Learning How to Think
Why philosophy belongs in elementary schools
Philosophy is also about learning how to think, instead of what to think.
A GRADE 2 CLASS has been studying outer space in science, and their teacher really wants to get them engaged and thinking beyond models of the solar system and comparisons of temperature and gravitational pull on other planets. She breaks out the crayons and paper, and asks them to draw what they think life on other planets might look like. Then, they all sit down together to share. Instead of just showing their work, the teacher asks each student to imagine that their alien is visiting planet Earth, and is very curious about humans. Each student is asked to think of something they’d like to tell the alien, something that they think is really important to know about the people of Earth. She jots down their answers on a piece of chart paper, and by the end of the sharing session, they’ve brainstormed a list of things that make a human. They revisit the list as the year goes on – as they study other terrestrial life forms, as they read storybooks, as they write in their journals, and as they explore who they are themselves. Without ever mentioning Plato or Socrates, this teacher has brought philosophy into her classroom.
Philosophy may not be part of the regular elementary curriculum in most Canadian provinces, but that doesn’t mean it can’t play a supporting role. This ancient practice yields incredible benefits for young learners, including numerous applications to 21st century learning. With a little preparation, educators can use big questions and logical thinking to engage and inspire a wide variety of learners across the curriculum.
What is philosophy, exactly?
This isn’t a trivial question, given that philosophers themselves have been trying to answer for some time. Philosophy can be described as the practice of asking open-ended “why” questions that have more than one answer. These are questions about human nature, the universe, our relationships with others, and the way we see ourselves fitting into the world. Philosophy is also about learning how to think, instead of what to think. It proposes a set of guidelines for logical thinking, and asks that thinkers welcome new perspectives. Above all, philosophy requires that we evaluate any answer carefully before accepting it.
The “big question” portion of philosophy comes naturally to most of us, especially when we’re young (as most parents will attest). The second part, however, takes discipline and practice, and develops skills that are helpful both academically and personally.
How can philosophy help children?
Philosophy can be a straightforward and effective way to develop 21st century skills, including critical thinking, problem solving and communication. These skills are on every learner’s to-do list, but they can be a challenge to teach and evaluate. Happily, philosophy lends itself to just about any subject area, with cross-curricular applications.
The benefits of philosophy go beyond academic growth. It fosters personal development, character education, and empathy. It’s a useful tool in anti-bullying initiatives, the promotion of diversity, and is a vital part of a whole-child approach to education. Through philosophy, children gain a better understanding of why they feel the way they feel, and why they relate to others the way they do. They discuss concepts like power, leadership, responsibility, and setting an example through one’s actions.
Most importantly, philosophy is interesting to children! It poses questions that have been asked for thousands of years, and that continue to be asked by just about every small child out there. Even very young learners find philosophy intriguing, and want to be involved in inquiry and discussion.
What approaches work for elementary learners?
Any philosophical endeavour in the classroom should begin with establishing guidelines for good thinking. With younger learners, it’s easy for conversation to become more about being heard and being right than being rational. As a starting point, ask students what they think a good thinker would do, and brainstorm a list as a class. The principles for appropriate classroom behaviour, such as allowing everyone a chance to speak and avoiding name-calling, also apply to philosophical discussion. You’ll also need to emphasize that saying, “I don’t know” is fine, but saying, “just because” is not. Philosophers always explain why they think what they think.
With the right strategies and tools, philosophy questions can be introduced into the classroom as early as kindergarten. In any elementary classroom, philosophy can and should go beyond simple discussions, and be presented through hands-on activities. Don’t be afraid to break inquiry into small, short activities, and revisit the same questions throughout the year.
Here are a few examples of how big questions can be made into cross-curricular activities:
- Find a favourite storybook about a good or a bad dream. After reading it, start a dialogue about the difference between things that are real (like what we experience in waking hours) and things that are imaginary (like dreams). Have learners role-play the difference in pairs, with one partner pretending to dream and the other partner staying awake. A good journaling exercise is to have them list the “clues” they have that tell them they’re awake and that things are real.
- Build your own country! Draw a map, make a tourism video, write a story about it, but most of all, figure out who should lead the country/make decisions for it, and how they should do their job. What’s important for this new country? Why is it important? What’s the best kind of leader and why?
- Get out the modelling clay and discuss the difference between “beautiful” and “not beautiful.” Have students sculpt something that they think is beautiful. Then have them make a change to their sculpture that makes it less beautiful. Reflect on the difference between the two. Are things considered beautiful because of popular opinion, personal preference, or is it something else? Does beauty change over time, or is it just our opinions of it?
- Discuss fairness by creating a student-made fair (pun intended). Groups of students can create their own games/booths, and write out a set of rules for play. Students can then play each other’s games and discuss whether the rules are fair. Do the rules include everyone? Are there ways they could be made more fair?
Throughout all of this, the most important part is to make a safe space for learners to explain the “why” behind their answers. Go beyond rote learning, and insist that learners avoid descending into “any idea is fine” “just because,” or any other logical fallacy. It’s a bit of work to get kids to learn how to think, instead of what to think, but it’s worth it. The skills and attitudes they learn in doing philosophy will help them be more independent, innovative, open-minded, and generally more successful in reaching the outcomes of all subject areas at school. Beyond this, it will encourage a bond between classmates, and with teachers. Learners can feel confident that even when complex, open-ended questions are posed, their teachers won’t shy away from them. And in hearing their teachers admit “I don’t know. What do you think? Let’s talk about it,” learners are also presented with an inquisitive, open-minded role model for inquiry.
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First published in Education Canada, March 2018