Philosophy. Just the word sounds a little overly pretentious. When I was a kid I thought philosophy was about creating purposefully vague statements that somehow included deep meaning. I remember hearing the paradox: “Can God create a rock so big that even he can’t lift it.” To my 9 year old self, that’s the kind of stuff a philosopher would answer.
My Accidental Discovery of Philosophy
Before my first semester in college, I sat down to put together my schedule and was blown away by all the amazing courses from which to choose. With no real direction for a major, I made a list of probably 100 credit hours of classes that ranged from Intro to Chemistry to Basics Of Criminal Justice. With the exception of advanced math, I was interested in everything. The freedom of learning what I wanted was intoxicating.
Having no idea what to expect from college, I tried to shorten my list and eliminate classes which sounded like there might be even the remotest chance of solving for `x`. In the gap on Tuesdays and Thursdays between Anthropology and Biology I decided to take a risk with Philosophy 101.
This introduction to Philosophy was taught by a professor who wore tie-dyed t-shirts, looked like Jerry Garcia and led us through breathing exercises at the beginning of class. He also introduced us to Plato’s concept of forms which shifted a paradigm for me when it came to learning. Instead of being given a bunch of facts to memorize for a test, I got to think about things like ‘how do I know what’s real,’ ‘what makes something right or wrong’ or ‘what is the optimal number of donuts for breakfast.’ I discovered that I loved to do this type of thinking. Needless to say, I also bought the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty on CD that year.
I Read Plato With My Kids!?
Jumping forward many years (after finishing a philosphy major), I’m married and have kids. It’s so much fun being a dad, but like most parents I stress a lot about getting things right.
I love to read with my kids and better yet, have them read to me. One day I was going through this old antique collection of books from the late 19th century that my wife bought at a library book sale. The books were falling apart but they were full of old classics including Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.
This reminder of Plato gave me the devious idea to read it with my 8 & 9 year old kids having them take turns reading the role of Socrates. After mocking Gloucon’s repeated two-word answers to everything Socrates said, they started picking up on the meaning of the cave.
They strattled the line between reading literally and seeing the intended symbolism which brought on loads of questions. Their imaginations quickly went to work in deciding how they would handle themselves in a similar situation. Listening to them discuss and probe deeper with their questions was like magic at work.
Teaching Philosophy In Schools
Reading Plato with my kids made me curious if schools were teaching philosophy. I found organizations such as PLATO and P4C (Philosophy for Children), among others, that are doing wonderful work supporting and actively creating lesson material for teaching philosophy in schools worldwide. Here is what Michelle Sowey, who runs a philsophy program for children through her Philosophy Club, says:
Studying philosophy cultivates doubt without helplessness, and confidence without hubris. I’ve watched kids evolve to be more rational, sceptical and open-minded, and I’ve seen them interact in more fair-minded and collaborative ways. As one 10-year-old said, “I’ve started to actually solve arguments and problems with philosophy. And it works better than violence or anything else.”
“Teaching Philosophy To Children? It’s a Great Idea” by Michelle Sowey
Dr. Sara Goering, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Program Director for the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington gives a fantastic Ted talk about how philosophy can spark a love of learning in kids.
There isn’t a lot of research into the benefits of introducing philosophy to children but there are some early positive signs. One study found that 9 and 10 year olds who participated in a philosophy class once a week for a year made 2 additional months’ progress in their math and reading scores.
Another study reported similar results with higher test scores in verbal, numerical and spatial abilities and showed that gains persisted when tested 2 years later. Amazingly, it also said: “evidence of maintained gains from thinking skills interventions are rare in the literature even within sectors of education, let alone across sectors.”
Sounds Too Complicated For Kids
Philosophy, simply put, is about inquiry. It’s an attitude of asking questions. And sometimes it’s asking questions about the obvious that we haven’t taken the time to think about. Questions can start simple such as “what gives my life meaning”, “what do I consider beautiful”, “why do I do the things I do” to more complicated topics such as the nature of reality itself. It’s about asking “why” when we’ve never bothered to before.
Asking “why,” as every parent knows, is what kids are extremely well-suited to do. Anybody with a 5 year old knows what it’s like to have “why” on repeat for all the wakeful hours of the day. Kids are programmed to ask their layered and seemingly infinite ‘why’ questions to get to some fundamental truth.
A parent on their toes will have patience and indulge the questions. Kids need to know that it is ok to ask questions. We need to give them the tools to add rigor to their thinking and teach them to not only follow a good argument but to formulate one for themselves.
Teaching Kids How To Think
STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) is all the rage right now and honestly our kids are better for it. The future will bring more technology than we’ve ever seen before and the jobs our kids will have someday likely don’t exist yet.
There’s a big problem though. We are good about teaching kids what to learn but we are failing at teaching them HOW to think. If we want our kids to solve increasingly complicated problems, we need to teach kids a higher order of learning that was so important to some of the greatest thinkers of the past.
Philosophy can do that! It teaches how to distinguish between prejudice, bias, manipulation, misinformation; how to listen and respond to an opposing argument; and how to ask the questions that drive true inquiry.
Why This Blog?
For the last few years my wife and I have followed a hybrid model of education for our school-aged kids. They attend a Montessori charter school which has them attend 1 day a week and the rest of the week is distance learning from home.
As part of the distance learning, we as parents get to customize the curriculum we use. My serendipitous experience reading the Allegory of the Cave with my kids made me really excited to figure out how to include philosophy as a supplement to their learning.
There seems to be growing momentum to add philosophy into school curriculum, but I couldn’t find much material geared towards individual parents for use at home. So I started making a list of philosophers and topics that might be good for us to talk about together. I’ve tried to guide our approach at home in two ways:
- Short topics that we can discuss in one session. Topics include a range of subjects such as friendship, identity, ethics and how to better scrutinize information on the internet. I post these shorter exercises, complete with activities or thought-exercises, on this site.
- Longer study plans that allow us to dig a little deeper and will span several sessions. I also want to give them exposure to the original texts (or translations) but in chunks suitable for their age. This doesn’t mean we go nuts and read Hegel or Kant — but Plato, Aristotle and Descartes are a good start.
Other goals I have as we go through our discussions:
- Help guide my kids to understand the arguments.
- Encourage them to look at counter-examples.
- Build experience looking at things from different angles.
- To ask good questions.
Let’s face it, our kids are already bombarding us with questions–some of which we even have answers for. If you are a homeschool parent or a parent who is ready to embrace that question\answer imbalance, I hope my posts give you a good start for philosophical talk with your kids.