Challenges and Growth: The Improvement of Ewha Saturday Philosophy Class
Guest Blog Post from Chaeyeon Lee (Philosophy Ph.D. Student, University of Iowa)
It has already been a decade since Ewha Saturday Philosophy Class (ESPC), a Philosophy for Children (P4C) program in South Korea, started with only two classes and 32 students. In 2013, Dr. Ji-Aeh Lee, a professor of philosophy at Ewha Womans University, and her colleagues launched the P4C program based on Matthew Lipman’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children Program (IAPC), with the purpose of introducing Korean students ages 9-15 to philosophy, and making it open to the public.
ESPC is a semester-long, biweekly program with ten sessions. Students discuss philosophical topics under the guidance of an instructor for two and a half hours every other Saturday morning. Before the pandemic, it was an in-person program at the Humanitas building at Ewha Womans University. I still vividly recall the wonderful vibe the place had every other Saturday, with the priceless sound of children laughing. ESPC has been held in virtual classrooms on Zoom since the Fall of 2020, but we look forward to resuming in-person mode next semester.
This fall’s 18th ESPC is ongoing, with ten classes led by 11 teachers (philosophy professors and lecturers) and 120 students, which shows remarkable growth since the beginning of the program. The 18th ESPC has two classes for each of the five age groups (9, 10, 11, 12, and 13-15 years old) and a brand-new course, “Philosophy through Picture Books,” designed for eight-year-old students. This course is on ESPC’s test bed, along with “Philosophy through Filmmaking,” which aims to cultivate students’ philosophical thinking through the process of writing scripts, filming and editing a philosophical movie.
Looking back on my six years at ESPC (Spring 2017-Spring 2022), I realize that we have constantly been able to systematize and improve our program, thanks to our students and their parents. As a former instructor and program organizer of ESPC, I received a lot of helpful feedback from them after class and during student-teacher interviews or parent-teacher conferences. Most students provided me with positive feedback on the program, making me stay motivated to participate in the P4C program. They usually said they were grateful for the opportunity to discuss philosophical issues, which was difficult to have in public schools. However, not all feedbacks were positive when it came to their parents. Some parents made somewhat negative comments and raised pedagogical challenges around two big questions about ESPC and P4C in general: How can we show the educational value and effect of P4C in a way parents can understand?; How can we support students to keep conducting their philosophical inquiries outside the ESPC classroom?
How can we show the value and effect of P4C to parents?
On the first days of the program, Dr. Lee held a parent-teacher conference in the form of a many-to-one meeting to explain the goals, values, and methodology of ESPC. It helped parents to understand the importance of cultivating multi-dimensional thinking (critical thinking, creative thinking, and caring thinking) through philosophy. Moreover, they came to hope to see their children’s significant improvement in such thinking skills in ESPC. Against their expectations, however, some parents reported difficulty in seeing what their children had learned in P4C classes during a semester. Most were the parents of new adolescents who did not like to talk to their parents about everyday things, including what they had discussed with their classmates. Some parents had even looked at their children’s ESPC textbooks to check what they had written during classes, but the textbooks could not give the parents satisfactory answers. Even though we sent a student evaluation report to them and had a parent-teacher meeting at the end of the semester to discuss their student’s growth, it was hard for them to wait until then, suppressing their curiosity.
By contrast, returning students’ parents did not worry about the effectiveness of ESPC and, thankfully, believed in the instructors and organizers of the program. Part of the reason was that they knew that one’s development in critical thinking took much more time than mastering how to solve Algebra problems. Moreover, they had already experienced how the program had helped their children’s intellectual development over a long period. Even so, as the program grew with many new students, we had to find an efficient way to communicate with parents to let them know students’ overall behaviors, attitudes, strengths, and weaknesses.
In 2019, in response to the feedback, ESPC decided to provide additional resources and services after the first half of the semester: a Mid-term parent-teacher conference, student-teacher interview, and student evaluation report. This immediate solution has worked so far, and parents no longer provide us with the same feedback. Still, effective communication with parents is an ongoing issue for us because the ESPC instructors are struggling with a large workload. Furthermore, this issue relates to the more fundamental questions about how to make parents recognize what philosophy is, and how meaningful it is in our lives. Especially in South Korea, where most K-12 students are busy going to private academies on weekends, we need to demonstrate that doing philosophy is valuable enough for children to spend their limited free-time on it.
How can we support students’ philosophical inquiries in their everyday life?
The other feedback I got from parents also relates to the fundamental questions I just mentioned. Some parents told me their children wanted to keep discussing the topics covered in ESPC with their parents after class, but the parents did not know how to engage in such a discussion or how to help them improve. As a solution, they asked us to make a list of books we would recommend reading with their children. At this point, we realized that a P4C program should be accompanied by a Philosophy for Parents program, so that children’s growth as little philosophers could continue in their daily lives. We should help parents understand that learning philosophy is not merely reading philosophers’ “great books,” but instead about doing philosophy–the process of wondering, inquiring, and deliberating on philosophical questions.
As a part of the effort to introduce philosophy to parents, in 2018 ESPC launched Ewha Liberal Arts Academy, a philosophy course for adults designed for students’ parents. Since this course is more of a public lecture series, and does not apply a P4C methodology, ESPC aims to further develop a philosophy program for parents. In addition, in 2020, a couple of ESPC instructors published What I Needed in Child Care was Philosophy (written in Korean) for parents, a book that addresses philosophical problems parents may face in their caregiving practices. Although ESPC has faced complex challenges, I believe that the program’s instructors and organizers can find solutions with the help of our ESPC community—our students and their supportive parents. I look forward to seeing how the program will improve over the next ten years.