Predictably, an interview with a Texas A&M University philosophy professor about a philosophy program for children quickly turned philosophical.
Studies have shown improved academic performance among K-12 students who engage in philosophical questioning facilitated by teachers through a pedagogical method called Philosophy for Children (P4C). However, in most of the nation’s primary and secondary public schools and many private schools, philosophy is not taught.
This is not the case in Bryan-College Station, Texas, where Texas A&M University undergraduate and graduate students taking Professor of Philosophy Claire Katz’s P4C class and laboratory are helping to lead thoughtful philosophical discussions and interactive activities among youth in local schools, after-school programs and summer camps.
Katz and her doctoral students are conducting a longitudinal study that explores the effects of P4C on the thought processes of youth participating exclusively in the P4C summer camps.
“Some parents and teachers think it’s wrong to have children asking too many questions, that it undermines their authority, but that’s what makes them more thoughtful citizens and robust critical thinkers who do well on critical, creative-thinking exams,” Katz said.
Philosophy typically is absent from public schools for numerous reasons. Some philosophers, educators and parents believe that allowing children to engage in philosophical reasoning too early is dangerous, and some teachers find the philosophical material, which can cover controversial topics like religion and ethics, difficult to teach. Other philosophers argue that children are not even capable of such complex thought, while some fear that implementing philosophy in curricula on a wide scale is risky for both the field and the children. Many also believe the abstract nature of the subject is simply not conducive to the standardized testing-obsessed statewide educational system.
“Philosophical thinking and dialogue are slow and deliberate, and the concepts cannot always be captured easily on tests,” Katz said. “I hope the current research, including a recent study by faculty at Sam Houston State University, shows that philosophy is a valuable complement to the curriculum, not an either/or proposition.”
Katz also hosts P4C educator workshops during the academic year that instruct teachers and administrators from districts across the state of Texas on incorporating philosophical concepts and P4C pedagogy into their classroom lessons.
Study underway on the effects of P4C on thought processes in children
In June 2017, Katz launched a longitudinal study focusing on students who attend at least one of her weeklong P4C summer camps. Middle and high school students form a community of inquiry facilitated by Katz and her university students during the camps where they share ideas about topics ranging from education and political philosophy to ethics and philosophy of art.
Before and after camp, Katz surveyed 40 campers in sixth through 12th grades with a series of open-ended questions. She will continue to survey them once a year with the same or similar questions until each of them turns age 21, and their answers will help her to determine how their views about philosophical concepts progress over time after experiencing at least one philosophy camp.
“We ask questions about philosophy, justice, friendship, education, and other topics, and their post-camp responses are always more thoughtful, complex and nuanced than their conventional pre-camp responses,” Katz said. “We’re not looking for the children to change their views but rather to be more thoughtful about the positions they hold.”
Katz and Desirae Embree, an English doctoral student who has worked at the P4C camps since they began in 2016, will publish preliminary observations about the profound nature of the camps and the communities of inquiry in the journal Inquiry. Ultimately, Katz plans to publish a more developed account of the campers’ changes in thought, which are already evident, including any patterns that emerge over the course of several summers.
“Parents tell us that when they pick up their children from our camps, they see an immediate difference because their campers have a lot to say about what they learned that day, and that their dinner conversations are never going to be the same,” Katz said.
P4C programs introduce Bryan-College Station youth to philosophy
Standards for teaching philosophy to children are beginning to change in some areas of the world. For example, Philosophy Ireland, for which Katz serves as an ambassador, is an initiative supported by Ireland’s current president “to support the development of philosophy in the Irish curriculum [at all grade levels], universities and wider community.”
However, in the U.S., philosophy in K-12 classrooms remains unusual. Some private schools offer philosophy lessons, and some public schools weave basic philosophical concepts into lessons devoted to other subjects in advanced placement classes.
“We assume that certain kinds of questions are only for advanced students, and I think that the irony is that, in many cases, not encouraging all students to ask those questions is why some are not advanced,” Katz said. “They are not being asked those questions; they are not asked to engage; and much of education is very rote.”
In the Bryan-College Station area, Katz’s undergraduate and graduate students are leading the in-school and after-school P4C initiatives.
Last year, students in first, seventh and eighth grades at Harmony Academy in Bryan engaged in philosophical conversations during class approximately once per month. This year, her students are introducing philosophy to a variety of grade levels from elementary to high school. Her students from last spring are engaging students of varying ages in weekly after-school programs, including a philosophy club. At the Boys and Girls Club of Brazos Valley, Katz’s university students are leading thought-provoking interactive activities in another after-school program once per week.
“While P4C has shown positive academic effects for children, Harmony Academy and its exceptional teachers still took a risk with this program because there’s carryover when a child learns to ask philosophical questions, demand answers and give reasons,” Katz said. “It doesn’t stay within the confines of the classroom, and that can make parents and teachers, especially those not trained in P4C, very nervous.”
