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Teacher Newsmagazine  Volume 22, Number 3, November/December 2009 

How to foster young philosophers

Welcome to my classroom, where kids are never too small to think big

By Tiffany Poirier

(Excerpt from article published in The Tyee, on September 8, 2009)

When you picture a philosopher, who do you see? A white-bearded, toga-wearing Athenian? The classic professor type, hunched over stacks of essays in a university office? Do you imagine someone pretentious sitting at a café, smoking a pipe while expounding his views of existence?

How about eight-year-old Kelsey with grass-stained knees and a drink carton, which she plops into the recycling bin?

“I think the meaning of life,” Kelsey told me, “is to play, have fun, but be good to Mother Nature.”

As an elementary school teacher, I have witnessed children doing philosophy, and the process always amazes and inspires me. I remember facilitating a particularly spirited session with Grade 3 students. We explored the question “What would be your perfect playground?”

During this dialogue, talk moved naturally from listing the basic features of a fantasy playground (like lots of swings, cotton-candy machines, bumper cars, etc.) to eventually the ethical and metaphysical realms. For example, the students wondered aloud, “How should we solve conflicts on the perfect playground?” and “Is it possible to be perfect?”

Following up this discussion, my students worked in teams to design and build 3D models of their versions of the perfect playground. They wrote and presented short speeches explaining the philosophical significances of their choices. For example, Immanuel wrote, “I put in lots of ramps to help kids who use wheelchairs because I think a playground is perfect only if all kids can play on it.”

So often the problems and solutions of children can be microcosms for those of the larger world. Much of our discussion on the perfect playground was philosophically rich and would apply to a discussion on an ideal society. For example, students reasoned that, “We should create a place where no one would get hurt... where everyone got a fair turn... where there was enough of everything to go around.”

I have found that by way of analogy to their immediate experiences, children begin to meaningfully address abstract issues. And through their eyes, we adults learn to see our world afresh.

Of course my pint-sized philosophers aren't as rigorous in their practice as their university-trained counterparts. Still, their philosophical efforts are valuable since they are the first pieces of a larger puzzle. People learn to walk before they run. Through increased exposure young people become more versed in the procedures of a community of inquiry. They become more fluent in the language of logic, more adept at uncovering their own views, and more creative and confident in their self-expression.

That is why I wrote Q Is for Question: An ABC of Philosophy, an illustrated children's book to inspire philosophical discussions on a variety of topics, published this spring (www.qisforquestion.com).

And, it is why I foster philosophical exploration in my classroom.

Although it can be helpful to look at what eminent philosophers have said on certain issues, I rarely pull out a classical text. I have found that, at the elementary level, it is often better to help the students dive right in and actually do philosophy themselves through discussion.

As a teacher, I take on the role of discussion facilitator, letting students engage in philosophical dialogue about issues that are important to them. Through this process, I aim to scaffold students’ learning in acquiring the skills of effective inquiry.

We may think of the practices of a good elementary philosophy teacher as similar to those of a good physical education teacher in some ways.

For example, when teaching basketball, the good PE teacher doesn’t only lecture from a podium about bygone sports heroes, doesn’t assign overly complex readings from sport annuals, doesn't hotdog and slam-dunk the ball, yell discouragements from the bleachers, or force kids to strain unsafely beyond their capabilities. A good PE teacher wouldn’t do things that inhibit learning and hurt the students—and neither would a good philosophy teacher.

Rather, in both cases, the good teacher takes a hands-on, student-focused approach. She or he lays down the ground rules and safety procedures, offers a few examples, sets up the court, and ultimately turns the game over to the students. Finally, a good teacher provides support from the sidelines and helps students to meaningfully debrief the event when it’s over.

In the case of basketball, these teaching strategies help students develop a life-long appreciation for sport, strategies for self-improvement, and teamwork. And in the case of philosophy, these strategies help children develop skills to live an examined life, which as Socrates said, is the only one worth living.

Still, I have encountered skeptics who say children needn’t bother with philosophy at school. Given that it is the job of a philosopher to anticipate and answer her or his skeptics, in an upcoming article, I will answer a collection of possible concerns about doing philosophy with children, as well as offer some practical tips on teaching philosophy in the regular classroom.

Some tips on doing philosophy with children

  • Do create a safe atmosphere for children to share their ideas.
  • Do weave philosophy into the regular curriculum.
  • Do look for and respond to natural “teachable moments.”
  • Do let children have a choice in the questions they debate.
  • Do draw out the philosophical significance of a child's own ideas.
  • Do model skills for good inquiry.
  • Do encourage students to continue class dialogues with their friends and families.
  • Do read up on philosophy so you can be a better resource for your students.
  • Do present a wide variety of perspectives on any given topic.
  • Don’t shy away from "heavy" topics, but use discretion.
  • Don’t affirm every opinion—some arguments are stronger than others.
  • Don’t allow any one voice to monopolize conversations.
  • Don’t emphasize your personal views; let students make up their own minds.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the conversation wander.

Tiffany Poirier is a Surrey elementary school teacher.

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