Friday, April 29, 2011


Oddly enough, it’s probably more stressful to teach one class a week than six.

When you’re prepping for a single period, you’ve got way too much time to think about it and worry over what you ought to do and how it could all go wrong. You over-prepare and create way too many expectations for yourself and your students. You tend to be less flexible and often allow what you think should happen take precedence over what is likely to happen naturally. You forget that what actually happens in the classroom is way more important than what you think is going to happen when you’re putting together your lesson plan.

In short, you (and here, of course, I mean me) all too easily let your plan take precedence over your lesson; that’s when the whole magic just collapses under its own weight.

Fortunately, my students yesterday were just too good to let this happen, as they brought to our class sufficient vibrancy and commitment to overcome my over-prepped set of activities I had in store for them.

We were exploring the topic of epistemology, the part of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge and truth. First, we did a brief exercise where I have students write down something they (claim they) know to be true; then they write down three reasons they have for knowing it. They then go around the room reading our reasons and see if their classmates can figure out the original claim. This worked pretty well and pretty much everyone even saw the point of the exercise, which is to begin thinking about how we justify claims and what counts as a good reason for something.

I then passed out a strawberry to every student and asked them to write down everything they know about their own berry. This led to a really great conversation about whether we really know anything about the berries at all, given that most of the claims involved the use of our senses. We even wondered whether claims about one’s own subjective state, such as “This berry tastes good to me,” we incorrigible. One student pointed out that you could be having brain surgery while eating a strawberry and the neurologist could be stimulating the taste part of your brain to produce a pleasant sensation, so it wouldn’t be the berry that tasted good to you at all. Excellent!

This was the kind of conversation that allowed me to derail from all the “important” material I had hoped to cover and instead, just do philosophy with the class. Had I been teaching six classes this week instead of just one, I might have remembered to do so earlier.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


It occurred to me the other day, as I was thinking about doing philosophy with children, that, while we generally think we’re teaching the kids (and, no doubt we are), there’s at least one significant way in which they’ve got it all over the adults.

It may sound obvious, but here you go:

No matter what else you want to say about children under the age of fourteen or so, none of them are using high-tech weaponry to kill each other in wars and civil conflicts around the glob.

It’s ironic, really: adults all over the world, including lots who probably spend lots of time encouraging their sons and daughters to do a better job of “using their words” and getting along peaceably on the playground and in the classroom, are either directly or indirectly involved in trying to violently do away with each other.

Funny, huh?

Makes you wonder whether we ought not to be teaching philosophy for children to grownups.

And makes me doubly committed to the practice of doing philosophy for children with children.

Friday, April 22, 2011

APA Conference Day 3

If you’re not hungry and you don’t feel like getting drunk, it seems like there’s not much to do in the Gaslamp neighborhood of San Diego.

All I could figure out was to wander around and look at people and I kept feeling sorry for them in spite of myself. I’m sure the shaved-head guys in tight t-shirts and the apparently surgically-augmented girls in tank tops were happier and less desperate than they appeared to me. But try as I might, I couldn’t shake the feeling that very few people were living a life of eudaimonia, and worse, it made me wonder what the hell I’m doing with my own existence, even though most of time—and especially when I’m with my family and/or in a classroom doing philosophy, things do seem mostly worthwhile.

It was interesting to contrast the mood in the mini-conference on Philosophy for Children with that of the overall American Philosophical convention; today I went to two talks in the latter event; in both of them, meat-faced white men with gray hair and scraggly beards ridiculed the views of some other guy who looked more or less like them; it was a far cry from the spirit of shared endeavor and focus on the welfare of children that marked the former experience.

Not that I’m dismissing the value of sitting in a room with a couple of dozen academics intensely concerned with the finer points of technical arguments that allegedly justify a point of philosophy that pretty much only those in attendance really understand and/or care about, but when you’re already ready to head home, it can get sort of surreal to subject yourself to such an experience. I mean, it’s certainly something to do other than eating or getting drunk, but is it only and just that?

