Philosophy in Elementary Schools
How Does It Work?
A person of any age can engage in philosophical thinking.
Young children’s experience is already replete with philosophical questioning and meaning. They have strong, even visceral, intuitions of what is beautiful and ugly, fair and unfair, right and wrong. They enjoy playing with language and are intrigued by logical puzzles. Young children are full of questions – and, significantly, many of their questions have philosophical content.
A number of innovative preschool and kindergarten programs have demonstrated that even very young children are able to take turns giving each other reasons. For example, they preschool children can explain why they think different insects are ugly, scary or beautiful – and they will alter their judgments as a result of the conversation.
As children approach adolescence, they often begin to focus on more existential questions such as: What does it all mean? Is life ever fair? What is the purpose of my life?
Philosophy in elementary schools is not about imposing an unfamiliar, ancient, and highly intellectual discipline on children, in the hope it might be good for them. It is about giving children the opportunity to explore ethical, aesthetic, political, logical and other philosophical aspects of their experiences.
These experiences are already intensely meaningful for them, but are not often given attention in schools (or elsewhere). Giving children an avenue to examine these ideas and concepts allows them to think for themselves and to learn to express clearly and confidently the way they see the world.
Asking philosophical questions encourages curiosity and imagination!
In elementary schools, philosophy instructors typically uses picture books, hands-on activities and games, or personal stories as prompts for thinking about philosophical questions.
The content of philosophy discussions in elementary school is not the traditional philosophical arguments taught in college philosophy courses, or the traditional philosophical sub-disciplines of ethics, aesthetics, metaphysics, political philosophy and logic, or even the important figures in the history of philosophy – though some of this may become meaningful for children once they have some experience with philosophy.
The objectives and structure of any elementary school philosophy program should reflect the children’s ages and socio-cultural context.
Some students need several months of practice in order to understand the difference between a question, an answer and a reason, or to be comfortable taking turns talking in a group.
Philosophical engagement with young children needs to be more playful and multi-sensory than philosophy with older children.
Draw students’ attention to philosophical concepts like fairness, person, mind, beauty, cause, time, number, truth, citizen, good and right – concepts that are already implicated in children’s experience. Understanding the philosophical dimension of these concepts helps children to make their experiences more meaningful, in both senses of that word: more understandable and richer, more worthwhile.
Philosophy in Middle Schools
How Does It Work?
Students ages 11 to 15 have a sizeable array of facts about the world and the ability to follow, critique, and mount sustained arguments.
Due to the social nature of this age group, we strongly recommend that philosophy classes focus mainly on philosophical discussion and reflection, rather than teaching the philosophical canon. Middle school students are more apt to learn from social interactions rather than from solo activities. This approach is also consistent with the understanding that philosophy is an activity, rather than a static body of knowledge.
- 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.
- In-school programs such as philosophy clubs can meet informally for guided discussions during lunch or after school and might be more activity based.
- Programs outside of schools might work through community-based organizations and include camps, after-school programs, homeschooling groups, and other similar programs.
What practical considerations should I keep in mind when developing a middle school philosophy program?
Middle school philosophy programs take many shapes and sizes, depending on the student population as well as when and where philosophy class is held. There are two general ways middle school philosophy teachers tend to organize philosophy curriculum and lesson plans:
This curriculum structure builds philosophical skills and content over time, bringing topics in to illustrate or hone particular skills and concepts.
This curriculum structure assumes no knowledge of prior discussions; each meeting considers a new topic such as: fairness, knowledge, or the environment.
What texts might be appropriate for philosophy in middle school?
Plato Was Wrong! Footnotes on Doing Philosophy with Young People
by David Shapiro
This book describes many activities and games for exploring philosophical questions and problems, and is especially appropriate for middle school students.
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 David A. White
This book 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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Philosophy in High Schools
How Does It Work?
