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Doing Philosophy With Children
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Thomas Wartenberg
Mount Holyoke College

For nearly twenty years, I have been working with elementary schools to bring philosophy to young children. My interest in this project began when my son, now 22, first entered kindergarten. In light of the cuts to the local school budget, I thought that a picture book-based philosophy program might enhance important aspects of the curriculum that were in danger of being eliminated. After doing a workshop with teachers at my son's school, the Jackson Street Elementary School in Northampton, MA, I began working with a second grade teacher at the school, Mary Cowhey. We met weekly to plan classes, after which I would work alongside her with the children.

That was a pretty modest beginning and I had no additional aspirations for working with young children. But at every step, I have been propelled to increase my involvement in this project by the interest and support it has elicited until it has become one of my primary areas of teaching and writing. And I am now heavily involved in what I have come to understand is a worldwide movement to introduce philosophy into pre-college classrooms.

Recently, the public television distribution and broadcast of filmmaker Julie Akeret's documentary about my Mount Holyoke College Philosophy for Children course—Big Ideas for Little Kids—and its winning a New England Emmy Award has brought more public attention to my work. In light of this, I have been asked by the editors of the Newsletter to reflect on the successes of and challenges faced in my work.

The most significant innovation I have made in the field of philosophy for children is the development of a course in which undergraduate college students teach philosophy to elementary school children. I decided to create such a course in order to have a way to make my efforts with children part of my academic work, ensuring that it would be more than a volunteer effort that I almost immediately found hard to sustain.

When I decided to design the course, I began to contact people who I thought might have done something similar. That was in a pre-internet age, so finding out whom to contact was difficult. I did make some inroads, but was surprised to discover that no one working in the field had developed the type of course I wanted to offer. There were some good reasons for this. For example, undergraduates were thought not to know enough philosophy and to lack experience dealing with classroom management issues. Nonetheless, I remained convinced that undergraduates could be taught what they needed to know to teach elementary-school children philosophy, so I sought help in other quarters.

I attended various seminars on community-based learning, one even offered by the American Philosophical Association. None of them presented me with a useful model for developing the course I had in mind. Most community-based learning courses begin with an internship project at a non-profit organization and then face the task of making links to academic material. My course had an academic project at its core—teaching philosophy in elementary schools—so the issue facing me was how to equip students to do so. The link between the course's goal and providing college students with philosophical content was clear and direct. So I was left more or less on my own as I set about figuring out how to structure the course.

Some aspects of the course were clear to me from the beginning and have remained in place over the years. I intended to use the model for teaching children philosophy that I had already employed at the Jackson Street School based on picture books. I wanted the elementary school philosophy classes to begin with a “read aloud.” The children would be read a book that has been chosen because it raises a significant philosophical issue. We continue to do this. For example, we often begin our work in the schools with Arnold Lobel's classic Frog and Toad story “Dragons and Giants” because Toad claims that brave people are never scared, thus raising an issue about the nature of bravery that is central to our philosophical understanding of this concept. Once the read-aloud has been completed, we review the various incidents in it to create a chart for the book, in this case asking the children what dangers Frog and Toad faced on their hike up the mountain to see if they are brave. The chart helps students take a narrative and make it accessible in a form that is useful for a philosophy discussion. It also provides a visual aid that remains present during our discussion.

The philosophy discussion proper begins when we ask the children whether they think, for example, Frog and Toad were scared when they ran away from the snake that greeted them, “Hello lunch!” Once we have recorded their answers on the chart, we then go on to ask them whether they think someone could be both brave and scared, contrary to Toad's express claim that they could not be. In this way, we help the children to engage in a genuine philosophical discussion about the nature of bravery, for the question of whether brave people can feel fear is a real philosophical issue.

Bravery is, of course, not the only philosophical issue that we address by means of a children's book. Readers of the Newsletter will probably be interested to know that Peter Catalanotto's book Emily's Art allows us to raise the question of whether there are objective standards for judging the quality of works of art. This inventively illustrated picture book uses an error by the judge of a first-grade art contest to raise this very question, for the judge reevaluates the picture she has chosen as the winner of the contest once she realizes it is a picture of a dog (“I was attacked by a dog once…. I hate dogs”) and not a butterfly (“I love butterflies”).

Picture books address issues in all of the major fields of philosophy. So, for example, the metaphysical question of whether things have essential properties can be addressed by means of The Important Book, while epistemological issues are at the forefront of Many Moons. There is even a picture book that requires acknowledging the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions, viz. Morris the Moose.

In discussing our sessions, I often have said that we don't teach the children philosophy; we only create the conditions that make it possible for them to discuss their philosophical ideas. And while this is true, it is slightly misleading. It's true that we don't supply any of the philosophical content to the discussions the children have; we only help them maintain focus on the philosophical issues raised by a picture book. But we do teach them something. We teach them how to actively listen to their peers and then interact with them in a supportive atmosphere that is conducive to a discussion free from constraint. All they need to do is to listen to the person talking and then figure out whether they agree or disagree with what has been said and why. This is the methodology of a philosophical discussion and that is something we teach the children how to take part in.

