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Philosophy for Children

Nov 15, 2012 by Lauren Quirici

The students in Tom Wartenberg's Philosophy for Children course are working with a cutting edge approach to education: teaching elementary school-aged kids to think philosophically.  In addition to enhancing the abilities of the kids to perform academically, learning to question and to think deeply boosts their levels of empathy and understanding.

In Philosophy 280, a CBL partnership course, students at Mount Holyoke learn how to lead kids through the philosophical thought process using picture books as a starting point.  Each Thursday, the CBL students visit the Martin Luther King Charter School in Springfield to teach classes of second-grade students how to think, question and discuss. I sat in on a 45 minute session taught by MHC students Caitlin Danovsky, Jamin Chang, and Weisiyu Jiang.   This is what I took in:

As the CBL students set up for the session, the kids, in matching powder-blue polo shirts and visibly excited to begin, formed a circle on a brightly colored carpet.  Taking turns reading from the "Philosophy Role Model" list, they began by reviewing the set of guidelines for having a thoughtful, organized, and respectful  discussion.  The list includes instruction on how to use the phrases "in my opinion," and "I agree/disagree because..." which have by now become a part of the kids' regular vocabulary.

The book of the day is titled Knuffle Bunny. It tells the story of Trixie, a baby girl who hasn't yet learned to talk.  Trixie tries to tell her father that Knuffle Bunny, her favorite stuffed toy, has been left behind, but becomes troubled when he can't understand her baby-talk. 

At the end of the story, Weisiyu closed the book and addressed the class: "Do you think that Trixie was using language?"  Nine or ten eager hands shot up.  "My opinion is that she was talking," said one boy, "because she can talk to other babies."  Another agreed, adding, "When you're a baby you can still talk in your mind."  The class also agreed that animals can talk in their minds.  "And bugs," added one student with a contemplative nod.

The students kept remarkably focused, save for a brief lapse when one of the boys began to spin his name tag about on its string (which quickly led every other boy to follow suit).  Unfazed, Jamin secured their attention and got them back on task with a gesture and a big smile.  

The CBL students generally lead the discussions, but on this particular day, there was a breakthrough.  One of the second-graders responded to another's opinion with a thoughtful question of his own.  It's exciting to imagine that these kids could soon be having their own philosophical debates without any guidance from adults.

Teaching kids how to think has had similarly positive results all over the world.  Sarah Davey Chesters, a teacher and proponent of Philosophy for Children in Australia, reports similarly positive results, relating that her students have actually begun to solve disagreements on the playground by having rational discussions rather than shoving each other!  

On the bus ride back to Mount Holyoke, the CBL students were abuzz with talk of their observations, breakthroughs, and new ideas for future sessions.  We're looking forward to reporting more exciting progress!


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