To teach or not to teach Philosophy for Children
Historically, some philosophers have believed that children are incapable of philosophical reasoning, while others have feared that encouraging them to engage in such thought too early is dangerous. Parents and teachers have shared similar fears that teaching children to engage in philosophical questioning might challenge the standing of adult authority figures. Some continue to have these fears, and the debate about whether children should engage in philosophy is ongoing.
As much as Katz understands and touts the benefits of P4C, she has concerns about formalizing it in K-12 classrooms. Her main worry, which is shared by many philosophers, is that meaningful discussions integral to philosophy might disappear and downgrade to a series of multiple-choice questions in order to cover the canon.
“Our informal approach allows students to take intellectual risks without fearing a bad grade; they are truly free to explore philosophically,” Katz said. “Additionally, some teachers in public schools might be uncomfortable facilitating lessons that turn to controversial or sensitive topics such as religion, ethics and God.”
While Katz sympathizes with initially reticent teachers, she believes that the P4C method, which conveys skills of listening, critical thinking, and a desire to understand differences rather than avoid them, can create a community of philosophical inquiry that effectively addresses any topic.
Fears aside, from a practical perspective, public school teachers have very little time to cover educational material not included on standardized STAR tests. At Harmony Academy, for example, the university students led conversations only once per month because the teachers already found it difficult to cover all the necessary material that appears on the test and other parts of their curriculum, Katz said.
“Of course, I’m thinking that if my students could teach P4C more frequently, their students would do better on the tests, but I understand that’s a risk they cannot yet take,” she continued.
After-school programs, such as those offered at the Boys and Girls Club of Brazos Valley and Harmony Academy, which are designed to provide activities for students without testing of any kind, afford more flexibility.
P4C: A philosopher’s response to lack of civil discourse at the college level
Professor Matthew Lipman (1923-2010) founded P4C almost 50 years ago when he realized that even his philosophy students at Columbia University lacked the skills to engage in a productive dialogue about the Vietnam War. He concluded that the habits of mind required for civil discussions about such volatile topics should start earlier, Katz said.
Lipman rejected beliefs held by other philosophers that children were incapable of reasoning and encouraging them to do so was dangerous. The P4C movement began with a single philosophical novel, “Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery,” aimed at middle school children. Working with Ann-Margaret Sharp (1942-2010), an intellectual historian and professor of education at Montclair State University, Lipman developed a series of books geared toward children of different ages that convey various schools of philosophical thought through the experiences of young protagonists. This eventually led to the establishment in 1974 of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University in New Jersey, which has since spawned programs across the nation and around the world.
“Mat and Ann took all these different pedagogical styles and the idea of teacher as facilitator in a community of inquiry and created an environment where students could develop trust and share their ideas,” Katz said. “Philosophy is rightly viewed as abstract, but it also is very personal because we’re often stating what we believe about something and putting it into a public space where it can be criticized.”
One of the main ideas behind the community of inquiry is that philosophical inquiry becomes self-corrective. Through philosophical dialogue, participants listen to other perspectives and arguments, and they consider the reasons for the views they hold. Their reasons or arguments might become deeper or more sophisticated, or they might even change, Katz said.
“We saw this happen at our philosophy camps — young people have tremendous philosophical and intellectual integrity,” Katz said. “They remain steadfast when they really believe something but they also are willing to change when the reasons are compelling.”
Engaging in philosophy improves cognitive ability, academic performance
Philosophy has always been part of a traditional liberal arts education at the college level. Like many humanities disciplines, it contributes to the understanding of the human condition and the world, Katz said.
“Students often major in philosophy because it challenges them intellectually, socially, politically and ethically, and thus binds them more closely to the world in which they live and to others with whom they share the world,” Katz said. “We are taught to read carefully, to think broadly by considering other perspectives, and to produce arguments for positions we advance.”
Anecdotally, philosophers have always known that studying philosophy improves thinking, she said. With the strong emphasis on formal logic in many philosophy programs, students majoring in philosophy score higher than other college majors on post-grad exams including the LSAT, GMAT and GRE, with the exception of math majors who score higher on the math portion of these exams.
Yet, official studies proving that studying philosophy increases cognitive development had not been conducted until Lipman launched the P4C program. For example, the study of 2,200 New Jersey fifth through seventh-grade students conducted by Virginia Shipman in 1983 found that those who engaged in the P4C program were superior to their non-program peers in formal and informal reasoning skills.
“Mat knew that philosophical discussions in pre-college classrooms would add meaning to the educational experiences of children,” Katz said. “But he also knew that he would need to demonstrate quantifiable academic benefits to introduce philosophy into pre-college classrooms.”
A 1990 BBC documentary focused on a group of eighth-graders in a Newark, New Jersey, middle school during the late1980s. For many of those students, the educational experience was essentially a school-to-prison pipeline. At the beginning of the documentary, most eighth-grade students did not see any point to education and planned to drop out before entering high school. After working with the P4C curriculum during their eighth-grade year, all of the students in the class featured in the documentary planned to continue to high school.
