America may be great at many things, but education isn’t one of them.
It’s here that standardized testing creeps behind students like a shadow and where fun experiments take a back seat to rote memorization.
But in some ambitious K-12 schools across the country, philosophy courses have made tangible improvements to the way students learn.
In these classrooms, teachers tackle big concepts like ethics and epistemology. They ask, How can we know what we know? — a classic epistemological quandary — but they use Dr. Seuss to get there.
Inside the classroom
Jana Mohr Lone has taught philosophy at all levels, from preschool to college. She directs the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and for 20 years she’s been the president of PLATO, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing philosophy to schools.
Over that time, she’s learned an important lesson: It doesn’t take much to get kids thinking.
“Our general approach is to start off with some kind of stimulus,” Lone tells Tech Insider. For younger kids, that’s often a picture book or a game. In middle or high school it could be a novel or work of art. “Then we ask the children, ‘So what questions does this make you wonder about?'”
After the inevitable outpouring of curiosity, Lone says teachers will typically put the lesson to a vote — which question do people want to explore the most? The winning topic then forms the basis of a discussion.
Pretty much anything is up for grabs.
Scout and Atticus Finch can stimulate a discussion on the nature of courage. “The Velveteen Rabbit” gets kids thinking about the question, “What is real?” Often, Lone says, the simplest stimuli can produce profound insights. In her 2012 book “The Philosophical Child,” she recalls one particularly poignant lesson involving the nature of existence.
After asking a fifth-grade class whether we can know for sure that we are real people and not part of a virtual simulation, a bright 10-year-old girl sitting up front offered her take.
“Okay,” the girl said, “maybe I can’t know that I am not just the mind of a computer or living in a cave and seeing only shadows. But what I can know is that if I’m thinking about what I can know, I can be sure that at least there is me thinking, even that’s all I can know about myself or anything else.”
Lone was blown away, she writes. “I told her that the philosopher René Descartes had come to a similar conclusion almost four hundred years ago.”
Set for life
Though formal research on the benefits of early exposure to philosophy is still light, anecdotal evidence from the front lines suggests clear benefits.
“It gives them all the skills we want them to learn,” Lone says. Learning philosophy has taught her students to listen better, accept different ways of seeing the world, speak clearly, and articulate their opinions.
One of PLATO’s chief goals is finding creative ways for philosophy to tiptoe into a system that hasn’t been all that accepting of disruption. Lone, for instance, only teaches once a week or every other week in her hometown of Seattle. Frequently, PLATO draws on graduate and doctoral students to work part-time in classrooms.
Graduate student Ariel Sykes has taught philosophy in elementary schools throughout the northeastern U.S..
“I find that students bring the conversation out into the schoolyard and use things we use during our discussions in everyday conversations,” Sykes says. Kids will ask their peers to repeat or clarify their previous point, request reasons if asked to do something, and seek to solve problems before arguing.
One big hurdle to bringing philosophy lessons to school is funding.
Reticent to stray from the core curriculum laid out by the state, many schools fear bringing in additional resources for a program that, from a top-down view, doesn’t seem integral. But for many teachers, philosophy supports other aspects of learning far more than it detracts.
“I think that philosophy has huge cross-curricular appeal,” says Allison Cohen, who teaches philosophy at Langley High School in McLean, Virginia, and sits on PLATO’s board of directors. When she and her students study applied ethics, for example, they ask big philosophical questions about genetic enhancement: Should we produce designer babies? Is cloning morally sound?
“My students will come back from their science classes and talk about what they learned that day,” Cohen says. “And then in their science class they’ll apply some of the concepts we talked about in philosophy.”
In English class, the benefits are even more obvious. Many of the students Cohen teaches are juniors and seniors, which means they are right in the throes of prepping for the SAT and AP exams. The skills learned in philosophy — reason, argument, logic — are essential to aceing the written part of those tests.
“They have to be able to have the argument before they can express the argument,” Cohen says.
Making room for philosophy
While Cohen has the luxury of seeing students five days a week for an entire school year, most elementary schools don’t offer electives. But Lone is skeptical of schools that claim they don’t have the time or money.
“You don’t have a teach a philosophy class in order to get philosophical inquiry into the classroom,” says Lone, who has conducted several webinars on non-philosophy teachers bringing concepts into their studies. “These questions come up in every subject.”
Discussions about America’s suburban sprawl after World War II can spark conversation on personal identity. Simple geometric proofs use logical thinking skills. And the best part, according to Lone, is that philosophy is democratic, so anyone can find a voice.
“I’ll see a child really struggling to articulate what it is he or she is thinking, and the other kids, by April or May, are just quietly sitting there for him or her to finish,” she says. “It’s really powerful for me to see, and I see it almost every year.”