By Alex Chang

When I first came back to the classroom after a year of remote teaching, I was ecstatic. After a year behind a screen, I could not wait to be back with students, witnessing their actions, reactions, and everything in between in person. My excitement was compounded by the fact that I had recently moved to Michigan and accepted a teaching position at a new charter school founded on the principles of trauma-informed practices. The majority of our students would be attending from a residential foster care agency, and many struggled with severe cognitive and/or emotional impairments. Having developed an appreciation for Restorative Justice and relationship-based classroom management while in Boston, I was eager to learn more about these practices.

The challenges my colleagues and I faced may not be surprising given the context; our unique student population led to some extreme behaviors and the new status of our school inevitably led to staffing issues, leadership turnover, and other infrastructural complications. What became increasingly clear as time went by was that our role there as teachers was less about providing academic instruction, and more about designing conditions that allowed for our students to make it through the school day safely. This led me to shift my thinking about the overall purpose and goals of our work as educators. What was more important: delivering relevant, standards-aligned lessons or keeping the students safe and happy? Obviously both are essential, but what do we prioritize in the wake of a global pandemic? This question seemed to echo throughout the world of education as teachers across the country grappled with the fallout from COVID.

Interestingly enough, these questions brought me back to philosophy. Before becoming a teacher, I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and spent a considerable amount of time thinking about and doing philosophy with children. In Boston, I had established a philosophy elective for a small group of 6th graders, the goals of which had been primarily academic in nature. My principal had given permission for the philosophy class with the understanding that students would demonstrate growth in reading and writing. Thus, I prioritized learning activities that most closely aligned with Common Core ELA standards. I presented students with “classic” philosophical questions, as well as the accounts of well-known philosophers, the merits and pitfalls of which we analyzed and discussed as a class. Students were assessed on their familiarity with various philosophical frameworks through their own writing.The class was experimental, joyful, and rigorous. I wanted to recreate this experience for my current students in Michigan.

But the reality was my students did not yet have the skills to fully participate in such a community, and this wasn’t just the case in the trauma-informed school I worked in. Even when I transitioned from the alternative charter school to a more traditional public school, I noticed students, regardless of their age or academic ability, struggling to do exactly what I had been so eager to return to with in-person learning: be with each other. I don’t just mean occupying the same space as each other (although, to be sure, students definitely struggled to share space safely) but also acknowledging each other emotionally and intellectually. In both social conversations and more structured class discussions, I noticed students were quicker to judge and frustrate when faced with challenge or disagreement. They asked fewer questions, and the ones they did ask were usually what we might consider “on the line” questions: easily and uniquely answerable. In addition to the academic gaps created by the pandemic, it seemed there were significant social-emotional gaps, as well. My question then became: How could philosophy help?

To answer this question, I collaborated with Laura Soter, a former classmate at Carleton College, then studying philosophy at the University of Michigan, to pursue a curriculum development project aimed at promoting social-emotional learning through philosophical inquiry. We intentionally departed from a content-based approach, designing each lesson not around a specific philosophical topic, but what we considered philosophical skills: asking questions, respecting disagreement, giving reasons, considering hypotheticals, etc. Unlike in the elective I taught in Boston, we were less interested in whether or not a student could effectively apply a philosophical framework, and more interested in how they related to each other as they did so. To this end, we engaged students in activities such as questioning and perspective taking games that required them to listen carefully and work together to achieve a common understanding. (For more examples of interactive philosophy activities see Plato Was Wrong!:Footnotes on Doing Philosophy with Young People by David Shapiro and Philosophical Inquiry: Combining the Tools of Philosophy with Inquiry-Based Teaching and Learning by Philip Cam.)

The overall impact of our programming was small – about 15 students in total participated in 6 one-hour sessions – but meaningful. In reviewing the feedback we collected from the students, Laura and I noticed how many of the students identified a growth in confidence with sharing their thoughts and ability to collaborate with others. This is particularly noteworthy given that these were students who normally struggled in class, both academically and socially. One of my quietest students (imagine a child who shook anytime she was asked to speak) wrote in her feedback: “I really enjoyed the classes. They were a nice break from being told what to think all day from my other classes and helped my brain start thinking, creating again. I enjoyed trying to expand my thinking.” 

The above quote speaks to how philosophy may have an ameliorative impact on both the academic and social-emotional growth of students. After participating in even a short program of philosophical instruction that prioritized social-emotional skills in its design, these students felt the overall impact of philosophy on their ability to create, connect, and communicate. I started to wonder what impact a longer, more consistently implemented program might have. 

There is no doubt that COVID left an indelible mark on the lives of our students, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. I believe that the philosophical social-emotional learning we provided right after a long period of struggle and separation was much needed and well-timed. However, as a middle school teacher of 6 years, I can safely say that even without a global pandemic, young adults are in great need of consistent, integrated, and joyful social-emotional support. These three adjectives are key in my mind. The first two address a need for social-emotional learning to expand beyond third-party programs presented to students in homerooms or advisory once a week. Just as we want our academic teaching to be relevant and authentic, so should our social-emotional teaching. This means giving students authentic opportunities to practice interactive and self-regulating skills, which means (despite the example I provided above) that ideally, the kind of philosophical inquiry that encourages social emotional learning would not happen in isolated settings, but as an integrated part of the students’ learning day. 

But it’s one thing to integrate social-emotional learning; it’s another to get students engaged. This is where joy comes in. It’s fairly uncontroversial to say that middle school students can be ornery. Unlike their elementary counterparts, teenagers can be more self-conscious, more wary of judgment, and less likely to freely express their opinions with their peers. Philosophy, when presented intentionally, can provide engaging and joyful opportunities for students to practice these skills. Why? Because philosophy is fun. It’s whimsical and naturally appeals to the parts of teenagers that we’re trying to tap back into: their creativity, reflection, and wonder. It’s also challenging, can be adapted for a wide range of academic abilities, and perhaps best of all: there’s rarely one right answer. What better way for students to engage in risk-taking, collaboration, and questioning? What better way for students to grow as whole people? 

There could be better ways, of course. I’m not claiming that philosophy is a panacea for all social-emotional challenges. What I am suggesting is 1) we consider ways in which philosophy might address the “softer” skill gaps created by the pandemic in addition to academic gaps, 2) that we begin to view social-emotional learning as something that can happen through more intellectually charged activities such as philosophy and 3) that philosophy may be an ideal vehicle for such learning. While philosophy can provide a rigorous academic experience such as that experienced by my 6th graders in Boston, so too does it naturally cultivate those skills that we seek to develop in young adults struggling to make sense of an increasingly complex world. 

I would love to hear your thoughts on the connections between philosophy and social emotional learning! Feel free to comment below or email me at alebearchang[at]gmail[dot]com

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