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Philosophy as the Missing Link in Our School’s Curriculum

A reader and writer sent us over the weekend the article below as “an OpEd submission”. We are not a newspaper, and don’t have a formal OpEd section, but are delighted to publish thoughtful, research-based pieces on topics related to lifelong cognitive development and health.

Here you are:

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Philosophy as the Missing Link An Eye-Opening Audit of Our School’s Curriculum
By: Kimberly Wickham

The question might be asked, “Why would anyone want to teach philosophy to pre-adolescent children?” but there are very good reasons why one might want to take on such a lofty task. I am not suggesting that the history of philosophy would be particularly pertinent for a young child to learn, but there is substantial evidence to support the development of an already natural tendency towards philosophical thought. Some may think that the pre-adolescents haven’t got the cognitive developmental ability to wrap their minds around such an elusive and subjective study as philosophy. However, developing this skill has shown long term positive effects. These effects range from developing critical thinking skills and cognitive ability to raising emotional maturity and encouraging the child’s sense of security within his or her world.

For years there has been an emphasis on cognitive and physical aspects of childrens development, but recently more attention is being placed on both the social and emotional aspects of a child’s development. It is becoming recognized that a child’s emotional maturity has a big impact on their ability to learn and process information. While that, at first blush, may seem an obvious conclusion there is a little more to the story. A child’s emotional maturity and self esteem has a significant impact on his or her behavior as well. An increasing number of children are being identified as needing additional learning strategies and showing challenging behaviors. Education systems are struggling to find creative methods to address these needs before the problems arise.

It is recognized that a child’s ability to learn depends on how advanced they are at managing personal and social tasks. Their work suffers when they are incapable of coping effectively with important skills such as the ability to be aware of others feelings, manage relationships and be part of a social community. Encouraging philosophical thought and developing critical thinking skills in pre-adolescent children provides a foundation for cognitive, social and emotional skills to flourish.

Children continually ask philosophical questions without prompting, such as: “If I squeeze my eyes shut really tightly and I can’t see where I am, does that make where I am become somewhere else? As adults used to navigating the world in our current understanding of reality we answer these types of questions following the strict rules of our present view, but it might be far more useful to the child to encourage examination of the question. For example an appropriate response might be, “What do you think about that?” Further discussion can take place when the child has had a chance to explore their own opinions and ideas about their physical reality, for example.

A pre-adolescent child may not move as fast and furiously through this type of metaphysical analysis as a college student but they certainly do have the cognitive ability to use this type of critical thinking to expand their thinking processes. So what is meant by Ëœcritical thinking” exactly? The American Philosophical Associations Committee on Pre-College Philosophy describes it as purposeful, self-regulatory judgment which results in interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and inference, as well as explanation of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological, or contextual considerations upon which that judgment is based (Facione 1989)

But for those of us looking for a simpler explanation it is essentially the ability to use reasonably reflective, focused thinking to decide what to believe and do. Children need to be encouraged to reflect carefully on their own beliefs and be encouraged to explore other points of view. Philosophy encourages children to learn to think independently as well as think and discuss with others. In order to gain the most advantage children need to be able to engage in open classroom discussions on an ongoing basis. By mastering this type of thinking the child develops deeper emotional literacy and learns to create a more thoughtful and purposeful life.

On another level philosophical discussion can be used to develop a deeper understanding of ethics. Dr. Stephen Law, a senior lecturer in Philosophy at Heathrop College, University of London explains the skills that are cultivated in such discussions as the following:

* reveal and question underlying assumptions
* figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
* spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
* weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
* make a point clearly and concisely
* take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting
* argue without personalizing a dispute
* look at issues from the point of view of others
* question the appropriateness, or the appropriateness of acting on, one’s own feelings

He goes on to say, “Acquiring these skills involves developing, not just a level of intellectual maturity, but a fair degree of emotional maturity too. For example, turn-taking requires patience and self-control. Judging impartially involves identifying and taking account of your own emotional biases. By thinking critically and carefully about your own beliefs and attitudes, you may develop insights into your own character. By stepping outside of your own viewpoint and looking at issues from the standpoint of another, you can develop a greater empathy with and understanding of others. So by engaging in this kind of philosophical, critical activity, you are likely to develop, not only the ability to reason cogently, but also what now tends to be called “emotional intelligence.” (Law 2007)

In order to gain the most advantage, children need to be able to engage in open classroom discussions on an ongoing basis. As a teacher of pre-adolescent children I have had the opportunity to witness these discussions taking place spontaneously. In most instances I have been able to set aside the particular lesson that might have been planned for the time and let the free-wheeling philosophical discussion go on with minimal but well-timed guidance. Although it would have been ideal to have had time set aside on a daily basis for such discussion there is a fair amount of pressure from the already demanding curriculum, thereby restricting the frequency of these critically important discussions.

As a writer of philosophy for children, I give examples within my stories of my characters exploring deep philosophical questions in an alternate school setting as well as in every day events. It is my hope that when children read my stories they will have a sparked interest in exploring the deeper questions of life with their families and perhaps even instigate such discussions within their classrooms. I also have great hope that the educational systems currently in place will take a closer look at the benefit of adding philosophical discussions to their curriculums. This would provide an opportunity to advance the world’s development by populating it with emotionally intelligent and critically inquisitive minds.

