Arts & Humanities

Philosophy Prof Encourages Teaching Philosophy To Kids

Critical thinking in philosophy is more about learning to ask questions – the ‘big’ questions – most of which have no definitive right or wrong answer.
By Tura King, Texas A&M Marketing & Communications July 7, 2015

Dr. Claire Katz
Dr. Claire Katz

Most people think of philosophy as such a weighty subject it can only be studied at the college level, but Dr. Claire Katz, a professor of philosophy and women’s and gender studies at Texas A&M University, says that idea is wrong.

“Children in elementary, junior and senior high schools are taught that critical thinking is more about problem solving the way math, science or engineering problems are solved. Critical thinking in philosophy is more about learning to ask questions – the ‘big’ questions – most of which have no definitive right or wrong answer but which nonetheless compel us to keep searching for those answers,” says Katz.

“It is about learning to read and think critically and imaginatively, to notice what is both present and absent in what we read and hear,” she adds. “It is about being asked to provide evidence or support for one’s view and to ask that of others. Philosophical dialogues, unlike other kinds of conversations, have a forward trajectory. It might not look like it at times, but we are trying to move the dialogue in a forward direction.”

Katz uses a series of books specially designed to fit different age-developmental levels and each with characters facing different philosophical and ethical questions. Using these books as a starting point, the children learn to ask a wide range of philosophical questions such as what does it mean to be a friend, how do I know if I am dreaming or awake, what is the nature of government and ethical questions including those about bullying, e.g., do they have a responsibility to stop bullying?

Claire Katz with daughters
Claire Katz with her daughters Olivia Conway (13), and Evelyn Conway (10)

She explains that the discussion of a philosophical problem from various points of view helps children see the problem from many different sides and encourages them to reason what might be right and wrong based on how well a position or view can be supported. The different perspectives move students to an increasingly more sophisticated and nuanced understanding of not only ethical questions but also other philosophical questions.

Most children already know that making ethical decisions is complex — teaching them philosophical reasoning validates that experience and provides intellectual tools for dealing with that complexity, Katz notes. For this reason, she says she believes the philosophy for children program provides a better approach for addressing bullying than just declaring “bullying is wrong,” and then telling kids not to do it. Children learn to think through the ethical problem and understand the reasons why bullying or other such behaviors might be wrong.

Katz says this program has already demonstrated that it is an effective approach for addressing not only bullying but other ethical issues found in schools today such as respect, tolerance and peer pressure. She notes that this video featuring the Rokeby primary school in London, shows the school firmly believes the introduction of a philosophy for children program not only improved their students’ intellectual development but also their emotional and moral development.

Katz, the author of a book that offers new insight into the importance of education and its potential to transform democratic society – “Levinas and the Crisis of Humanism” – says she has long been an advocate of teaching philosophical reasoning to children. (Her book is available here).

“Philosophy for Children is near and dear to me — and with the outpouring of interest and support, I find it almost humorous to remember when I first studied for a master’s degree in this program in 1987, no one had heard of philosophy for children and everyone to whom I mentioned the program was skeptical,” she notes.

While it is generally believed kids can’t reason, or reason well, Katz recalls an enlightening experience while working with a group of middle school students at St. Francis Catholic School in Salisbury, Md, while she also was teaching at Salisbury University. A conversation with a 6th grade teacher at St. Francis led to combining one of her college level philosophy classes with her class at St. Francis for a philosophical discussion.

She found the results were amazing.

“The passionate discussion centered on animal rights and the ethics of animal research. In watching the discussion, I would not have been able to tell the difference between the two groups of students, and the level of their reasoning and discussion, except for the fact that the young students wore school uniforms,” Katz explains. “The two groups showed the utmost respect for each other, even when the discussion became intense.”

While teaching philosophy to children was almost unheard of when Katz first became interested in the program, it has gained momentum through centers such as the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.

“This is the original program, on which all the others are modeled. Mat Lipman, the founder, along with Ann Sharp, died not long ago. But I am so glad he was able to live to see the enthusiasm for this program grow both nationally and internationally,” Katz says.

She is holding workshops for teachers that can help them develop philosophy programs in their schools. One such workshop – “Thinking in Action: Creative Reasoning, Critical Reflection and Philosophy for Children” – is planned for July 8 from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in Rudder Tower, Room 701.

By presenting workshops for teachers, Katz says she believes the teachers will not only see these children awaken intellectually but they might be better able to help address some of the issues such as bullying, conduct and ethical behavior in their schools.

The best part for Katz? “The kids love this program! You can see the immediate impact on them as they learn to ask philosophical questions and observe their own thinking improve. Kids of any school age can learn to do philosophy. I’ve seen this happen every single time I’ve worked with kids.”

For more about this and future workshops, contact Dr. Martha Green with Texas A&M’s Public Partnership & Outreach. Public Partnership & Outreach in the Office of the Provost provides outreach services to enhance the relationships and scholarly engagement of faculty, departments and colleges with the goal of strengthening the university’s service to the people of Texas.

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