Philosophy matters; I know that, but more and more I think it’s the practice of it that’s worthwhile; who cares what the dialogue’s about just so long as real dialogue is taking place?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mind Change

To me, one of the most delightful experiences in philosophy is having your mind changed.

It’s refreshing on any number of levels, none the least of which is that popular culture, at least as I understand it, tends to look down on it. For instance, politicians who change their position on a given issue are called “flip-floppers;” or parents who occasionally give in to their kids are seen as weak and inconsistent.

So, there’s something charmingly rebellious about being willing to admit that you were mistaken—or at least, to allow your views on some issue to evolve. This is just what’s happened to me over the last 24 hours, although it only took about thirty minutes in a single presentation by a former principal of school in Australia to effect the change.

Yesterday, I was skeptical about the effort to expand the reach of philosophy for children into more schools. I expressed my concern that doing so might water down the curriculum, but even more, might undermine that subversive nature of philosophy. If P4C is institutionalized, I thought, it might mean that students wouldn’t receive one of its primary benefits: the space to question pretty much everything, without the hegemony of the “right answer” beating them down.

But after seeing a presentation by Lynne Hinton of Buranda State School in Queensland, Australia, I now have a different view. She talked about—and gave statistics showing—how the entire culture of her school changed over a six year period as a result of requiring all the grades, one through seven, to do one hour of philosophy a week in every classroom.

It wasn’t just that test scores went up—although they did significantly—it’s more that kids learned how to talk to each other, and as a result, treated each other different; one student’s quote that stuck with me was something like, “If we didn’t have philosophy in our school, there would be bullying.”

Who wouldn’t want something like this at every school in the world; I can hardly believe I ever thought differently.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011


At the Philosophy for Children Mini-Conference in conjunction with the American Philosophical Association’s Western Division Convention today, lots of fascinating questions, concepts, ideas, and examples of practices involving philosophy with pre-college students were discussed, but two re-emerging themes resonated particularly strongly within me: first, the broad issue of whether there ought to be more standardization of philosophy for children curriculum and second, the degree to which the program or curriculum of P4C should be delivered more widely in classrooms and school districts around the world.

I take what I hope comes off as a somewhat minority (as opposed to merely cranky) position on both these issues.

Regarding whether or not P4C ought to be “sold” or packaged in a way that might make it easier to “sell” more widely: I resist this. It’s long been my view that philosophy is necessarily subversive and that the degree to which it becomes something that’s fully endorsed by the educational establishment (whatever that is, exactly) is the degree to which it is undermined.

I like, for instance, that when I come into a pre-college classroom, I’m coming in from the outside; I’m not “the man;” I’m a rebel, a corruptor of youth, just like Socrates. I can say and do things that the teachers can’t and hopefully, connect with the kids on a different level, perhaps even encouraging responses from them that they might not be willing to offer in their regular classes. My fear is that some of this might be lost if I were to become more a part of the establishment.

My resistance to greater standardization of the curriculum has a similar source (one again I hope not entirely in my crankiness). Essentially, my concern is that the great flowering of creativity that seems to currently be happening in the field will be squelched if more people start doing the same thing. I think it’s cool that, for instance, today, we heard from a couple P4C practitioners who are doing games for kids based on Wittgenstein, Foucauld, and Hegel, as well as from some others who create exercises drawing on Socrates and Plato. I fear that if there were more of a “right” way to deliver our lessons that we’d lose some of the diversity that makes our field so vital and exciting right now—even if that meant it were somewhat easier and more accessible for people just getting into it.

At the end of the day, we had a large group discussion where about 50 of us, all at once, talked over these (and other) topics. I tried (unsuccessfully) to hold my tongue; I’m just hoping I came off as a thoughtful (and perhaps somewhat subversive) alternative and not just a total crank.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

That Kid

Often, after I’ve been doing philosophy with a pre-college classroom for a while, the teacher will remark to me about a particular student, something to the effect of, “It’s really great seeing how ‘Johnny’ (let’s say) has taken to this; most of the time, in other subjects, he’s really quiet.”

