Teaching philosophy in middle school? Ridiculous? Arcane? Pretentious? The suggestion calls up stereotypes—the bespectacled, large-craniumed social misfit pretentiously arguing over a misinterpretation of Heidegger, or, worse, droopingly bored early adolescents, suffering in silence while a teacher lectures on Plato’s Republic. In times of tight budgets, extensive curricula, and standardized testing, teaching philosophy may seem like an unrealistic add-on for many teachers. Based on my own experience teaching philosophy to Grade 8, however, I believe that not only is it possible, but the exploration of systems of thought should be included as part of all provincial curricula.
A Theoretical Argument for Teaching Philosophy in Middle School
Teaching philosophy to students in Grade 7 and 8 is like planting seeds in the most lush, fertile soil you can find. At this age, if you accept the program of developmental psychology, most students begin to develop a capacity for abstract reasoning (although I would argue that this happens much earlier and, at the very least, preparing them to think critically and in abstract terms should begin much earlier). Their ability to comprehend ideas about the human experience extends beyond concrete evidence, personal experience or procedures.
In fact, in my own experience, the ages of 12 to 14 offer a unique window, where the capacity for abstract reasoning, the hunger for new information and ideas, and the willingness to cooperate with adults is untempered by the future potential for disengagement, distractions and ennui of adolescence. Leaping into that space with some well-timed Socratic questioning or Kantian notions of duty can help to push that window even further open, propping it wide—or wider at least, potentially for life.
The comment that I often hear in my philosophy classes is that the discussions we have and the work we do makes my students “feel smart.” Pushing students to read and think about ideas outside of their ordinary comfort zone and providing them with the supportive environment they need to understand and then dissect those ideas is key to stimulating intellectual curiosity and the belief in their own capacities. With persistence, they move out of the “I don’t get it zone” to the place where everyone gets it and can follow or even lead the discussion.
Teaching philosophy in middle school also supports the development of a future generation of critical thinkers, who see their own ideas and actions in a context that extends beyond personal interest. Taking even one period each week to discuss, debate and do activities on the nature of morality or truth, the social contract, aesthetics, the definition of truth or environmentalism creates a foundation for future social and political participation. Children who can place their personal experiences in a broader context are more likely to see themselves playing some significant role in world events, however small.
Some Practical Considerations
Full disclosure: I teach, and am an administrator, in a small, independent school where classes are never greater than 15. When I tell you this, you may be tempted to reject my suggestions, assuming that the kind of work we do with Grade 7s and 8s (and even Grade 4s, 5s, and 6s) would be impractical in a public school setting with class sizes that may be double those at our school. Not so!
Even with our small class sizes, our school faces the same pressures that public schools do, albeit from different sources. We operate with a relatively tight budget, doing our best to keep tuition manageable for our families. We are also accountable to the Ministry of Education when it comes to implementing the provincial curriculum and for preparing our Grade 8s for high school. In addition, we offer several non-elective subjects outside the curriculum, including Spanish, theatre and dance. Our schedule is packed.
The way we manage to include philosophy in our program is adaptable to any school, public or private. For one thing, we try to bring philosophical concepts and analytical/critical thinking into all our subjects, but we also reserve one 45-minute class per week to focus on systems thinking and “big ideas.” With the right kind of planning and openness to emergent learning, astonishing things can be accomplished.
You may protest that you are not qualified to teach philosophy. You don’t even understand positivism yourself, so how can you help 12-year-olds get it? Like any other subject, you don’t have to be an expert to introduce children to philosophy or to create an environment in which they can discover the concepts for themselves. Just as we don’t teach War and Peace in a novel study, we don’t present students with the full text of Plato’s Republic in Grade 8. The main thing a teacher needs to teach philosophy at this level is intellectual bravery and humility, openness, and a willingness to experiment. Committing to it and being willing to learn alongside students is key. Role modeling intellectual curiosity and willingness to grapple with complex ideas yourself, can only be positive for them.
