Learning critical thinking skills helps students become more creative, confident, and engaged.
ast year I wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times in which I argued that academic philosophers should do more to make philosophy accessible to the general public. I had come to believe that the kind of critical thinking inherent in doing philosophy was crucial for the health of a pluralistic society. I also felt I owed a debt to my own philosophical education, which has enabled me to have a more nuanced understanding of my experience in the world, and has given me the tools to craft my own meaning in life.
As part of my research for that article, I interviewed Grace Robinson, creator of Thinking Space, an organization that uses philosophical inquiry and dialogue with a diverse array of clients — public schools, universities, charities, businesses, and various community organizations. Previously, I hadn’t given much thought to how philosophy might benefit K-12 education, but Robinson’s work introduced me to the movement known as Philosophy for Children, or P4C for short. Now I’ve come to believe that it can play a vital role in accomplishing both the pragmatic and the idealistic goals of the American education system.
In an ideal world, K-12 public education should prepare our children for life, work, and citizenship. But ever since the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, the emphasis has been on the pragmatic part of the equation — work. For the past fifty years, the thinking has been that you go to school so you can get into college, which increases your chances of getting a good job. ESEA has gone through many changes over the years and, tellingly, the most recent incarnation, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, was originally called the Every Child Ready for College or Career Act of 2015.
Research professor and education policy analyst Diane Ravitch notes in an April article, “ESEA has become a vehicle for those who believe that standards and testing will cure poverty and low performance, a strategy that has failed to attain its goal after two decades of trying.” Regardless of the merit of that statement, it is true that teachers, parents, and students across the country are rebelling against this accountability movement that became even more prevalent fifteen years ago with the No Child Left Behind Act. Now, both the Common Core State Standards and the high-stakes tests aligned with them are facing increasing scrutiny.
Many object to the content of the standards themselves. For example, shortly after the Common Core State Standards were introduced, the Alliance for Childhood issued a “Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals” that stated: “The draft standards made public in January conflict with compelling new research in cognitive science, neuroscience, child development, and early childhood education about how young children learn, what they need to learn, and how best to teach them in kindergarten and the early grades.”
The nature of high-stakes tests has also been widely criticized. Many education professionals say the test scores don’t measure what they purport to measure, that they cause students needless anxiety, force teachers to spend too much time “teaching to the test,” and ultimately decrease teacher morale by unfairly judging a teacher’s effectiveness based on student performance, particularly when there are so many factors affecting how well students perform on one or two annual tests. In a briefing paper prepared for the National Academy of Education (NAE) and the American Educational Research Association in 2011, Stanford professor of education Linda Darling-Hammond and three other authors state: “Current research suggests that high-stakes, individual-level decisions, as well as comparisons across highly dissimilar schools or student populations should be avoided.”
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Lost in all this talk about curriculum and standardized tests is any mention of education’s relevance for life beyond economic productivity, much less citizenship. I want to make the case for the widespread use of Philosophy for Children in the K-12 classroom by showing that P4C not only enhances academic performance, but prepares our children to be thoughtful, engaged members of our democracy, poised to flourish in life.
P4C began with late philosopher Matthew Lipman’s 1969 novel Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery. The novel and accompanying teacher manual were designed to help K-12 children learn how to think for themselves. In the mid-1970s, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) was created at Montclair State College (now Montclair State University) in New Jersey. According to the IAPC’s website, the local media quickly picked up on reports of significant improvements in the reading and critical thinking skills of middle school children who were involved in IAPC programs. I asked Dr. Maughn Gregory, current director of IAPC, for an update on what’s been happening with P4C in the five decades since its inception. “What has changed,” he told me, “is the empirical evidence for the power of P4C to improve students’ literacy and thinking skills has strengthened.” He also pointed out that there are academic journals devoted to P4C and, more important, all the top-ranked journals in philosophy of education and educational psychology are publishing articles about it.
To understand the potential of P4C for education, you first need to differentiate between “Big P” philosophy and “Little p” philosophy, as P4C proponent Dr. Thomas Jackson of the University of Hawaii does. “Big P” philosophy is the academic endeavor most of us are familiar with, where people devote themselves to mastering an established canon of thinkers like Plato, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, and take part in adding to the literature comprising that canon. “Little p” philosophy, on the other hand, is what we all strive to do in our daily lives — a continual effort to understand the world and our place in it.