I love that, in no small part because I WAS that kid, too. (Not that I was especially quiet in ANY of my classes, but I was the student who took to philosophical questioning way more than any other subject.)

There was a student in a 5th grade class I went regularly to some years ago; his name was Jake, and he was the kid who always had his hand up with questions and comments, most of which were even relevant to our discussions. He cracked us all up once with an imitation of Socrates drinking Hemlock and spearheaded the end-of-the-year philosophy poster that the class drew on long pieces of butcher paper that they then posted around the room. It never occurred to me that he wasn’t like this in all of his classes until his teacher told me that he was pretty much failing everything else besides band, in which he played clarinet.

It warms my heart to think that, for some kids, anyway, doing philosophy in school is one of the things that makes it worthwhile for them. I realize, of course, that for many students, that’s not the case: I occasionally see the same blank looks of boredom on 12 year-olds as I do on 20-somethings when we’re getting too far into logical hair-splitting, but I’m also confident that doing philosophy does save a youngster here or there.

I’ve already seen a few kids really come alive in the 5th grade class I’ve started going to this quarter; we’ll see how long they sustain that interest. But if philosophy can engage even that “one kid,” then, I think it’s worthwhile—at least for me.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Dangerous Minds

When I tell people that I do philosophy with kids in public schools, they often ask me questions like, “Isn’t that dangerous? Aren’t those subjects taboo? Do schools really let students talk about philosophical questions? What happens when religion comes up?”

I love this concern. Philosophy is supposed to be subversive and controversial. The patron saint of our discipline, Socrates, got put to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, after all.

Nevertheless, the concern has tended to be, by and large, unfounded. While our discussions do sometimes range over topics that might be construed as somewhat risky, (and even occasionally—especially in high school classes—risqué), it’s rare when we take on a topic that runs afoul of what’s considered acceptable in the classroom—although that may, in part, be a function of self-selection: teachers who are willing to have a philosopher come into their classrooms are probably those whose boundaries for the acceptable are a little looser than those who’d be opposed to such visits.

In fact, in almost 20 years of doing philosophy in the schools, there has been only one time when a teacher took me aside and asked me to put the kibosh on a conversation. This was about a decade ago, in a 6th grade class. We were wrapping up an introductory lesson, during which we were exploring together what philosophy is and how it’s done. A student raised his hand and asked me if we were going to do any yoga.

I thought that was a kind of interesting question, and launched into an answer something to the effect that, well, philosophy is kind of a yoga for the mind; just like in the physical practice of yoga, in philosophy, we often bend ourselves (or our minds) into atypical positions and observe our reactions to those experiences.

Suddenly, I noticed the teacher frantically motioning to me; I came over to her and she said, rather breathlessly, “No yoga! Don’t talk about yoga!”

Umm, okay, but why? She said she’d tell me later.

So, after class, she took me aside and said that a few weeks ago, they’d had a dance instructor in class and as part of their warm-ups, she did some yoga stretches with the students. A couple of fundamentalist Christian parents got wind of this and complained that their children were being indoctrinated in Hinduism in their public school class and that was the end of that.

Oddly enough, nobody seemed to mind a few weeks later, when the students and I spent an entire class period wondering together about what is generally considered the strongest challenge to traditional theism: the so-called “Problem of Evil.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Are You A Philosopher?" Exercise

Lesson Plan: Are You a Philosopher?

Topic/Question: What is Philosophy?

Time: About half an hour

Materials: I usually use a rotary cheese grater, but nearly any item, from a coffee cup to a wipe-board eraser can be employed.


I begin the lesson by asking students a simple question: “When you hear the word ‘philosophy,’ what comes to mind?”

I purposely phrase the question this way so as not to suggest to student that there is an answer that I am looking for; I want to know what comes to their minds, not mine, when they hear the word. I try to record their responses on the blackboard as they offer them. And it can be quite illuminating to hear what students say.

