lunch,” I said, which cracked up all the girls in the class. “But they all have different mad skills.” I then passed out little pieces of paper to each boy, each with a different expertise: one was the world’s best soup-maker, another the world’s best sandwich-maker, the third, the world’s best dishwasher (which, when he read it aloud evoked lots of laughter from the class); and the fourth was the world’s best dessert-maker.

After exploring why it was so funny that X. was the world’s best dishwasher, we talked about whether all the young men should do the same work in preparing our lunch and whether they all ought to be paid the same amount for doing so. What was great was when students distinguished between jobs that are fun and jobs that are hard; generally, they said that you ought to be paid more for a job that is hard, but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. (For that matter, one student added, a job can be easy and NOT fun, too.)

I was a little worried that the exercise might come off as pedantic, since I DID want the students to at least entertain the idea that what’s fair and what’s equal can be pulled apart, but since they arrived at that conclusion without my help—and since they generally agreed that sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t—I thought things stayed reasonably philosophical.

We ended by going around the room having each student say what he or she was best at; (the answers included stuff like drawing, playing video games, and baby-sitting) and I asked students to reflect on how they might bring these different skills into play in the classroom.

As I was wrapping up, A. raised her hand and waived it around wildly. “One more question?” I asked, thrilled that she was still engaged with the lesson.

“Yeah,” she said, “can we have another Starburst?”

Seemed fair to me.

Friday, May 13, 2011


A couple of students presented their lesson on the philosophy of color in the philosophy for kids seminar at the UW yesterday. They read a book called The Great Blueness about a wizard who introduces color into a black and white world only to have it first turn into an all blue planet, then one that’s all yellow, then all red before finally learning to mix color and create the multi-hued universe in which we live; although the students were somewhat that the story would generate many questions, we did get into an interesting, albeit somewhat abbreviated discussion about the nature of color and whether or not you could have a name for a color you couldn’t see, or vice-versa.

I love how this group is pretty fearlessly diving into the challenge of leading their own philosophy lessons in the elementary school classrooms in which they’re volunteering; it makes our seminar discussions that much more vibrant and engaging. In general, they’re still getting used to balancing content delivery with authentic inquiry; it’s taken me decades to stop worrying so much about whether I’m teaching philosophy and embrace just doing it, whether we get around to clarifying, say, the scientifically-verifiable experience of color in our brains.

What matters most is taking on questions whose answers beguile us; in the end, I don’t think anyone minded that we didn’t get to where some might have hoped we would; more importantly; we had much to think and talk about along the way.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


The students in the University of Washington class in which I did a Philosophy for Children demonstration today were all pretty much half-asleep when I arrived. One girl was checking her cell phone messages; the rest of the class, seated in that unfortunate lecture hall configuration were basically just waiting to be bored by whatever I had to lecture them about.

I crossed them up, though, and began by asking them to introduce themselves and tell me what schools they were volunteering at (this being a class of students who all tutor in some local K-12 classrooms.) I then let them know—quite sincerely—how much I admire them for doing so; I think they were pretty surprised to discover that I wasn’t going to make my time with them all about me.

Eventually, I launched into my standard introductory philosophy for kids lesson, in which I interactively present a three-part argument for the conclusion that they are all philosophers. When we got to the part where they have to (get to) work together in groups, the room was lively and energized.

The students were having fun and, I think, learning something. We ended up having a vibrant discussion about personal identity in which nearly everyone participated.

Now, if only we could have gotten out of the lecture hall.