Philosophy in Middle School
Middle school students are natural questioners and thinkers (just like elementary school children – see our Teaching Elementary School Philosophy Guide). To those of us who view philosophical thinking as a life skill, middle school is a time when this skill is much in demand.
Students ages 11 to 15 have a sizeable array of facts about the world and the ability to follow, critique, and mount sustained arguments.
Middle school students are thus well primed to engage in philosophical reflection, and can benefit immensely from the skills and concepts that philosophy provides. In addition, this age group is often a joy with which to work because they engage deeply with many key philosophical issues.
What does middle school philosophy look like?
Due to the social nature of middle school aged students, we strongly recommend that philosophy classes focus mainly on philosophical discussion and reflection, rather than teaching the philosophical canon.
There are two general ways middle school philosophy teachers organize philosophy curriculum and lesson plans:
PROGRESSIVE: This curriculum structure builds philosophical skills and content over time, bringing topics in to illustrate or hone particular skills and concepts.
TOPICAL: This curriculum structure assumes no knowledge of prior discussions; each meeting considers a new topic such as: fairness, knowledge, or the environment.
What practical considerations should I keep in mind when developing a middle school philosophy program?
Middle school students are more apt to learn from social interactions rather than from solo activities. This approach is also consonant with the understanding that philosophy is an activity rather than a static body of knowledge.
- In-school programs such as philosophy clubs can meet informally for guided discussions during lunch or after school and might be more activity based.
- More formal programs include teaching a philosophy unit as part of an existing middle school class, or creating elective courses for which grades may be assigned.
- Programs outside of schools might work through community-based organizations and include camps, after-school programs, homeschooling groups, etc.
What materials are appropriate for a middle school philosophy program?
For a step-to-step guide on how to create a pre-college philosophy program, go to Creating a Pre-College Philosophy Program or Download the PDF.
by S. Sage Essman
This book, for a middle-school audience, presents engaging stories. Despite the title, it is not intended as a comprehensive overview of philosophy or even of Socrates’s thought.
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by Jana Mohr Lone and Michael D. Burroughs
This book offers a discussion of many of the theoretical issues involved in pre-college philosophy, and includes an array of lesson plans for middle school philosophy classes.
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by David A. White
This book, for children in grades 4-12, focuses on philosophical issues raised by well-known philosophers including such questions as, “Who are your friends?” “Can computers think?” “Can something logical not make sense?” “Can you think about nothing?” It contains activities, teaching tips, a glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading.
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Middle School Philosophy Program Success Stories
University of Memphis Philosophical Horizons Program
The Philosophical Horizons program at the University of Memphis began when a graduate student in the philosophy department who had previously taught philosophy outside of academia approached Memphis school principals—without prior acquaintance—to explore interest in a philosophy discussion group at no cost. The program has become a formal component of graduate student education at UM and part of the curriculum in participating Memphis schools.
Landover Middle School’s Lunchtime Philosophy Discussion Group
Landover Middle School’s lunchtime philosophy discussion group began when a teacher in the district who had experience teaching philosophy took over the district’s gifted and talented program and decided to open the philosophy component to everyone.
University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children
The University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children in Seattle facilitated a weekly philosophy class, including a six-week unit on “Moral Philosophy and Genocide,” at a public middle school for many years. The class began when the director, who was doing philosophy classes in the school district, observed that eighth-grade students were reading about genocide in literature classes and had no real structure for discussing the moral questions the readings raised. The interdisciplinary unit included philosophy, language arts and history —subject areas teachers participate. It was eventually approved by the local school district as part of the permanent curriculum.