Currently, philosophy is not a required or frequently taught subject in high schools in the United States. But in recent years, a growing number of high schools, public as well as private, have developed highly successful philosophy electives, as well as philosophy clubs and ethics bowl teams.
For most adolescents, the perennial questions posed by philosophy have urgency and personal significance.
Philosophy can and should be taught in high school because this is the ideal time for students to engage its questions, arguments, and rigorous methods of thinking. High school students have not yet fully formed their habits of mind. They remain open, inquisitive, and intellectually playful.
Why should philosophy be taught to high school students?
High school students have developed the skills that enable them to begin serious work in reading philosophical texts, identifying and evaluating arguments, and constructing arguments of their own. From a school-wide perspective, philosophy can be invaluable because the skills it imparts are transferable to every part of the curriculum that emphasizes clear thinking, reading, and writing.
Because the discipline of philosophy is unfamiliar to many adults, there is sometimes resistance to proposals to teach high school philosophy classes.
One obstacle to introducing a high school philosophy class or program is the perception that it is either frivolous or better suited to college. Teachers should be prepared to defend the importance and rigor of the course as well as its appropriateness for high school.
Philosophy connects to all the other subjects: its fundamental questions apply to all disciplines and address the full range of human experience.
For example, questions about ethics and free will deepen students’ appreciation for great literature, and analysis of the mind-body problem and free will afford students a critical perspective when they study the brain in psychology. Additionally, the consideration of power and authority can inform how students think about topics within history.
Check out PLATO’s 2021 webinar on teaching philosophy in high school!
What does a high school philosophy class look like?
- Political Philosophy
- Free Will & Determinism
- Philosophy of Mind
- Philosophy of Religion
The chief objective of a high philosophy course should be to engage students in the activity of doing philosophy.
Although philosophy can be taught as an historical survey or structured around a set of texts, these approaches are less appropriate or effective for high school students than a topical course organized around a set of key questions that invite conversation, analysis, and discussion.
Use a variety of approaches and methods.
A carefully chosen thought experiment, case, story, or film clip can work effectively and excite students’ philosophical interest. You can also assign journal entries that enable students to explore philosophical questions independently before or after a class discussion.
What texts are appropriate for a high school philosophy program?
Teachers new to teaching a philosophy course in high school are fortunate in that they can draw from a wide range of philosophy texts and readers.
Primary Source Readers
- Louis Pojman, Philosophy: The Quest for Truth (Oxford, 2008).
- G Lee Bowie et al, Twenty Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy (Thomson 2004).
Annotated Primary Source Readers
- Laurence Bonjour and Ann Baker, Philosophical Problems: An Annotated Anthology (Pearson Longman 2007).
Two-Volume Reader of Primary and Secondary Sources
- Nils Ch. Rauhut, Ultimate Questions: Thinking about Philosophy (Penguin, 2004).
- Nils Ch. Rauhut, Readings on the Ultimate Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, 2nd edition (Penguin, 2007).
Secondary Sources with Short Primary Source Readings
- William Lawhead, The Philosophical Journey: An Interactive Approach (McGraw Hill, 2006). (Note: includes excellent questionnaires on philosophical questions.)
- Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction Through Thought Experiments, third edition (McGraw Hill, 2006).
- Adam Morton, Philosophy in Practice: An Introduction to the Main Questions, 2nd edition (Blackwell 2004).
Collections of Thought Experiments
- Stephen Law, The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (Headline, 2004).
- Peg Tittle, What If…Collected Thought Experiments in Philosophy (Pearson Longman, 2005).
- Julian Baggini, The Pig that Wants to Be Eaten: One Hundred Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher (Plume, 2006).
Texts for Philosophical Methods and Argument Structure
- Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl, The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002).
- Jay Rosenberg, The Practice of Philosophy: A Handbook for Beginners (Prentice Hall, 1996).
- Elliott Sober, Core Questions in Philosophy: A Text with Readings (Prentice Hall, 2005).