Thinking critically, challenging assumptions, seeking evidence, and solving problems creatively are important for the youth because these are joyous and stimulating activities and because they are important abilities for getting ahead in the world. The movement in education known as Philosophy for Children has been driven by this idea.
The movement began in 1970, when Matthew Lipman’s philosophical novel for children, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, made its way into the Montclair Public Schools in New Jersey. In the story, Harry and his friends (5th graders) discover the basic concepts of Aristotelian logic and discuss questions about the nature of thought, causality, knowledge, and ethics. A few years after the book was introduced into schools, Montclair State College (now Montclair State University) created the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), producing further materials for teachers in the K-12 curriculum, consisting of philosophical children’s stories and teachers’ workbooks. The IAPC reached out to thousands of children in New Jersey and beyond, yielding programs that reported significant improvements in reading and critical thinking skills. In 1985 educators from around the world created the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC), which continues to hold a conference every two years. The ICPIC has gone on to sprout centers similar to the IAPC in over 20 countries across the world.
Unfortunately, the movement has been met with resistance. Some resistance may have come from the belief that philosophy is only suitable for ‘gifted and talented’ students. However, Philosophy for Children programs have shown remarkable success in bringing almost all students in the classroom into a shared discourse of inquiry. To the surprise of many teachers, philosophical exercises would elicit participation from even the ‘underachieving’ students. Another hesitation may come from the fear that parents are uncomfortable with their children reflecting on sensitive issues, such as religion, death, marriage, and other values. Experts in Philosophy for Children, have faced this worry. In responding to a question about this on a recent public radio show, Professor Maughn Gregory from Montclair State University, said that some parents may indeed object, and there may not be much that can be done to persuade them, especially if the parents are trying to indoctrinate their children into a chosen set of beliefs. Philosophy for Children may not be for everyone. He points out to parents, however, that children are thinking about these issues already, and doing so critically in a setting of democratic inquiry allows them to do so with guidance and comfort. He quotes Matthew Lipman’s claim that philosophy allows children to ‘become the guardians of their own virtue’.1 Still, teachers are often reluctant to encourage philosophical discussions in their classrooms because they themselves lack background and formal study in philosophy.2 The Paradox Center presently being proposed plans to offer lessons to children from trained experts in philosophy as well as to create curricula and pedagogical methods that make it easy for schoolteachers to incorporate philosophical inquiry into their own classrooms.
Philosophical thinking comes naturally to children, and with some training, teachers can be shown how to nurture this tendency. Tests on divergent thinking –the capacity to see multiple solutions to a problem –show that of 1,600 children of kindergarten age, 98% performed at genius levels. The tests asked questions like, How many uses can you think of for a paperclip?. By the time the same children were 8-10 years old, only 32% performed at genius levels, and by 13-15 years old, only 10% did so. When the test was given to 200,000 25-year-olds, only 2% performed well.3 Such studies suggest that children have the capacity for divergent thinking, but that their capacity deteriorates as they become adults. It also suggests that children may be better at thinking about philosophical puzzles than adult professional philosophers. Gareth Matthews (1980), a (recently deceased) professor from U. Mass. Amherst who worked on Philosophy for Children, provides numerous charming real-life examples of children thinking philosophically.4
-TIM (about six years), while busily engaged in licking a pot, asked, “Papa, how can we be sure that everything is not a dream?”
-JORDAN (five years), going to bed at eight one evening, asked, “If I go to bed at eight and get up at seven in the morning, how do I really know that the little hand of the clock has gone around only once? Do I have to stay up all night to watch it? If I look away even for a short time, maybe the small hand will go around twice.”
-JOHN EDGAR (six years), reflecting on the fact that in addition to books, toys, and clothes he has two arms, two legs, and a head and that these are his toys, his arms, his head, and so on, asked, “Which part of me is really me?”.
