Setting the Standard in Education

Posts Tagged ‘critical thinking’

But Why? Teaching Philosophy to Children

In Uncategorized on April 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm

It looks like 3 days (or is it 4?)  is way too much time between posts. There have been so many education issues that have taken root on blogs and in newspapers over the last few days that I hardly know where to begin. I will say I’m happy to see that there are actually people reading and what’s more, that the issues I’ve covered have later been covered by larger blogs, such as Joanne Jacobs’s blog, which is the number one rated education blog, according to Social Media Explorer. There have been some big things in the intervening time, from Governor Charlie Crist’s vetoing of a bill that would link student test scores to teacher pay to criticism of the core standards initiative  to the competition within Race to the Top that tackles assessments. It’s really hard to choose where to begin, since all of those are topics that interest me.

However, I’ll come back to them and instead focus on an article in the New York Times from a couple of weeks ago that caught my eye while I was setting up my Google Reader to get a flow of education articles from around the net. The article focuses on a program at once innovative and millenia old – teaching philosophy to young children. The article especially intrigued me because of conversations that I had with a good friend and co-teacher about the necessity of formally teaching logic. I remember one time when we were trying to get our seniors to understand some basic principles of logic that he told me if he ever ran a school, he would mandate a logic class for freshmen. The article is about people who take it one step further and ask, “Why not teach them philosophy while they’re young?” The article focuses on Professor Thomas E. Wartenberg who takes his Mount Holyoke students to elementary schools to talk to children about philosophical topics from ethics to aesthetics to political philosophy. Another professor, Gareth Matthews from the University of Massachusetts points out that young children are naturally curious, so it makes sense to teach philosophy to them at that age.

Because the concept seems foreign to Americans, who prefer more directly “academic” models that make skills like reading and solving mathematics problems the basis for learning, it makes sense that the idea of teaching philosophy to children, which Matthew Lipman has been pressing since the 70s, has caught on more in other countries than here. Lipman’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children has created curriculum materials that have been translated into over 40 languages, but there are only a few public schools in the country that have embraced it.

This seems a shame to me. There are few more fundamental skills than logic, which is at the foundation of philosophy. Schools are too scared to “waste their time” on such things, because they are more worried about standardized tests, but in reality, not only will these skills increase a student’s capacity to deal with the real world, it can even help them on multiple-choice tests, too. Logic helps in math, allowing students to see how math problems work, not just what the answers are. It is useful in reading, giving students the ability to make inferences and understand why things happen the way they do. Perhaps most importantly, the most fundamental question in philosophy is one that helps students buy into what they are learning – why. Often the biggest resistance to learning comes from students feeling as though they are wasting their time. If a student can ask and answer why they are learning something, they are far more likely to want to learn it and to put effort into it. The problem with many students is that they don’t even have the skills to ask why. Our insistence that students learn what things are – what is the largest animal, what year did the Battle of Lexington and Concord occur, what is the formula for the circumference of a circle – rather than why they are, leads to both their apathy and an inability to to answer, but more importantly ask why.

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