— Kimberly Wickham is the author of Angels and Horses and Summer of Magic Horses.

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8 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Nice article, there is hope! However a more interesting question would be ‘why’ isn’t philosophy and especially critical thinking taught in school. I was born this way and it gave me no end of hassle from particular teachers in school as I read voraciously and constantly questioned (still do!).
    I was even recommended for ‘therapy’ because of my perceived bad attitude…
    I can’t remember who the quote is from but it goes along the lines of, “how can one be a well adjusted member of society when society is so mal-adjusted” – I kid you not, that got me detention! It probably didn’t help my mother storming into school and going ballistic with the headmaster though (UK school). I’m well over it now 😉
    The irony is now I get paid very well to question business people’s beliefs and ideas to help them see a bigger picture 🙂

  2. Hello Tim,

    Thank you for your great comment.

    Let’s put that philosophy to the test: how would you encourage your clients to see the big picture on why themselves, and their organizations, would benefit from paying more attention to emerging applications (and implications) of brain research?

    Btw, I agree that critical thinking itself is a much-needed cognitive function to succeed in today’s and tomorrow’s world, and that school would benefit from innovative approaches there (perhaps even formal philosophy).

    Regards

  3. Young people are profound examples of all of our struggles to cope with emotion.

    As teenagers, they are introduced to an array of complex emotions for the first time. Just as with adults, children need a strong coping mechanism, an adequate perception of an ever-changing world, and a foundation for knowing how to act.

    Imagine a teenager, experiencing complex and overwhelming emotions for the first time, finding comfort that their “feelings” are simply part of the overall human experience and, while their experience may be difficult now, their feelings are normal and they will pass with time. Philosophy will have already given the otherwise troubled teen a fundamental sense of self-acquaintance that includes their own given personal skills and traits but also those of being human.

    Perhaps Doctors could “prescribe” a consistent dose of philosophy rather than ritalin…

    “Let no one delay the study of philosophy when young nor weary of it when old.” Epicurus (341 – 270BC)

  4. Alvaro says:

    Kent, thank you for a beautiful comment, and quote!

  5. Ray says:

    The basis of teaching children the process of philosophy is to encourage their innate curiousity. Why is the sky blue?
    I have the belief that our first, intuitive answer to a question is always more correct than any subsequent answer, acknowledging further explanation of the subject not withstanding. I liken our intellect to that of painting pictures. The more we know about something the bigger the areas of that subjects colour. Our task as parents and role models is to allow the mind to be expanded by encouraging the curiousity of our children to expand their pictures horizons. This is very easily achieved by adults having the time to not just answering in the practical, go away, manner we tend to, but to practice replying with another question. At the very least, “Why do you ask?”. I believe that when asked a question, everything we know about the subject, ie: all the colour, comes together so that we not only answer that question but have all the information (everything we know) available attempt to answer whatever the next question may be. I also believe that when the direction of questioning becomes apparent the bits of colour, our mind considers we no longer need, drop away.
    The modern pace of life has taken away the “whittling” time of families and replaced it with the technological rush of facts and the, “what are you doing for the future?” demands for our children to have some economic purpose.
    Philosophy! Think reflective conversations that quietly and without fuss expands the philosophical base of our children’s thinking.

  6. Hello Ray, let me put that “Why do you ask?” in practice…

    1) why do you comment?
    2) Why do we think the sky is blue? 🙂

    I agree with the need to truly interact with all minds (young and old alike), engaging with people in a meaningful, not patronizing manner. I also agree that questions themselves provide much information on questioner’s mind, and clues for how to answer.

    Having said that, the reason why we have frontal lobes is because it is not always the case that our first, automatic, “intuitive”, answer is the right one.

    Philosophy may help us question and refine over time our “intuitions”.

  7. L. Smith says:

    There is a distinct and critical difference between teaching and training. In both cases the “student” learn but they learn understanding if they’re effectively taught something and they learn skills if they are effectively trained on something. The involvement of the federal, state, and municipal governments in overseeing funding to schools had perpetrated a need to measure whether or not students are learning anything. The simple-minded approach to perform this measurement (we are talking about civil servents here, are we not?) invariably has precipitated to parochial and subjective assessments causing teachers whose livelihoods are at stake to be compelled to train their students to perform better on these measurement tests. The end result is that there is no time left over in the school day to teach and educate the students. We need to address this problem by backing away from standards of learning and from expecting the traditional school and teacher model to suddenly start working. Take a look at the end-to-end treatment and actionable recommendations in the recently released commission report, “Education in America — What’s to Be Done?” developed by Trigon-International to see how this problem is best addressed.

  8. Questions are the central feature of philosophy, and I’ve found that encouraging young people to ask and think about the big questions of philosophy really affirms their natural curiosity and wonder about the world. I run a center that brings philosophy into K-12 classrooms in the Pacific Northwest (www.philosophyforchildren.org), and there are many resources on our site for introducing philosophy to young people.

    Best wishes,
    Jana Mohr Lone

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