Bringing Philosophy To Elementary School


Some fifth grade students in Irvine, California are getting an introduction to philosophy some eight years ahead of normal thanks to a new program developed by Marcello Fiocco, associate professor of philosophy at UC Irvine. The program, called TH!NK, is a four-week, 16-hour course taught by Fiocco and UC Irvine philosophy graduate students at Canyon View Elementary School. The idea is to present philosophy as a practical set of skills, rather than as a subject matter. Here is how Fiocco pitches it:

Philosophy is more like reading or riding a bike than American history or psychology… Philosophy is critical thinking; it’s the skill of examining presuppositions, recognizing connections, seeking justification – all toward the end of providing insight into something of interest. The primary goal of TH!NK is to prepare young minds for future learning and reflective careers.

He and graduate student Kourosh Alizadeh say more about the program in this short video:

You can read more about it here.

For more philosophy programs for children, check out this post (and the comments).

(via Sara Connor)

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Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
6 years ago

The argument that’s often put forward for teaching philosophy in schools is that it trains students in critical thinking. It’s a sad indictment of any education system if critical thinking is hived off to a one-hour class once a week. Training in critical thinking is supposed to happen all the time in all classes, alongside the learning of facts. It is a fallacy to conflate critical thinking per se with philosophy. The kind of critical thinking that is needed in practical affairs, what the Ancient Greeks called ‘practical wisdom’, is not best exemplified by philosophy. Philosophy is a highly abstract and abstruse field that exercises a narrow range of theoretical or verbal reasoning skills, what the Ancient Greeks called ‘theoretical wisdom’.

Not everyone is able to exercise abstract thinking to a high enough degree to gain much benefit from philosophy. For example, most French students fail the philosophy component of the baccalauréat.* Aristotle rightly argued that children are not suited to the study of ethics (and by extension, much of philosophy), because they lacked the experience and maturity to fully understand the consequences of their actions and ideas. There is certainly a place for philosophy in schools for students of sufficient maturity and aptitude, but there is really no justification for foisting it on young children, or those of a more practical bent.

*Katie Engelhart, ‘French students debate mandatory philosophy exam’, Macleans, August 14, 2013, online.Report

Chandler
Chandler
Reply to  Ben Gibran
6 years ago

Few things. First, I don’t know if you stated that “it is a fallacy to conflate critical thinking per se with philosophy” because you believe that it is being construed as such in this article, but if so you are mistaken. The professor explicitly states in the video that the purpose of the program is to show students that critical thinking is something they do “all the time”. Philosophy isn’t the only class that teaches critical thinking. However, philosophy is the only field that has critical/analytical thinking and logic at its core. Philosophy is not the only class that does this, but it is the best course to instill a critical mentality.

Second, you may be right that teaching children philosophy is not the way to go. However, I don’t think that the same can be said about the “more practical bent”. Slate wrote a great article detailing the work of two Oxford professors who found a strong correlative link between Engineers and terrorists. Link:
http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2009/12/buildabomber.htmlReport

David
David
6 years ago

Wittgenstein would not approve.Report

Alan Richardson
6 years ago

By the way, if you are interested in this type of activity, the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children is having its 2015 Conference at UBC in June: http://icpic2015.educ.ubc.ca/.Report

Kolja Keller
Kolja Keller
6 years ago

I actually got into philosophy partially because I did it at elementary school age. I was in a small bi-weekly philosophy group with Dr. Barbara Brüning at the University of Hamburg when I was in elementary school. If you can read German, here is a link to her homepage with a list of publications, among them her 1985! dissertation about doing philosophy with elementary school age kids. For those interesting in the topic and the ability to read this, there might be some interesting sources.

http://www.bruening-hamburg.de/Report

Charles
Charles
6 years ago

Oh my Ben, I’m sorry but you really wish to confine philosophy to a very narrow interpretation. Highly abstract and abstruse?