Typically, people will say things like, “ideas,” “arguments,” “the way you think about the world.” Often, a student will have had some sort of introduction to philosophy and will give the standard definition “love of wisdom” (although often, it’s given as “love of knowledge.”) It’s not unusual for students to conflate philosophy and psychology, and so typically, someone might say something like, “philosophy is the study of the way people think.” And especially when I work with high school students, it’s not uncommon for a student to say that what comes to mind when he or she hears the word “philosophy” is “dead white males.”

I stress that I’m not looking for a particular answer, because, as a matter of fact, in philosophy, we want to explore a range of possible responses. I usually take some time to explore in a little more depth some of the suggestions and will try to do something to clear up misconceptions like the conflation of philosophy and psychology, but in general, it’s not my intent at this point to get any sort of working definition of the term; we’re just sharing ideas.

What I do pursue is the following question, “How many of you would consider yourselves philosophers?” I ask for a show of hands, and usually, only a few students raise theirs.

I then make the claim that I am going to present to students a three-part argument in support of the conclusion that they are all philosophers. I may talk a little bit about arguments here, but my main point is that I will offer up a three part argument that I believe can convince them each person in the room that he or she is a philosopher.

I tell students that I will show them that, first, they do what philosophers do; second, that they can do it for the reason that philosophers do it; and that third, they can do it in the somewhat unusual way that philosophers do it. We then launch into what this thing that philosophers do is.

I ask students to think of things that they find difficult to stop doing; what do they find difficult to not do? Typically, students will answer with responses like, “It’s hard to stop eating candy.” “I can’t stop biting my nails.” “No matter how hard I try, I can’t stop watching TV.” After each such response I say, “Well, let’s try.” Pretty obviously, we can stop doing these, even if it’s difficult.”

Sooner or later, some student will usually offer up “breathing,” as a possibility. I say to the class, “Well, let’s see. On the count of three, everyone stop breathing.” It’s amusing to see everyone holding their breath, and the point is made: it’s hard to stop breathing, but we all can do it, at least for a little while.

Finally, someone, prompted or not will say, “thinking.” Again, I suggest, “On the count of three, everyone stop thinking.” You see students doing their best to comply; I usually say, “Whatever do you, don’t think of a pony,” which draws laughter and leads into a discussion of what it was like to try to stop thinking.

Naturally, students allow that they found it very hard to stop thinking; we explore together what was going on in their heads when they tried to do so. Usually, students will talk about how they attempted to think “don’t think” or how they closed their eyes and visualized a black space—which, of course, was a thought they were having. Occasionally, one or more student will claim that they were able to stop thinking; sometimes students will refer to meditative practices that enable a person to suspend thought; all such comments add to the discussion and serve to build upon the main point here: it’s hard to stop thinking. And the point I want to make—that I think usually is made—is that if you, yourself, find it difficult to suspend your thoughts, then that’s step one to being a philosopher, because thinking is what philosophers do a lot of. So, I reiterate: if you find it hard to stop thinking, then, that’s step one to being a philosopher.

I then continue on to the second point of my argument: You can do what philosophers do (think) for the reason philosophers do it. As an example, I tell students the following story.

Some years ago, my sister, who was living in a different town than me, was pregnant. She went into the hospital to have her baby and called me up the next day and said, “Hey Dave, you have a brand-new nephew.” I thought about what she said and could figure something out about that child. What was it?

It takes no time at all for one or more students to answer that the child was a boy. I ask them, quite fascinated, “How did you know that?”

Again, it’s quite simple for students—even students as young as kindergarten—to note that since I used the word “nephew,” that the child had to be a boy. This leads to a discussion about how amazing it is that, as human beings, we can simply think about something—the word “nephew,” for instance—and gain knowledge, just by doing so. I point out that what students have done is construct a little argument in their heads that goes something like, “All nephews are boys. This child is a nephew. Therefore, this child is a boy.” And while that might seem quite mundane, it’s really pretty impressive. I probe to see whether any students were unable to construct such an argument and rarely, if ever, have anyone admit that there were unable to. (Although sometimes we have interesting discussion about whether it’s true that all nephews are boys; often students want to wonder whether if, say, my nephew had a sex-change, he would be my nephew or my niece.)

