Friday, June 30, 2017

Institutional Humility, or What Philosophy Can and Can't Do


This will be my last blog post until the fall, and I wanted to explore further some of the issues I began examining in my last post.  In particular, I have been thinking more and more about the marketing of philosophy and the ways in which those of us in the field talk about philosophy, or "sell" philosophy, as part of outreach and/or development efforts (efforts that, as the humanities are increasingly devalued, are playing growing role in the field). When you market or sell something, you focus on its strengths, i.e. what is beneficial in whatever it is you're selling, to whomever it is you are trying to convince of its value. But part of what is valuable about philosophy, in my view, is that it is challenging, that it pushes us and often makes us uncomfortable. That's a hard sell.

This is especially relevant when we are talking about K-12 philosophy, a relatively new field that most of us involved in want to see grow and be accessible to more young people. And there are many positive aspects of introducing philosophy to young students, some of which I discussed in my last post. But some of philosophy's benefits are not easily marketable, and the effort to sell pre-college philosophy can lead us to both to play down its challenges and to shy away from looking closely at the discipline's shortcomings (its history of sexism and racism, the gatekeeping that is endemic to academic philosophy, the difficulty of doing philosophy well, the obstacles to public philosophy efforts, etc.).

When we facilitate philosophy sessions in classrooms, we try to create what is called a "community of philosophical inquiry." One of the essential elements of such a community is what historically has been referred to as "epistemological modesty," an acknowledgement that all members of the group, including the teacher, are fallible and therefore hold views that could end up being mistaken. It's a kind of humility, an awareness that our knowledge is partial and we often think we understand things that, upon closer examination, we don't.

In thinking about the larger field, I began considering the importance of institutional humility.  I have just begun reflecting about this, so these are very preliminary ideas, but I am thinking that institutional humility for philosophy involves at a minimum an awareness of the limits of what philosophy can do, both as an approach for understanding the world and as a way of life, and the challenges of its propensity to make people uncomfortable (at its best, in a good way), as well as a recognition of the partialness of the field itself and the way that many voices — women, people of color, children, etc. — have been (and are still being) denied entry to its conversations. Shouldn't humility be at the core of a field that emphasizes the partialness of what we know? To adopt this would convey an understanding that philosophy itself still has a lot to learn.


Monday, June 12, 2017

The Challenges of Engaging All Students in Philosophy


Philosophy in K-12 classrooms is still a rarity in the United States. My work over the past 20 plus years has involved introducing philosophy into schools and helping educators and policy makers to recognize young people's philosophical proclivities and the benefits of bringing philosophical inquiry into their lives. This involves a lot of "selling" of the strengths of philosophy for young people, of focusing on all of the reasons this effort is important  philosophy's unique advantages as a discipline for teaching critical thinking skills, the ways in which philosophical inquiry helps young people to recognize the multiplicity of perspectives in our world, the confidence in expressing one's own ideas and questions that can come from thinking about philosophical issues with others, and the importance of encouraging young people to continue to wonder about the world.

What we don't talk about very much are the challenges. This is due, mainly, I think, to our status as a still-new field, seeking to gain credibility and visibility. However, I think that at least some of the challenges we face are endemic in schools, and perhaps our experiences as relative newcomers can provide fresh perspectives on some of the issues faced by many or most teachers.

The specific challenge about which I am reflecting today is the goal of engaging all of the students in a class. In philosophy, we often talk about how children and youth are curious about philosophical topics and come to philosophy sessions with philosophical interests of their own. We also point out that the fact that philosophical questions have no final and settled answers creates spaces for students to discuss issues of interest to them without fear of getting it wrong, and that open and student-led philosophy sessions appeal to many students who might not be otherwise engaged in school. I believe that all of this is true. But what we don't, at least in my experience, talk openly about is that despite our efforts, it is often a challenge to involve all of the students in a class, as some or many are disinterested and disengaged.

I routinely facilitate regular weekly or bi-weekly philosophy sessions in classrooms of 28-32 elementary school students. I use a variety of prompts  picture books, activities, games, philosophical puzzles, journals, small groups, "turn and talk," silent discussions, etc. There are many sessions in which the students end up discussing deeply and intently a philosophical question that matters to them, and some continue the conversation with me and/or each other after the session concludes.

However, there are almost always some students who are clearly checked out. Not just not speaking, as I am very aware that there are many ways to participate and not every student is comfortable speaking in a group, and I routinely read student journal entries from students who never speak but are clearly absorbed by philosophical inquiry. But there are also students who just don't seem to be at all interested in philosophical inquiry, who are bored, and to whom almost no philosophical topic seems to appeal. In some sessions, these students are the majority. And I hear the same thing from other K-12 philosophy instructors.

Is philosophy for everyone? I have written elsewhere about my belief that we all engage in philosophical thinking at some point, whenever we consider questions like what is the right thing to do, is someone really a friend, do we really know something, etc., and that philosophy is much broader than the academic discipline as it is practiced in college and universities. But does that mean that regular involvement in philosophical inquiry with others is something that is necessary or even beneficial for all students, even if some of them aren't particularly interested?