This capacity for philosophical exploration doesn’t have to dissolve by the time children enter college. Sir Ken Robinson, chair of the UK Government’s report on creativity, education and the economy, points out that our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the earth (with iPods, internet, television, and video games) and we are penalizing them for getting distracted, “frankly, from boring stuff at school”. Diagnoses of ADHD have risen with standardized tests, and as Ken Robinson suggests, instead of anesthetizing children, we need to stimulate them. Lipman (1991) argues that philosophical thinking can enliven the classroom and that the self-driven inquisitiveness it inspires would enhance the entire curriculum.5 Children would start to think about representation and communication in their art and music classes, they would bring argumentation into their writing, critical reflection into their reading, and questions about knowledge into their history lessons. Moreover, philosophical thinking is at the core of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). When the 2011 Edge asked leading scientists in the United States what they took to be the most important scientific concept for everybody’s cognitive toolkit, MIT Physicist Max Tegmark answered scientific concept itself. Other philosophical concepts discussed in response to Edge’s question include the notions of a thought experiment, inference to the best explanation, holism, reason, because, innovation, a pointless universe, and randomness.6 Reflecting on these philosophical notions can inspire a child’s curiosity in the sciences and expose the many layers to explore within these fields. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of genuine exploratory mathematical thinking in K-12 math classes. In an essay called “A Mathematician’s Lament”, Paul Lockhart of Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn writes, “The art is not in the “truth” but in the explanation, the argument. It is the argument itself which gives the truth its context, and determines what is really being said and meant. Mathematics is the art of explanation. If you deny students the opportunity to engage in this activity— to pose their own problems, make their own conjectures and discoveries, to be wrong, to be creatively frustrated, to have an inspiration, and to cobble together their own explanations and proofs— you deny them mathematics itself.”7 Instead of encouraging children to follow their curiosity and to experience the joys of inquiry, they are often asked to memorize equations and procedures that have come as the end-result of this child-like (or untainted human) propensity; they are taught to be knowers of formulas and laws rather than discoverers.
The need for an emphasis on higher-level thinking in education has recently been recognized in the United States. In June of 2010, the National Governors Association and State Education Chiefs launched a new set of Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for K-12 education, and these standards have already been adopted by 42 of the 50 states.8 The CCSS is supported through $350 Million in funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. (This is part of the $110Billion stimulus fund from the Obama Administration.) Close to half of the new standards involve higher-level thinking skills to be added to the skills already being taught in K-12 curricula. The new skills listed include analysis, critical-thinking, creative problem-solving, critiquing, connecting, designing, proving, defining, compare/contrast, applying concepts, hypothesizing, developing a logical argument, and drawing conclusions. There are very few resources available to teachers for developing curricula that teach these skills, and methods for assessing the skills have yet to be developed.9 We expect The Paradox Center to play a major role in providing such resources to schools in Arizona and beyond.
Arizona consistently has had one of the country’s lowest ranked public school systems.10 Meanwhile, the University of Arizona has consistently been one of the country’s leading research universities, and in particular one of the highest ranked Philosophy programs.11 This combination makes Tucson Arizona a prime locale for such a Center that aims to disseminate critical thinking into K-12 education.
1. Maughn Gregory addressed this question in a recent public radio show, see http://www.philosophyinpubliclife.org/Why/previousshows.html
2. For more background on Philosophy for Children see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/children/
3. TESS, 25 March 2005
4. Matthews, Gareth. 1980. Philosophy and the Young Child. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
5. Lipman, Matthew. 1991. Thinking in Education. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991; 2nd edition, 2003.
6. For the full list of responses see http://openparachute.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/scientific-toolkit.pdf
7. Paul Lockhart, 2002. www.maa.org/devlin/LockhartsLament.pdf
8. For the announcement and overview of the new standards see http://www.corestandards.org/
9. For a survey of studies on the lack of explicit teaching of thinking skills, see the section entitled “Teaching Thinking Skills” of Nagappan, Rajendran et. al. 2001 “Language Teach and the Enhancement of Higher-Order Thinking Skills” inLanguage Curriculum and instruction on multicultural societies. Anthology series 42. Renandaya, W.A., & Sunga, N.R. (Eds). http://www.docstoc.com/docs/25001703/Higher-Order-Thinking-Skills–Learning-And-Teaching
10. According to the Education State Rankings Annual Survey, Arizona has recently been ranked at number 50 [see http://www.morganquitno.com/edpress06.htm]
11. For rankings of philosophy programs see http://www.philosophicalgourmet.com/overall.asp