Why Start a Pre-College Philosophy Program, and How to Do it
Bringing philosophy into K-12 classrooms is one of the most effective methods for helping children learn to think critically and creatively. Because philosophical questions are by their nature unsettled and disputable, philosophy is one of the few subjects young people can study where there are few clear answers that students are striving to get right. Especially in this era of increased standardized testing and the corresponding “teaching to the test,” it is essential that there be time in the school day for open-ended dialogue about ideas.
In philosophy sessions, young people learn that there are many approaches to most philosophical questions. This multiplicity of perspectives helps students to think more clearly about their own views. Philosophy provides tools for young people to bring meaning to their experiences and to learn to think for themselves. Participation in philosophy sessions can transform the way students see themselves. Watching a student who for the first time sees that he or she has something to contribute to an intellectual community, and that the way he or she perceives the world is unique and interesting, can be profoundly moving.
Paper by NW Center Program Director Sara Goering about the value of introducing philosophy to children: Finding and Fostering the Philosophical Impulse in Young People: A Tribute to the Work of Gareth B. Matthews
Philosophers in the Schools
When the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children began in 1996, we assumed that most of our work would be leading workshops for teachers about ways to introduce philosophy into K-12 classrooms. What we found, however, was that most teachers were already overburdened with constantly changing and growing requirements for what they had to teach, and that especially with ever-intensifying standardized testing requirements, most teachers were not interested in adding another area to what they were doing. (On top of that, in the United States most teachers are relatively unfamiliar with philosophy, as it is not a required secondary school subject and most people who study it choose to do so in college.)
After talking with many teachers, administrators and students, we decided that the better approach would be to develop what we called the “Philosophers in the Schools” program. Modeled after “Artists in the Schools” residency programs, our program places adults trained in doing philosophy with young people into K-12 classrooms around Washington State. As short as six weeks to as long as an entire school year, these weekly (and, sometimes, biweekly) sessions use literature, art, activities, and puzzles to talk with young people about the large, unsettled questions of philosophy.
How to Do It
There are a variety of ways to start a program introducing philosophy to young people. The following is focused on developing programs in K-12 classrooms, but also applies to programs in other settings (homeschooling groups, afterschool programs, camps, etc.). Before you start, we suggest that you think about each of the following questions:
What organizational structure will work best for you?
Do you want to form a non-profit organization? The advantages of this are that it allows you to apply for grants and to solicit and accept tax-deductible donations. The disadvantages are that you must put together a board of directors, apply to the federal government for tax-exempt status, and follow your state’s particular requirements for non-profit organizations. Another option is to organize the program through a local university or college. If you are affiliated with a university or college or have contacts at one, this might be a viable option, either through the department of philosophy or education department there. This would allow you to utilize some of the resources of the department and, if the department is amenable, to be eligible for grants and private donations through the department (gifts to universities and colleges are generally tax-deductible). Or you might decide to start approaching schools and/or other organizations serving young people, and consider forming a more formal organizational structure later.
With what age students are you interested in working?
Decide first what grade(s) with which you would like to work: will this be in elementary, middle or high school? Elementary schools are generally the easiest settings in which to begin, as students have one teacher all day and those teachers have greater flexibility in organizing the day than do teachers in middle and high schools, in which teachers generally teach one subject (English, History, etc.). In any case, though, it is important for you to be clear about what grades you want to teach and to develop some lesson plans for those grades.
How will you approach schools?
The key here is to develop a relationship with a teacher or teachers. Approaching schools through school district administrative leaders, superintendents or principals, has the potential to set up a situation in which teachers perceive this program being forced upon them. Remember that teachers are feeling overwhelmed by the growing demands on them. The appeal of a philosophy class run by someone other than the teacher is that the teacher does not have to develop a new skill and set of lesson plans, but can observe his or her students in a new discipline with an outside person. Philosophy sessions can also give teachers more prep time (though most of the time the teachers seem eager to observe and often participate!).
If you don’t know any teachers, you might start by offering to volunteer in a local school, by tutoring or helping out in classrooms in other ways. This is a great way to get to know teachers and students. Even people experienced in doing pre-college philosophy can benefit from volunteering in classrooms before facilitating philosophy sessions in them.
Once you have cultivated a relationship with a teacher and are ready to suggest introducing philosophy in the classroom, what is often successful is to offer to do a demonstration class. This might be a 45-minute philosophy session with the students facilitated by you, with the teacher and other interested adults invited to observe.
Also, consider talking with the teacher(s) in whose class(es) you are preparing to do philosophy about the plans for that year. Are there readings or subjects that are being taught in the classroom for which you could prepare related philosophy sessions? One of the most exciting ways to build philosophy programs in schools is to work with several teachers to create interdisciplinary curricula (that might include, for example, philosophy, language arts and history around a particular topic).
What information do you want to have prepared before you approach schools about the program?
The following information, in the form of easily read handouts, is very useful to be able to distribute to teachers:
1. A description of what introducing philosophy to young people entails (you’re welcome to use the introduction we created)
2. A menu of options, including choices for the timing of the sessions (weekly, biweekly, short-term or all year, etc.), the questions of philosophy that might be addressed (ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, etc.), a list of some of the materials you might use in the classroom.
3. Your resume or vita
4. Pricing: we suggest that if you are just starting to do this work, you volunteer your time. It is a great way to gain experience. If the organizational structure you have chosen makes this feasible, you might consider writing a grant to pay for a year of classes in a particular school or schools. More and more districts have local community funding sources organized for the purpose of paying for enrichment programs in the public schools, and these organizations are a wonderful source for philosophy programs. Once you have experience and have cultivated relationships with teachers and schools, develop a clear pricing structure for your classes, including your prep time. Make sure you communicate the structure very clearly.
For more information on starting programs, see the American Philosophical Association Committee on Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy pamphlet: So, You Want to Teach Pre-College Philosophy?