Getting students interested is the next step. In my experience, my own enthusiasm and excitement about ideas, combined with 12 and 13-year-old desire to appear “smart” is enough. Discussing Socrates is heady stuff, especially when your students feel like they’re “getting it.” Beyond that, an environment of non-judgement and relaxation is key. The best route toward that environment is to keep your discussion and debate class outside of your assessment and evaluation, if you can. While I would support the inclusion of philosophy in the middle school curriculum, its current status as an outsider subject makes it possible for teachers to establish a place in the week’s schedule where worries about grades and achievement are set aside while students explore complex systems of thought for their own sake.
Planning a Philosophy Program
My own philosophy program is organized around five “big questions.” These change from year to year, but usually include issues such as love, art, truth, goodness and the nature of reality. These five questions provide a basic plan for the year. Each question is a unit, with dedicated resources, discussions and activities. Over the years, as in any other subjects, I’ve acquired a set of resources that can support a number of different philosophy units, but I also try to leave my planning open-ended, with possibilities for emergent learning built in. Keeping the course ungraded and without specific evaluation goals helps to make this possible.
Each year, the dynamics of my student group determine the direction of the course within the overall plan. This year, discussions on morality and ethics and a viewing of Alain de Botton’s Socrates and Self-Confidence from his BBC series on the everyday uses of philosophy led to a student-inspired project. Armed with cameras and release forms, students imitated Socrates at the Acropolis, wandering around our pedestrian neighbourhood asking passersby philosophical questions, such as “What is true beauty?” or “How do you define justice?” and recording their responses. Eventually, we will edit these responses into a short documentary, entitled—at student suggestion—In the Steps of Socrates.
There are a multitude of ways into a conversation about philosophy with children. As Karin Murris and Joanna Haynes have pointed out in their work on teaching philosophy to children, one of the best entrees is through literature or through a single philosophy concept. Many picture books, fables and myths offer opportunities for discussion of ethics, aesthetics and so on. Frindle by Andrew Clements leads to a discussion of the nature of language and its connection to reality. Ish by Peter Reynolds encourages reflection on the nature of art, the eye of the beholder, and the question of who is an artist. Harold and the Purple Crayon leads into existentialism and Jean-Paul Sartre’s ideas. A single philosophical concept, such as Occam’s Razor or Plato’s Ring of Gyges can serve as the jumping off point for a broader discussion as students make personal connections to big ideas. Philosophy for Teens: Questioning Life’s Big Ideas by Sharon Kaye and Paul Thomson offers readings, activities, and guidelines for discussions. In fact, we use this last resource as a textbook for our Grade 8 course.
There are an increasing number of books, journals, formal organizations and blogs devoted to teaching philosophy to children. In June of 2012, the North American Association for Community of Inquiry is holding a conference on teaching philosophy to children, and in 2010, Johns Hopkins University’s Imagine Magazine for gifted children devoted its entire issue to pre-college level philosophy. Each year, the Kids’ Philosophy Slam (www.philosophyslam.org) holds an artwork/writing/other media competition for students in Kindergarten to Grade 12; 2012’s topic was “What is the Meaning of Life?” Although located in and focused on the United States, the slam has an international category. In Canada, the Canadian Philosophy Association has created the Philosophy in the Schools Program to encourage the study of systems of thought beyond the Grade 11 and 12 curriculum. These are just a few examples of a growing body of work and an increasingly strong movement.
The resources listed above are a great start to stimulate your ideas around teaching philosophy and to help anyone gain confidence about approaching “big ideas” with children. Before you know it, you too will be leading a group of Grade 7s (or Grade 3s!) in a circle discussion about whether lying is always wrong…or perhaps on Cartesian dualism and the mind-body problem! The possibilities are truly endless.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pamela MacIsaac teaches English and Philosophy and is the Vice-Principal at Voice Intermediate School in Toronto. She has a B.A. in English and History, an M.A. and Ph.D. in History, and a Master of Teaching from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s May/June 2012 issue.