Children can, and do, learn the skills of critical thinking, and basic logic, as early as they can learn basic math, or earlier. Often however, just not very well. Likewise, children learn some type of ethics practically from birth, though perhaps not to evaluate their actions very well. Though a toddlers egocentrism will preclude an immediate understanding of more formal ethics, consequences are inevitable, and understanding at some level will happen whether you, or Aristotle acknowledge its validity as philosophical thought or not. The perfunctory explanation that it is of no use to begin that process of critical analysis at some very basic level very early seems similar to the clearly debunked idea to start foreign language training in high school rather than pre-school. Further, it is easier to accept the “practical bent” when no “abstract” option has been provided. Open up Ben. Critical thinking can be taught and “practical affairs” happen way before adulthood.Report

Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
6 years ago

Nothing in the article you cite shows that teaching children philosophy reduces their chances of becoming terrorists. In the article, the authors suggest that over-representation of engineers among terrorists may have to do with the “mindset” that leads someone to choose an engineering career. if such a mindset is ingrained in brain physiology, an early education in philosophy is unlikely to mitigate it.Report

Ben Gibran
Ben Gibran
6 years ago

I agree with you that critical thinking can be taught, but I disagree that teaching philosophy is the best way to teach critical thinking. Certainly, the problems of metaphysics don’t crop up in everyday practical reasoning, and seem a very tangential and inefficient method of teaching critical thinking. As for philosophical ethics, there isn’t much evidence that professional ‘ethicists’ make better moral decisions than the average educated layperson (just look at the lives of most moral philosophers).

Everyday ethical decisions are usually grounded in experience, and are highly context-dependent. Furthermore, moral decision-making has a great deal to do with human psychology, which does not always conform to formal models of ‘rationality’. Nevertheless, our psychology is part of what makes us human, so is an important source of moral values (though by no means straightforwardly so). For example, many people decide to stop eating meat simply as a result of watching documentaries on the treatment of animals in slaughterhouses. The same people would probably not equate the life of an adult chimpanzee to that of a human infant, even though the two are pretty much the same physiologically.

In both examples I cited, the actors probably do not have a philosophical theory to back up their decision, and the decision is partly grounded in an ‘irrational’ psychological trait that makes us value human infants more than adult chimps, or feel fine with eating animals as long as we don’t see them slaughtered, only to stop eating them once we do see them slaughtered (on the flip side, people who work in slaughterhouses appear to become de-sensitized to violence in general, so too much exposure isn’t a good thing either*).

To a philosophical ethicist, the grounds for our ethical decisions are often laughably absurd and arbitrary. In order to reflect on our own moral values, we need to have some idea of who we are, including all the psychological and cultural baggage that we’ve inherited. It is not psychologically possible to set all that aside in favor of a formal moral theory, and anyone who thinks they have done so are practicing self-deception. Toddlers are not capable of grasping the complexities of human nature in a way that would allow them to make much practical sense of any moral theories presented to them. Furthermore, the notion of ‘neutrality’ is a contested one, and it is likely that teachers will pass on their own moral baggage to pupils under the guise of teaching philosophy.

The former Soviet Union tried to train young children to be good Communists, but as soon as the kids entered society, most of them realized that life was a lot more complicated, and jettisoned political theory for ‘common sense’. The same fate would probably befall any formal philosophy that we teach young children in schools. They will have to work through that as they grow up, along with all the other baggage they pick up, using resources that they probably didn’t acquire in a formal philosophy course.

*Emma Richards; Tania Signal and Nik Taylor , ‘A Different Cut? Comparing Attitudes toward Animals and Propensity for Aggression within Two Primary Industry Cohorts—Farmers and Meatworkers ‘, Society & Animals, 2013, Volume 21, Issue 4, 395 – 413.Report

jacobbbplus
6 years ago

It indeed is sad that kids don’t think critically very well. However, you can cram a lot into an hour. For instance, the day my 10th grade English teacher slapped a list of common fallacies in front of the class was particularly life-changing for me.Report

Grimacing Tomato
Grimacing Tomato
6 years ago

“Philosophy” is made up of both practical and abstract ideas. “Formal” decision-making and morality shouldn’t be valued any differently from just decision-making and just morality. The course isn’t treating philosophy like a category or subject, and isn’t telling the students in bullet points what to think, like a “formal philosophy course” would be manipulated to do. The point is to expose students to an environment in which asking questions and critically thinking is encouraged, and that mindset can carry into other subjects and situations, both practical and abstractical; they’re figuring it out for themselves, while some children wouldn’t know that they could figure it out for themselves without this.Report