The point that follows from this is the second prong of my argument: if you can think to figure things out—and you’ve demonstrated that you can—then you have two of the three qualities that make you a philosopher.

The third, then, is to illustrate to students that they can do what philosophers do—that is, think—in the rather unusual way that philosophers go about it. And here I offer up an exercise to illustrate this.

I break students up into groups of three to five. In each group, one person is designated to be the scribe; he or she will write down answers that group members come up with.

I then hold up a common everyday household item. My favorite is to use a rotary cheese grater, but I have used a coffee cup, a wipe-board eraser, an even, in one case, a tennis shoe. I ask students “what is this thing?” Students will typically respond that it is what it’s commonly used for; in the case of the cheese grater, the answer given is, “It’s a cheese grater.”

I agree that it can be a cheese grater, but that’s not all it could be. I tell students that I would like them to look at this thing in different ways, from different perspectives and to come up, in three minutes, with all the different things they could imagine this thing being used for.

I set the groups off to brainstorm their lists. They are given three minutes to come up with all the other functions they could imagine the item performing. As they work together, I have them pass the item around, touching it can help stimulate their creativity. I also encourage them to imagine themselves in different settings, and to view the item from different perspectives. “What if you were an ant, what could you use this for?” “What if you were camping?” “What if you were an ancient Greek philosopher?” “What if you melted it down or crushed it?” I try to encourage students not to censor themselves; they should feel free to come up with as many possibilities as they can without trying to edit their answers.”

At the end of three minutes, I ask the groups to report back. I ask them to look at their lists and see how many possibilities they’ve come up with. (As an aside, I usually mention that when I do this exercise with little kids—kindergarten to about 3rd grade—the groups will usually come up with around 20 to 25 different possibilities; when I do the exercise with middle-school students, groups usually generate about 18 possibilities; with high-school students on the order of 12, and with college students around 10. So, I say, “If you’ve hit around twenty, congratulate yourselves for reaching the kindergarten level.”)

Spokespeople for their groups are asked to share with the class a couple of their favorite uses for the item, which I write on the board as we go around the room. (Some of the typical responses I’ve gotten with the cheese grater include, hamster wheel, paperweight, torture device, pencil sharpener, hair curler, ice crusher, weapon, fashion accessory, and kaleidoscope.)

After all the groups have shared a couple of their favorites, I then ask the question, “So what is this thing?” I point out that I ask this quite sincerely (and I do). I’m really not sure anymore what this contraption is. I authentically wonder what it is and what makes it so. At this point, we usually explore the metaphysical question , “What makes something what it is?” Students typically offers answers such as, “A thing is what it’s used for.” Or “What makes something what it is is what it was originally designed to be.” Or “It is whatever it does best.” Or, perhaps most typically, “It is whatever you want it to be.”

I’ll usually note that in asking this type of question, we are doing philosophy. We are wondering, as philosophers do, about the essences of things; we are trying to achieve some sort of clarity about why something is what it is, and what makes it so. This, I’ll usually note, is what we call in philosophy a metaphysical inquiry.

More importantly, we are wondering about something that only a little while earlier, seemed commonplace. We took this everyday item, this cheese grater, for instance, looked at it in different ways, from different perspectives, and now find ourselves wondering about it in ways we didn’t before.

This is the “punchline,” if you will, to this exercise. As philosophers, we commonly take everyday things—tangible things like a cheese grater, or intangible things, like ideas—look at them from different perspectives and find ourselves wondering about them. (This is always a good point to interject that one of the most famous of all philosophers, Plato, famously said, “Philosophy begins in wonder. And wonder is the attitude of the philosopher.”)

I tell students that if they’ve gotten even a taste of this—that sense of looking in a new way at something they thought they understood and, as a result, beginning to wonder about it—then, they are doing what philosophers do—thinking—in that rather unusual way that philosophers do it.

