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.