“Little p” philosophy is at the heart of P4C, and its primary mode of activity is the “inquiry dialogue” of organizations like Thinking Space. It’s similar to what the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates does in Plato’s famous dialogues. Socrates was a master at engineering question-and-answer discussions that examined people’s beliefs about themselves and the world because, as he famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” He also considered himself an “intellectual midwife,” having no ideas of his own but helping to give birth to the ideas of others.
To get a better handle on how this works in the classroom, I reached out to Dr. Chad Miller, Hawaii’s 2012 Teacher of the Year. Miller is also the Director of Teacher Development at the University of Hawaii’s Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education and a “philosopher-in-residence” at the Kailua High Complex where he teaches English language arts. “I’ve essentially based my entire professional career on making philosophy happen in public schools,” Miller told me, “and it’s been met with increasing success and interest every year.”
In the classroom, Miller acts like Socrates, presenting his students with a variety of different stimuli for discussion, such as a poem, a piece of art, or readings from textbooks already being used in the classroom for traditional subjects. The focus of the inquiry dialogue is on the thoughts, ideas, and questions of the students themselves, rather than any abstract philosophical concept. Miller doesn’t give his own opinion, either, or shepherd the children towards a particular conclusion. Instead, he fosters a climate conducive to the development of the critical thinking skills of his students by guiding and informing student inquiries, helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning, and making sure they realize they’re meeting on terms of equality and mutual respect.
As philosopher-in-residence, Miller’s job is to coach and guide other teachers interested in implementing P4C. “Right now there are two Philosophers-in-Residence in the complex who support three elementary schools, both intermediate schools, and the lone high school,” Miller says. They have nearly sixty teachers who are committed to utilizing P4C in their classrooms, so they’re having trouble meeting the demand. “To temporarily solve this problem,” Miller says, “we are creating a Surfrider Philosopher-in-Residence Program (named after Kailua High’s mascot) that will utilize ‘expert’ Junior and Senior students to support teachers aiming to bring P4C Hawaii into their classrooms.”
The P4C approach doesn’t just teach kids to think like philosophers; it also aligns particularly well with the Common Core State Standards. As Miller says in the video below, put out by the National Network of State Teachers of the Year: “The spirit of the Common Core is that it wants people to think for themselves. And the way that I’m teaching, using Philosophy for Children — that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at in my classroom.” And Dr. Jana Mohr Lone, director of the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington, says that the Common Core has created an opportunity for P4C, rather than a barrier, “We use a variety of prompts,” she told me, “picture books, chapter books a class is already reading, and other curricula already being used in the classroom for reading, math, science.”
In a recent paper in Educational Psychologist, Dr. Maughn Gregory notes that as students engage in the collaborative inquiry of P4C, they acquire deeper, more complex disciplinary expertise. “For example,” Gregory writes, “students build more nuanced interpretation of a story character in a reading class, gain more sophisticated perspective on totalitarian societies in a history class, or develop deeper understanding of the concept of negative numbers in a math class.” That’s just what the Common Core State Standards were intended to achieve.
Many still might wonder whether children can really learn to philosophize. I asked developmental psychologist Susan Engel, director of the teaching program at Williams College, about the feasibility of P4C. “There’s plenty of evidence in developmental and educational psychology that children are interested in talking and thinking about matters beyond the immediate and everyday,” Engel told me, “and that when they do, they become stronger, more flexible, careful thinkers.” In her recent book, The End of the Rainbow, Engel also cites a series of experiments by the late education psychologist Ann Brown showing that “when children teach one another complex material and ideas, they learn at a deeper level,” and that when children have some control over what they’re learning, they “learn it more thoroughly and remain more interested in the material.”
To see kids at the primary school level philosophizing, take a look at this video of Thinking Space’s Grace Robinson leading an inquiry dialogue.