So, I then return to the original question I asked at the outset of this exercise: Who here is a philosopher?” Routinely, nearly all students raise their hands this time which is, I believe, a core assumption of doing philosophy with children. I take it as a given that practice assumes that all people—children especially—are philosophers and that the goal of doing philosophy with kids is to stimulate that natural philosophical impulse within.

Now this, too, of course, is open to philosophical inquiry. I’ve had some very interesting discussions with students about whether indeed all people are philosophers. And in one instance, we got into a very rich debate about whether doing philosophy makes a person a philosopher. “I do math all time time,” said a student, “But that doesn’t make me a mathematician, does it?”

While honoring the process, I try to set such concerns aside; it seems to me that the impulse to explore such questions is testament to the philosophical impulse in any case and so, may be evidence in support of the claim I’m making.

What’s important, I believe, is that through this three-part exercise, students tend to be, by and large, persuaded that they are all philosophers—or, at least, have had a taste of what it’s like to wonder about things—and this sets the stage for further philosophical inquiry, through additional exercises and activities like those I will describe below.


The first time I go to a new pre-college classroom, I usually begin by simply asking students what comes to their minds when they hear the word “philosophy.” It’s always fascinating to hear what they have to say; case in point: the students today, in Ms. Ward’s Fifth Grade class at Whittier Elementary.

One girl said she thought of “fossils” when she heard the word. Another, perhaps inspired by that comment, said “dinosaurs.” A boy said that what came to mind for him was ideas and controversy. His classmate countered that he couldn’t help thinking of old men.

I try to stress that I’m not looking for any particular answer; I really want to know what comes to their minds. What’s in their heads when they hear the word? This allows us to then begin right away wondering about thoughts, to think about thinking in other words.

I asked the students, drawing upon one of the aforementioned answers, to think of a dinosaur. Then, think of two dinosaurs, then a hundred. “Can you think of a thousand dinosaurs?” I asked. A girl responded, “Well, maybe not exactly a thousand; it’s not like I’m going to count them.”

I thought this was a great answer, and it lead perfectly into the next part of our lesson, which was to begin thinking about thoughts. We wondered together whether a thought of a thousand dinosaurs was bigger than a thought of just one dinosaur; most students said that it was.

I pointed out to the kids at this point that they were doing philosophy; “So,” I wondered aloud, “how many of you would say that you are a philosopher?” As is typical, hardly any students (in fact, I think not a one) raised his or her hand. I then said that I would present an argument to them for the conclusion that all of them are, in fact, philosophers.

“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘argument’” I asked. “Two people fighting,” said one student. “My little sister,” said another. “Screaming and yelling,” said another. I praised them for their answers, but said that there is another sense of the term, one that doesn’t necessarily involve fighting; in this sense, “argument” simply means a way of trying to persuade someone of something. With that in mind, I said I was going to present to them an argument to convince that they were all philosophers.

What followed was an exercise that I have done lots and lots of time with students from third grade all the way through college. I help students see that they do what philosophers do, that they do it for the reason philosophers do it, and they can do it in the unusual way that philosophers typically do it.

That thing, of course, is thinking. Here’s a description of how the exercise works.

I think it worked well today; the students were really engaged with it, and in the third part of the activity, where they examine an everyday object from different perspectives, the suggestions they came up with were creative and, in some cases, hilarious.

We ended the day with a thought experiment exploring the idea of personal identity. What would happen, we wondered, if Dave’s mind was put into one of the student’s bodies and vice-versa? Where would the Dave-body go home to and why? This led to a lively discussion about what makes us what we are. I finished up by asking students to reflect on the question: “What makes me me?” Some of the answers they floated in conclusion were: “my thoughts,” “my experiences,” “my mind and my body combined,” “the things I like to do,” and “what other people think I am.”

Obviously, these students ARE philosophers.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bigger Ones

While Philosophy for Children is generally done with children, I’ve also facilitated lots and lots of sessions with people who probably wouldn’t be categorized that way: college students mainly, but also parents, senior citizens, and even, informally, some of my friends who—chronologically, at least, are decades and decades away from childhood.