Philosophers tend to be critical of a typical response that students and teachers alike have to the discussion we lead: that philosophy has no right answers. What I think this critical response misses is that the discussions the children have under our supervision has a character that is quite unusual for an elementary school classroom, especially in light to the increased pressure from standardized tests: The children are being asked to say what they think, not to figure out the response that their teacher wants, the “right answer.” It is this that makes our classroom interventions so valuable for the children, for they come to realize that we think that their own thoughts and beliefs are valuable and worth being discussed.

One feature of my course whose impact has surprised me is the website I developed for it, . In planning the course, I became concerned that the college students had not been my primary concern, so I wanted to give them a useful skill in addition to the ability to teach philosophy. I also wanted to make the materials I was developing available free of charge to anyone who was interested in elementary-school philosophy. The materials consisted of “book modules,” that is, a webpage for each picture book that includes a summary of the book's plot, a discussion of the philosophical issues the book raises, and a series of questions that could be used to focus an elementary school philosophy discussion. Although I supplied the initial book modules and included some based upon the work of my late colleague Gareth Matthews, over the years students in my course have developed the bulk of the modules. There are now nearly 150 book modules on the site, a few of which have been contributed by students working with professors at other colleges and universities who have taught courses similar to mine. And the site is visited upwards of 20,000 times most months!

One surprising but very gratifying result of my development of this course has been its adoption and adaptation by other professors. Among the institutions with courses modeled on my own are the University of Alberta-Edmonton, the University of Oregon, Carleton College, Michigan State University, Loyola University of New Orleans, and Rollins College. Having such an impact was part of the motivation for my writing Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children's Literature (Rowman and Littlefield), a book that contains all the materials that someone needs to develop their own version of my course. It's gratifying to know that it has succeeded.

Recently, two high school teachers who took part in my National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar on Existentialism adapted my course to their own situations and have used upper level high school students to facilitate philosophy discussions among younger students. This was not a development that I had anticipated, though, once again, I am gratified that it has taken place.

More generally, I have to say that many of the most significant impact of my work in this area were not ones that I anticipated. This has been one of the very rewarding aspects of this work: It moves in directions that I hadn't expected but that are important routes for the teaching of philosophy to pre-college children.

To cite just one more example, Julie Akeret, the filmmaker for Big Ideas for Little Kids (the film), was so inspired by my work that she suggested we collaborate on a website for middle school children. Her idea was to use clips from popular films in the place of picture books, since middle school children would not be likely to find picture books engaging. Pairing our different expertises, we created , a website for teaching ethics in middle and high schools based on clips from popular films and TV shows.

One topic that might be of interested to philosophers of art is how my work in this area has affected my understanding of philosophy and my teaching of it at the college level. At the most general level, I have come to see philosophy as not just an academic specialty whose ideas are only available to experts in the field, a view that I had when I left graduate school. Now, I see philosophy as a form of thoughtful reflection on the nature of human experience that should be made widely available to everyone. To an extent, this conception of philosophy antedated my involvement with young children and fueled my own work in the philosophy of film. But working with young children and seeing how perceptive they were about philosophical issues has made me firmly believe that young children, and indeed all people everywhere, deserve to have their philosophical interests fostered.

One major difficulty with that idealistic commitment is that the dominant model of schooling undercuts children's interest in philosophy, thus aiding the perception that philosophy is a specialized field of research (a word that I think indicates the dominance of natural science in our own thinking about our intellectual activities). With constant drilling and testing, children come to think that all problems have clear and specific answers which the teacher possesses. The idea of there being an intellectual activity that has been going on for more than 2,500 years and still has not answered some of its most basic questions is something they find impossible to comprehend.

Since I began these reflections by mentioning the film Big Ideas for Little Kids, let me return to it now. Although the film explains the nature of my undergraduate Philosophy for Children course, I urge you to watch it for another reason: It includes clips of some of the philosophy discussions the children have with one another under the supervision of my college students. The strongest case for allowing children to take part in philosophy sessions in elementary school is the excitement they manifest when allowed to do so and the keenness of the insights they develop through listening carefully to what their classmates have to say. I don't expect anyone who watches the film to remain a skeptic about the possibility of young children having genuine philosophical discussions.

Among the challenges I have faced is knowing exactly what elements of a philosophy discussion need to be stressed in order for young children to have a forthright philosophical discussion. When I began, for example, I really underestimated the importance of listening. I took it for granted that people who simply listen to others when they were speaking. But the young children often were more interested in making their own contribution than to listening to what their classmates were saying, and my own college students were so worried about what the next step would be that they didn't listen to what the children were saying. So I learned that I had to emphasize that listening as a skill that needs to be learned and practiced for a successful philosophy discussion.

Finally, working with young children has had a major impact on my own college teaching. Although there are situations in which I have to resort of lecturing—such as when I teach a seminar on the Critique of Pure Reason—I now try to facilitate discussions in my college classes using many of the techniques I learned from working with young children. This is one of the benefits that my work in elementary school has had for my teaching more generally.

All in all, I am very glad that I walked “the road not taken” by working with young children. It has been an extremely gratifying path to have walked down, one on which I plan to keep walking for many years to come.

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