Robinson presents the stimulus — in this case a thought experiment — and then has the children formulate questions in response and explore them in the ensuing discussion. The thought experiment in this session is a modern take on the classic “Ship of Theseus” paradox, recorded in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus from the first century. This excerpt from computer scientist Noson Yanofsky’s book, The Outer Limits of Reason describes the central paradox:
“In ancient Greece, there was a legendary king named Theseus who supposedly founded the city of Athens. Since he fought many naval battles, the people of Athens dedicated a memorial in his honor by preserving his ship in the port. This ‘ship of Theseus’ stayed there for hundreds of years. As time went on, some of the wooden planks of Theseus’ ship started rotting away. To keep the ship nice and complete, the rotting planks were replaced with new planks made of the same material.”
Yanofsky notes that the key question is this: As the ship of Theseus was completely rebuilt over the centuries, at what point did it stop being the original, and when did it become something else? This question is one of the most interesting problems in all of philosophy — the problem of identity. “What is a physical object?” he writes. “How do things stay the same even after they change? At what point does an object become different?” As you watch the video, remember that these kids are between the ages of five and eleven.
Consider the following video, which illustrates a “Socratic Seminar” used by Stephens Middle School in California. Students are asked to read and take notes on two articles about social media and formulate questions pertaining to the text prior to class. The desks are arranged to accommodate a group discussion, and everyone brings their articles and questions to the table. The teacher selects a student to begin, and the first of the student questions is: “Why are teens so attached to social media?”
As the discussion gets underway, other students ask questions, encouraging each other to speak, always referring back to the article to support their arguments. The teacher, like Socrates, occasionally interjects with more questions to move the discussion forward. “Do you think your parents should look through your stuff on Facebook? What if someone is bullying you online? Should you show your parents?” After the seminar is over, students reflect on how it went. The students in that session are practicing critical thinking with an underlying philosophical rigor, learning respectful dialogue in a pluralistic society, and also experiencing an increased level of engagement because the topic — social media — is something personally meaningful to them. They’re discovering what they think and feel about important issues like cyberbullying, personal autonomy, and even time management.
When you watch the many online videos of children of all ages engaging in P4C, and listen to P4C practitioners describe how students take to it with ease and alacrity, you come to understand how kids can master it. But I was curious to see more, so I interviewed two teachers who intentionally use P4C in their classroom. The first is Clayton Filter, a social studies teacher in the Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Washington.
“The P4C sessions are wonderful,” he says, “because they present students with highly interesting topics that they can make claims about, knowing fully that they will be expected to justify whatever claim they make.” He told me that a graduate student from the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington comes and leads workshops in his classroom. One of the inquiry dialogues they engaged in was a scenario where students were responsible for creating laws for living on a newly discovered island. The class broke into small groups to come up with several ideas, and then decided on one they believed they could turn into an actual law.
“Students from other groups asked questions and looked for weaknesses or loopholes that may need to be reconsidered or tightened up,” Filter says. “Through this process, students developed an appreciation for the complexity of crafting laws that are both just and effective, while also learning to question and critique arguments.” This use of P4C accomplishes one of Filter’s major goals for his students — to become better writers by focusing on their use of claim, evidence, and reasoning.
The second teacher I spoke to, David Grosskopf, teaches English Language Arts at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. He told me he created a “Philosophy and Literature” course for his students while also consulting with the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children. “Not so long ago,” Grosskopf says, “a student book group and I were discussing The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and the readers were soon having a debate about the nature of good and evil, and questioning the basis for its dichotomy in human psychology.” Every discussion in Grosskopf’s class has since been designed to recreate the vigor of that original dispute about Hyde, contemplating issues such as how much control we have over our lives, how we should live, whether happiness and pleasure are the same thing, and whether happiness is even a big enough purpose in life. “I admire and emulate the approaches and mission of Philosophy for Children,” Grosskopf says. “Teacher voices and closed answers take a back seat to student voices and open, nutritive questions.”
Even teachers who haven’t been tutored in P4C specifically can have the kind of pedagogical disposition from which the seeds of inquiry dialogue can grow. Meaghan Freeman, a teacher in upstate New York, writes in an Atlantic article: “My job as a teacher is to help my students learn, help them become contributing members of culture, and to prepare them for life beyond high school.” She goes on to explain that not only is she exposing her students to great works of literature, she’s teaching them the skills they need to analyze the texts, make connections to American society, and to form their own opinions and defend them. I reached out to Freeman to get a better sense of how her outlook relates to P4C, and she told me, “I think that what teachers have to remember, and the crux of my article, is that we’re still teachers. It’s our job to do what we know is best for our kids — to make them well-rounded, productive citizens.”