What’s sort of amazing is that the same stories, exercises, and activities tend to work just as well with people whose ages are double-digit crooked numbers as they do with folks who have yet to reach puberty. And that seems to support one of the central claims of P4C—that philosophy is something that we all do naturally given the opportunity and that providing such opportunities is meaningful and valuable to our shared experience.

I typically do a simple exercise when I first work with a group of students, no matter what age, that’s intended to explore the question, “Are you a philosopher?” The main part of the activity involves students working together in groups to examine a common, everyday item—usually a rotary cheese grater—and to brainstorm other things it could possibly be used for. (The idea here is to engage in the common philosophical practice of looking at things—whether tangible like cheese graters, or intangible, like ideas—from different perspectives.)

“Children of all ages” find this activity not only fun, but also philosophically compelling. It’s fascinating to see what participants come up with and even more interesting to hear them discuss the metaphysical question that inevitably emerges: what make something what it is?

We wonder together what it is that defines a thing: is it what it was designed for? Is it what it does best? Is it whatever you want it to be?

And then, with almost equal regularity, we segue into discussing what makes us who we are. Is it our history? Our parentage? Is personal identity a matter of choice? Or of destiny? How much freedom do we have to define ourselves? Do we have free will at all?

“Philosophy,” said Plato, “begins in wonder. And wonder is the attitude of a philosopher.” I must say it’s quite wonderful to observe this in people no matter what their ages.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

LIttle Ones

Many people are surprised to hear that philosophy can be done with little kids; I’ve had some of my most rewarding and even intellectually stimulating philosophy sessions with students as young as six or seven. Doing philosophy with kindergarteners can be amazing for all involved—although you’ve got to be careful not to get the kids too wound up, and it can lead to a pretty wild classroom environment if you decide to have them all doing animal imitations at the same time.

One of my favorite books to use with pre-readers is Morris the Moose by Bernard Wiseman. It’s a picture book that tells the story of Morris, a moose who is, let us say, metaphysically challenged. In the course of his day, he meets a number of other animals and is convinced that they, like him, are moose. He comes to this conclusion because they, like him, have four legs and things on their heads.

So, for instance, he meets a deer and concludes that the deer is a moose. Why? Because it too has four legs and things on its head. Same with a cow.

This can lead into a fascinating conversation with young people about what makes something what it is. What makes a cow a cow? What makes a deer a deer?

In one class, a few years ago, we explored the question of whether a moose could be a deer. Students, in general, concluded that of course not, because a deer has deer parents and a moose has moose parents. And besides, they’re different sizes.

Well, I asked, could a sheep be a deer? No, argued one little boy; a sheep can’t be a deer because they don’t spend time together. Okay, I said, well, then what about a sheep and a dog? They often inhabit the same fields, for instance. But no, answered another student; a sheep can’t be a dog because they’re different colors. But, interjected the first student, “there is such a thing as a sheepdog!”

At the end of this reading/exercise, I usually have students do a fill-in-the-blank “poem.” The kids finish the sentence, “The difference between (one thing) and (another) is:…

Here’s what one kindergarten class wrote:

• The difference between...
• The difference between a moose and a deer is difference horns.
• The difference between a cown and a fish is one has antlers and the other has fins.
• The difference between lunch and dinner is that one is like a sandwhich and one is meat and stuff.
• The difference between a deer and a horse is that one has horns and one has none.
• The difference between coyote and a dog is that coyotes come out and night and dogs live at home.
• The difference between banana and a pineapple is that one is yellow and curved.
• The difference between otter and a moose is that otters and tails and swim in the water and moose only drink water.
• The difference between head and a foot is that your head sits on your neck and your foot sits on your legs.
• The difference between Batman and Spiderman is that Batman has horns on his suit and Spiderman spits out webs.
• The difference between shoes and boots is that shoes are smaller.
• The difference between tables and chairs is that they go together.
• The difference between easel and a desk is that you don’t write on a desk.
• The difference between fingers and toes is that your fingers are on your hands and your toes are on your feet.
• The difference between a cow and a deer is that a cow goes “moo.”
• The difference between sitting and standing is that sitting is criss-cross applesauce.
• The difference between a deer and a horse is that a horse goes “neigh.”
• The difference between teeth and lips is that your teeth are on the inside and your lips on the outside.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011


At the American Philosophical Association Western Division Convention later this month in San Diego, I’ll be presenting a talk about how teaching philosophy to pre-college students has changed my college teaching. This should be interesting—to me, at least—because in many ways, it hasn’t really changed it at all.

