Philosophy, generally speaking, is the asking of open-ended, “Why” questions, for which there isn’t really one clear answer. Philosophers wonder about human nature, our relationships with others, as well as how the universe works. Philosophy is also the practice of thinking through these questions using logical, rational, well-supported arguments. It’s about what we ask, but also how we go about finding answers.
Philosophy may not be part of the regular elementary school curriculum, but the age-old practice of asking “Why?” can serve as a catalyst for critical thinking in ways that are meaningful and engaging, even to young children. With a little practice and planning, it can be worked into almost any subject area, and even if it’s only possible in occasional, short bursts, it can still be incredibly beneficial.
Why introduce philosophy to elementary school learners?
As any parent or teacher will tell you, “Why?” is an easy sell to young learners. Children are curious about the world around them and their place within it, and getting them to take on philosophical questions takes little encouragement. A very good reason to include philosophical study in classroom activities is that it’s really about meeting young learners where they already are, by way of a practice that comes naturally to them.
Practically speaking, philosophy requires little in the way of investment of resources. Manipulatives, books and technological resources already in the classroom can be used as part of a philosophical journey. Although making time for philosophical dialogue itself can be rewarding and beneficial, it can also be grafted onto virtually any subject area across the curriculum.
Most importantly, philosophy is a challenging pursuit that helps to build a number of 21st century skills, such as critical thinking, communication and problem-solving. It’s also an effective way to encourage the development of personal skills like empathy, self-awareness and global awareness.
How can philosophy be introduced into the classroom?
If time permits, philosophy can be done on its own, with age-appropriate and engaging questions. However, with lower elementary school classes, it’s often more feasible and productive to link philosophy to another subject, to make it activity-based, and to do it a little at a time.Here are a few suggestions:
- In art class, ask learners to fold a piece of paper in half and draw a familiar object they consider beautiful on one side of the page. This could be a flower, an animal or their favourite toy. Then ask them to re-draw their subject in a way that makes it less beautiful. Discuss what’s changed, and what makes something more or less beautiful.
- In physical education, ask learners to create their own simple games, with their own set of rules. After playing a few rounds, discuss whether the rules they’ve created are fair, and why rules are necessary in the first place.
- While studying ecology and other organisms in science, explore the differences and similarities between humans and non-humans. Ask your learners to explain what makes humans unique and different.
- On Show-and-Tell day, ask students to bring in their biggest “Why” questions to share. These questions can be made into a “Wall of Why” and contributors can be acknowledged the same way they would be for reading a large number of books.
Some things to keep in mind when introducing philosophy
- As is common practice with any subject area, create a safe space in which learners can share ideas. Emphasize that there’s no name-calling, no anger, and that everyone will have a chance to share.
- Although philosophical questions may come naturally to children, the process of thinking through them logically and critically is a learned skill. The goal is to enable learners to explain themselves and support what they say, while avoiding logical fallacies like “just because” or “because I say so.”
- Establish very early on that “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer to big questions, as long as it’s followed by “Let’s talk about it.” Pausing to reflect and listening to others are both essential to thinking critically. It’s also okay to be wrong or to need to change one’s position on something as the discussion progresses.
- Philosophers of all ages should recognize that although there isn’t really one answer to a big question, some answers are still better than others. Welcome as many different perspectives as possible, but also insist that each new idea be discussed and evaluated.
- Wherever possible, involve parents. Send home a “big question of the week” the same way you’d send home new units of study, spelling lists and assignments. Encourage parents to explore them with their children at the dinner table, or in the car on the way to soccer practice.
How is philosophy assessed and evaluated?
- Assessment and evaluation may seem different in philosophy, but educators can apply standards and criteria for inquiry-based learning. Did learners follow a logical progression of ideas? Did they participate in discussion in some way? Were they open to new perspectives? Did they communicate their ideas clearly? In essence, learners need to be evaluated on how they thought, instead of what they thought.
- Use a variety of assessment and evaluation tools. Have learners document and reflect on big questions with journal entries, drawings, audio and video clips, models, group projects, music and role-playing. Anything goes!
- Self-assessment works wonders in philosophy, as reflection is key to philosophical practice. Have learners ask themselves if they gave reasons to support their ideas, if they listened to others, if they were willing to re-evaluate their position, and if they explained themselves clearly.
Philosophy may represent new territory for some elementary school educators, but the benefits of working it into the classroom are numerous and lasting. For decades, there have been world-wide initiatives to establish a place for it in pre-college education, and recent studies have suggested that children who study philosophy in school tend to show improvement in a variety of subject areas. Philosophy empowers young learners and helps them to better understand themselves, their peers, their community, and the world around them. Best of all, it’s an adventure, and an enjoyable one at that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Leask is an educator, writer and children’s interactive media producer. She is co-founder of Enable Education (EnableEducation.com) and founder of Red T Media (RedTKids.com). She’s a supporter of 21st century learning, an explorer of educational technology, and a firm believer that great thinkers come in all sizes.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Winter 2018 issue.