Susan Engel in The End of the Rainbow gives a more concrete example of how a teacher not intentionally utilizing a P4C pedagogy may still have a natural inclination for the “Little p” philosophy of P4C. A teacher in a mixed-age (five to eleven) classroom she was advising several years ago was trying to figure out how to accomplish the list of things he wanted his kids to learn that year. It’s worth quoting in full.
“First of all,” he said, “I know they need to do some math. Some of them just need to get better at adding and subtracting. But others are ready for some geometry, and for making complicated calculations. They all need to learn something about proportions. But that’s not all. I want them to learn how to plan. They just sit there waiting for the next piece of work. They seem clueless about how to take an idea and make it a reality, step by step. That’s not something I can tell them. They have to go through it themselves.” But his list didn’t end there. He wanted them to work together. And he wanted them to be confronted by real problems that needed real solutions. He also wanted them to do more independent reading.
He gathered his students into a circle and began talking to them about the problem of reading. What was keeping them from spending more time with their books? They said there were no comfortable seats and no good spots in the room for reading. What, he asked the group, could they do? Make a reading corner in the room? They measured the room. They discussed the other things that needed to happen each day in their class. They quickly realized there wasn’t enough space to dedicate some to a reading corner. “Let’s not stop there,” he urged. “Let’s figure out a solution.” Bent forward eagerly in the circle, increasingly caught up in the challenge of finding a way to read in the classroom, they both talked and listened, making sure they didn’t miss the good idea someone else might suggest. Together, they wound their way toward a good idea: a reading loft.
They spent weeks designing the loft, trying to figure out how to make it nice, how to lift it above the fray of the classroom, how to make sure it didn’t intrude on the space below. They made designs. They asked a parent in the building business to come look at their design. They ordered materials, figuring out along the way what they would have to spend out of the budget allotted to their classroom, and what they might not be able to buy later in the year as a result. And finally, months later, they had built themselves a reading loft.
During that time the students ended up learning something about each of the things their teacher had originally listed (math, planning, collaboration).
This anecdote from Engel illustrates the power of the kind of “learning community” the P4C approach envisions. But implementing P4C in the classroom is not without its challenges. “In order to bring philosophical activity into the context of the classroom,” Chad Miller writes in The Philosopher’s Pedagogy, “teachers must thoughtfully design and implement organized philosophically rich classroom activities and assessments. These do not emerge organically by simply arranging students in a circle or around a table.”
What’s more, our education system views educators as subject-matter specialists — you’re either a math teacher, or an English language arts teacher, etc. — and there isn’t a recognized discipline-specific role for the philosopher in the K-12 classroom. But the philosopher-in-residence isn’t there to dispense knowledge of current or historical philosophers or philosophical schools, or traditional philosophical topics. Dr. Ben Lukey, who became the first philosopher-in-residence at the Kailua Complex, worked to change that perception. He writes:
“I have tried to make my value to the high school community felt not as a professor but as a co-inquirer into the practical and conceptual problems that teachers and students face. In addition…I have tried to foster an interdisciplinary community of inquiry among the teachers, where the focus can linger on discussing the purposes and value of education rather than moving right to devising lesson plans for content mastery. One benefit of the co-participant relationship of the [philosopher-in-residence] and teacher is that philosophy has emerged from the esoteric shadows of the academy to become an activity and mindset appreciated by students and teachers.”
The philosopher-in-residence role comes with its own challenge — namely, funding, which may be the biggest obstacle to widespread use of P4C in the classroom. Schools like those where Clayton Filter and David Grosskopf teach benefit from graduate students from the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington. And for the Kailua High Complex in Hawaii, the University of Hawaii employs both Chad Miller and Ben Lukey in their philosopher-in-residence roles thanks to a grant that funded the Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education there.
It’s not necessary, however, for there to be a philosopher-in-residence for every teacher or even every school — though it would be ideal to have one for each school district that would serve numerous schools. To make the idea appealing to teachers, Miller and his associates have devised a three-part model that begins when a philosopher-in-residence is invited to give a presentation to staff, and interested teachers are invited to follow up. “We typically get a small cohort of teachers that start,” Miller says, “and as they hone their practice and find success, other teachers become interested.” The model itself comprises teachers having educative experiences (heeding Socrates’s call to live the examined life and reflecting on their own intellectual and pedagogical commitments), receiving mentoring and coaching from a philosopher-in-residence, and a participating in a meaningful peer community of inquiry.