“Can we prove this was because of P4C? Of course not,” Katz admitted. “But we can show a correlation, and we can demonstrate that the correlation repeats.”
While a place exists in schools for students who are gifted in chemistry or other standard subjects, a place for those who are thoughtful about philosophical ideas, a different kind of intellectual virtue, often does not, Katz said. P4C summer camps help to close that gap for many students. As the students in Newark experienced a reconnection to school through philosophy, many young members of the community in College Station, Bryan, and elsewhere have reignited their passion for learning through P4C camp.
“Most of the parents say the camp is part of a well-rounded education for their children, many of whom are inclined toward the STEM fields,” Katz said. “Although their children are not interested in dropping out of school, some of our parents say our camp fills a niche for their children who feel socially out of place because they are more intellectually inclined — a virtue that is not always recognized or praised in schools.”
In 2015, Sam Houston State University replicated a 2004 study conducted in Scotland on the effects of P4C on students in seventh and eighth grades. In half the time of the original study, the Texas researchers achieved the same results. In just 24 weeks, students exposed to P4C for one hour per week showed statistically significant improvement in their cognitive abilities. When re-tested three years later, the same students still showed a statistically significant improvement.
Tom Jackson, the director of the University of Hawaii Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education, helped Honolulu’s low-performing Waikiki Elementary School become a high-performing school. After years of trying to turn the school around without success, the school administration made the decision, deemed somewhat risky and controversial at the time, to integrate P4C into every aspect of the school and community of support through education and training. In 2007, and again in 2013, the elementary school earned the U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon, which recognizes schools whose students perform at exceptionally high levels.
“For many philosophy majors and minors, discovering philosophy made their college experiences more meaningful, and I believe the same is true for the pre-college students introduced to philosophy,” Katz said. “I love a quote that Mat Lipman used in one of his interviews: ‘Philosophy is like the mortar between the other bricks in our education. It connects everything and holds everything together.’”
P4C summer camps break philosophy mold with diversity
Pointing to 399 B.C.E., when a jury of 500 Athenians forced Socrates to drink hemlock for failing to recognize the gods of the state and corrupting the youth, Katz said that philosophy always has been considered subversive and dangerous — and not much has changed. She also lamented that philosophy, a discipline reserved since ancient times for some of the world’s finest minds, oddly enough, has not been friendly to non-whites and women.
This is not the case with Katz’s P4C summer camps, which have been more representative of the general population with half girls and half boys, and one-third non-whites. Her camps, which typically enroll equal numbers of middle and high school students, do not offer overnight accommodations; yet, that has not discouraged children from other parts of the state, country and world with friends or family living in the area from participating. Katz believes that philosophy is for everyone in the same way that other traditional disciplines are for everyone.
“But like a young person who loves soccer in school but does not want to play soccer all day for a week, not everyone finds philosophy camp fun,” Katz said. “Philosophy camp is for the pre-college students who really want to engage in philosophical discussion — all day, every day for a week.”
The campers build friendships based on talking about ideas rather than shared classes, sports, after-school clubs, or similarities such as attire or appearance. After one week of philosophy camp, they have expressed to Katz that they are more aware of other perspectives and more thoughtful about their positions on different topics, sometimes even changing their minds.
“The campers become friends not necessarily because they think the same thing, but because they have a shared experience of discussing ideas, and they express surprise and delight at the experience,” Katz said. “It’s not that they have the same beliefs — quite to the contrary. But they do have a shared vision of wanting the world to be a better place.”
P4C workshops for educators inform teachers, children across Texas
Since becoming a full professor at Texas A&M, a land grant university with a special obligation to the people of Texas, Katz has made time to return to these risky pedagogically-oriented P4C pursuits. Another of her projects involves introducing P4C across the state through workshops for K-12 teachers and administrators.
More than 100 teachers from 14 school districts in Texas, and numerous professors and graduate students from other universities have attended Katz’s workshops in College Station since she began offering them in 2015.
Katz earned her master’s degree in teaching P4C in 1987 from Montclair State College. She taught courses in a community college in Baltimore and then as an instructor at Salisbury University until she returned to school to earn both master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy from the University of Memphis. She began teaching at Texas A&M in 2006, after being on the faculty at Penn State.
“A lot of teachers go through the P4C workshops around the world, but few earn degrees in it,” Katz said. “I earned my degree in P4C in the 80s before words like ‘interdisciplinary’ had become commonplace. It was tough to find a job when I graduated because the philosophers thought I focused too much on education and the educators thought I focused too much on philosophy.”
All P4C activities in the Bryan-College Station area are supported by Texas A&M’s Public Partnership and Outreach office and the College of Liberal Arts. For more information about upcoming P4C summer camps and educators workshops, visit the P4C Texas website.
For more information about P4C, visit the Montclair State University website, the British Psychological Society website, the Journal of Philosophy in Schools website, the Philosophy Ireland website, or the University of Hawaii Uehiro Academy for Philosophy and Ethics in Education website.