University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children
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Why Philosophy for Children?


"My students have learned to listen to other's ideas and add to them or feel free to disagree respectfully with another's idea. I hear students who hardly raise their hands in class give intelligent thought-out opinions or challenge another's idea."
- Fourth grade teacher at Whittier Elementary School, Seattle

What is philosophy?

The word “philosophy” comes from the Greek, meaning “love of wisdom.” In ancient times philosophy was understood as the search for wisdom. Many of the concepts philosophers explore have been examined for thousands of years: What is time? What is beauty? What is a good life? What is knowledge?

Philosophy explores questions about fundamental aspects of the world or ourselves or our relation to the world. Philosophical inquiry is therefore not restricted to any particular subject matter. What characterizes a philosophical question is not what it is about, but at what level it is asked. For example, someone might ask whether some social arrangement is fair; a philosopher will ask, “What is fairness?” Philosophy demonstrates that some of the simplest questions we ask are also the most difficult to answer.


Why introduce philosophy to children?

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that do not include philosophy as a required subject for high school students. As a result, the subject is unfamiliar and seems esoteric to many people. Really, though, children start asking philosophical questions early in life. Why should I be fair? What makes someone a friend? Why I am alive? Are stories real? Children are always wondering about the world in which we live and about the meaning of human life. Exposure to structured philosophy sessions can help them explore fundamental questions and to articulate and give reasons for their own views. Philosophy is the oldest and most effective discipline for learning how to think critically and to develop deep analytic and reasoning skills.

What happens in a pre-college philosophy session?

Philosophy sessions typically begin with some introduction to a philosophical question or questions, which could be a story, an activity, a puzzle, or just the posing of a question. It is most helpful to engage the students in identifying the questions in which they are most interested. Then the bulk of the session is spent discussing these questions. At the end of the session, closure can be provided by summarizing what has been discussed.

For example, the philosophy teacher might read the story The Hundred Dresses by Eleanor Estes with the class. This story raises questions about nature of friendship, the ethics of being a bystander, and what moral duties we owe to others. It is a long story and best read with a class over three or four sessions. After the reading, ask the class what questions the story raises for them and list them on the board. You might also have some questions to add to the list; for example: Why do some people have no friends? Is teasing cruel? Then the class spends the next 20-40 minutes, depending on the age of the students and the way the discussion flows, talking about some of the questions listed on the board. (For tips on facilitating the discussion, see “Tips for Successful Pre-College Philosophy Sessions”). You can then spend 5 minutes or so summing up what the students have said, what conclusions have been drawn and what questions left open, and where the discussion has left the group.

It is an intellectual adventure for young people to have the opportunity to talk about philosophy in a group, and to recognize that the world is puzzling to all of us! Participating in a philosophical community of inquiry allows young people to express their own perspectives, listen to one another, challenge and build on each another's thinking, and make better sense of their own views and ideas. The discussion of unsettled and contestable questions helps students to explore the mysteries of human existence and to learn to think for themselves.


Philosophical Discussion = Improved Standardized Test Scores

While instructors have suspected for years that doing philosophy sharpens cognition in a way likely to impact standardized test scores, it wasn't until 2007 that researchers confirmed this hunch with a series of studies conducted in Scotland.1

Drs. Keith Topping and Steven Trickey found that 10-to-12-year-old students who participated in one hour of weekly philosophical discussion over 16 months improved their verbal, non-verbal and quantitative scores on the widely-respected Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT3, 2001) by an average of 7 points, compared to a control group whose scores remained steady.



Especially exciting was the finding that gains made during the initial 16-month study continued in the experimental group two years after the sessions had stopped, while the scores of the control group marginally declined.2

Further, analysis of video-recordings and student questionnaires administered seven months into the study revealed increased participation, better behavior, and self-reports of greater confidence, empathy, and control.3

 


1Topping and Trickey. "Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children: Cognitive Effects at 10-12 Years," British Journal of Educational Psychology (2007), 77, 271-288.

2Topping and Trickey. "Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry for School Children: Cognitive Gains at 2-Year Follow-Up," British Journal of Educational Psychology (2007), 77, 787-796.

3 Trickey, S. & Topping, K. J. "Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children: Participant Evaluation at 11 years," Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children (2007), 18(3), 23-34.