“Getting the whole staff onboard the P4C ship is not necessarily the aim,” Miller told me. “We have realized we don’t need every teacher on campus to be doing P4C to create a philosophical culture. Once the students have internalized the skills and dispositions, they will carry them into their non-P4C classes and make them more philosophical.”
In other words, a school district can get a lot of bang for its buck by investing in a philosopher-in-residence. The potential for P4C to transform public education is real, but we must increase awareness of and interest in the movement. If professionals working in colleges and school districts across the country are motivated to become P4C advocates, their support could lead school boards and administrators to carve out spaces in their budgets. It’s difficult to appreciate a topic with such an undeservedly poor reputation as philosophy, but I hope people take the time to watch the videos and listen to experiences of the students, teachers, and philosophers who are making it happen, little by little, every day.
“It is powerful and even magical,” Miller says, “when teachers are part of a meaningful professional community of inquiry. It creates a space to develop their pedagogy together and support each other. P4C started at Kailua High with one teacher, moved to two teachers, and now it is in nearly each school in the complex.”
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A few more students and teachers who have felt the power of P4C shared their stories with me.
P4C has enabled Briana Dashefsky, who just graduated from Kailua High School, to overcome a learning disability. “Growing up with ADHD,” she told me, “it was hard to focus on something. The more I experienced philosophy with Dr. Miller, the more it really helped me in all aspects of life because I was able to recognize when I was going off topic.” Briana plans to attend University of Nevada-Las Vegas in the fall and major in Hospitality Management.
Luis Valenzuela, who had Miller as a teacher and just graduated from Santa Clara University, says his experiences with philosophy even had implications for his emotional life. He had been struggling with fear and anxiety related to aneurysms his father had been having. “I think it helped me become aware of the emotions that I was feeling,” he said. “Philosophy challenged me to experience the sentiments fully and think deeply about how [the aneurysms] affected my life and my mental perspective.”
Jessica Sorce, a pre-service elementary teacher who had taken Miller’s “Philosophy and Children” course at the University of Hawaii, said that before she learned about P4C, she “didn’t really grasp the concept of what it meant, and definitely didn’t understand how you could do what old philosophers are known for doing, with modern school children,” but that her experience with it gave her some background into what her students could think and feel. “If they had the opportunity to genuinely give their ideas and feel like they actually matter,” she told me, “maybe they could believe in themselves little more. Maybe they could understand their knowledge and know that sometimes we don’t have the right answers, but that’s okay.”
Chelsea Yamamoto, another of Miller’s pre-service elementary teachers at the University of Hawaii, said, “At the beginning of the semester I struggled to see how philosophy could be implemented in classrooms and I had a hard time seeing the importance, but that was me being closed-minded. Now, I can’t imagine a class without it! At Waikiki, the class that I joined discussed the topic ‘what if the world had no color?’ It got deep into defining what color is and the effect color has on emotions. That was a class of second graders, and I was mind-blown. Kids have all these interesting questions that we don’t let them discuss because it’s ‘not in the curriculum.’ But there are speaking and listening standards, so there is almost no excuse.”
She’s right. There is no excuse. Philosophy for Children can help accomplish both the pragmatic and the idealistic goals of K-12 education even within the current climate of accountability. Talented and enthusiastic teachers like Chad Miller, Clayton Filter, David Grosskopf, Meaghan Freeman, Jessica Sorce, Chelsea Yamamoto, and others are both willing and able to implement it. And what our children stand to gain is a deeper, more personal and meaningful understanding of traditional subject matter, sound critical thinking skills, and a solid foundation in basic democratic values. What more could we ask of our public education system?
Near the end of his essay The Philosopher’s Pedagogy, Chad Miller writes, “This is a dialogue that should be shared between teachers, parents, grandparents, students, community groups, colleges of education, teacher education programs, state departments of education, and beyond.” I hope this helps continue the dialogue, because I’m confident Philosophy for Children in the K-12 classroom can be a stabilizing force in the current educational maelstrom — and a permanent fixture beyond.