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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:


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).


  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 (, and there are many resources on our site for intro­duc­ing phi­los­o­phy to young peo­ple.

    Best wish­es,
    Jana Mohr Lone

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