Rather, teaching philosophy to kindergarten through high school students has pretty much DEFINED how I teach philosophy to college students. So it’s not as if the experience has changed what I do so much as it has determined it.

If I were going to identify one aspect of my teaching that pervades what I do with both younger students and older ones it would be to emphasize that philosophy can’t be studied passively; it must be done actively. You’ve got to ask questions—ones that intrigue you—and pursue them, ideally in discussion with others. You’ve got to try out ideas and see where they take you. You’ve got to stake out positions and argue for them, but just as importantly, be willing to let go of a belief you’ve previously held if a better one comes along.

I like to make students do things: build something together, figure out a puzzle in groups, at least get up and move around the room, but I’m also a fan of the traditional “community of inquiry” method where you simply read aloud a text, have the students generate questions about it, and then discuss those questions.

This week, in my UW class, we’ll be exploring topics in Philosophy of Mind. The key puzzles have to do with the nature of consciousness and the relationship between the mind and the brain. We’ll read a selection from Matthew Lipman’s book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery in which the characters in the story ponder what is happening when you get a song stuck in your head that keeps repeating over and over.

Anyone who’s lain awake at 3:00 in the morning staring at the ceiling above their bed knows what this is like: the thoughts and questions just keep bubbling up, no matter how hard you try to make them stop.

That’s doing philosophy, whether you like it or not.

Monday, April 4, 2011


Today officially begins my spring quarter sabbatical, a period when I will be concentrating on my research work in the practice of Philosophy for Children, an activity I’ve been seriously engaged in for about fifteen years, ever since I was a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Washington, deep in pre-dissertation angst, wondering what the hell I was doing spending eight to ten hours a day reading esoteric and often incomprehensible philosophy texts and desperately trying to find any connection between this activity and some sort of meaning and purpose in the real world.

So I began volunteering in a 5th grade class at T.T. Minor Elementary School near my house in Seattle, at first without any particular intention of doing philosophy with the students. Eventually, though, after a few classes, the teacher, Mr. Reed, invited me to begin facilitating philosophical discussions with his class.

The first few times were chaotic and unpredictable; once the kids got so loud that the teacher next door came into the room and asked me to make them quiet down; after a couple of months, though, we began to have quite intense and meaningful discussions about the nature of truth, knowledge, justice, beauty, and a whole array of other issues that have intrigued philosophers from time immemorial.

My graduate student college, Jana Mohr, who founded the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, introduced me to the curriculum of materials for doing P4C developed by the International Association for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, but I also developed dozens of classroom activities and readings on my own—in conjunction, of course, with the students I was working with.

I went regularly to T.T. Minor for a couple of years and have subsequently, worked with scores of schools and hundreds of students all around the Puget Sound. And indeed my experience working with pre-college students was instrumental in my landing a fulltime tenure-track job teaching philosophy at Cascadia Community College, where I’m now based.

This quarter, on my sabbatical, I plan to visit at least one or two pre-college classrooms a week where I hope to try out some new lessons with students in grades three through five.

I’m also presenting papers about doing P4C at a couple of conferences, first, the American Philosophical Association Western Division meeting in April, and then, second, the PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization) Institute conference at Columbia College in New York in June.

Mostly, though, I hope to deepen and broaden my experience and skill in doing philosophy with kids. There’s nothing quite so exciting about exploring big ideas with little people.

It’s not, as was my Winter Quarter sabbatical, India, but I guarantee that it’s equally exotic and mind-blowing in its own way.