Of course, not all students are attracted by math, or reading, or history, or science, yet these subjects are routinely taught because we as a society think they are important for students to learn. Is philosophy like this? We don't tend to speak of philosophy in this way, in part because, at least in elementary school, we are not "teaching" the subject of philosophy, lecturing students about Descartes' dream argument or Kant's metaphysics,  as most young students are not ready for this and would have no interest in it.  Our focus is on creating spaces in which students can discuss topics of interest to them, with the facilitators helping them to listen closely to each other, give good reasons for their views, anticipate objections, ask clear questions, etc. What K-12 philosophy instructors tend to say we are doing is responding to a children's propensities to ask philosophical questions and think about philosophical topics. But is this true of all children? And if not, is it valuable for children not drawn to philosophy to be exposed to it?

If it is important that all students be acquainted with philosophy, what are strategies we can use to engage all or at least most of the students who don't seem inclined to it? If it is not important for all students, where do we go from here?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Other Way to Listen


The Other Way to Listen, written by Byrd Baylor and illustrated by Peter Parnall, tells the story of a boy who wants to learn to listen. He knows an old man who can "walk by any cornfield and hear the corn singing," who has heard "wildflower seeds burst open, beginning to grow underground,"and many other sounds that most people do not hear. When the boy wonders why most people don't hear these sounds, the old man responds that "[t]hey just don't take the time you need for something that important." The boy notes that the old man "always asked himself hard questions that take awhile to answer."

The boy asks the old man to teach him how to listen to such things, and the old man explains that he wishes he could, but it is something one has to learn from "the hills and ants and lizards and weeds and things like that." He advises the boy to start with something small. The boy tries, but nothing works, and he only hears the things anyone hears. Then one day, he is walking alone in the hills, and he hears the hills singing. "I never listened so hard in my life," the boy reflects.

When I read this story with children, I ask them, after I've finished reading, to sit in silence for 5 minutes and just listen. What do they hear?

The story raises many interesting philosophical questions, including:

What does it mean to hear something?
Are hearing and listening the same?

Why do some questions take longer to answer than other ones?
Are there advantages of taking more time before answering a question?
Can we learn from the following things? Why or why not?
  • Hills
  • Ants
  • Trees
  • The stars
  • Weeds
Does a teacher always need to be a human? An adult?  Why or why not?
Is it important to spend time alone? Why or why not?
The old man describes how, “[y]ou have to respect that tree,” if you want to hear it and that “if you think you’re better than that thing, you’ll never hear its voice.” What does he mean?
What is silence? Can we experience silence even if there is sound around us?
Can we learn anything from silence?

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Invisible Boy


The Invisible Boy, a 2013 picture book written by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patricia Barton, was recommended to me recently by a colleague. The "invisible boy" of the story is Brian, who, unlike some of his classmates, doesn't "take up a lot of space" and isn't noticed by either his teacher or the other students.


Brian spends much of his time drawing, which leads to a connection with a new student, Justin, and this connection leads to Brian finally being "seen" by the other children.


I read the story with a group of 4th grade students yesterday, and the questions they wondered about afterward included:

Is it harder to be laughed at or to be invisible?
Was Brian actually invisible or did he just feel invisible?
What would it feel like to be Brian?
Does drawing make Brian feel visible?

The children chose to begin our discussion with the question, Was Brian actually invisible or did he just feel invisible? The child who asked the question said that she was wondering, given the illustrations, if Brian was meant to actually be invisible to those around him, or just to feel invisible.

I asked, "What is the difference between being invisible to others, and feeling invisible?"

"Well," she responded, "I guess that when you feel invisible, it really is about what is inside of you and not the people around you. So if someone notices you, then it might be easy to stop feeling invisible. If you actually were invisible to others, that would be harder."

"I agree and disagree," said a second student. "I mean, if you feel invisible, that usually is because other people make you feel that way. But also you have to do something not to feel invisible. Other people aren't going to go out of their way to be friends with you if you don't try. I don't think Brian tried very hard in the story."

"I disagree," replied another student, "I think he did try. Look at the part where he was waiting to be chosen for a kickball team. He was trying."

"And he was the one who tried with Justin. That's when he started to feel visible. When he made friends with Justin."

"So do other people help us to feel visible?" I asked.

"Yes, but we also have to try. Most people feel invisible at some point, but you can't expect other people to make you feel visible."

"Yeah, but someone who is really shy, they might feel invisible more than other people. Some people find it easy to walk up to people and just say, 'Hey, how are you doing?' But other people are just more shy."

"But if you don't want to feel invisible you have to take some responsibility," contended another student. "You can't just wait for someone to come up to you. It might be harder for someone who is shy, but they still have to do something to make a friend."

"Yeah, like take someone who is really popular," a different student put in. "They probably have a lot of friends, so they're not going to go out of their way to be friendly to someone new."

"Yes, if you already have a lot of friends, you're probably not going to go up and just start talking to some random person."

"So does having lots of friends mean you become less friendly?" I asked.

"Not necessarily. But sometimes popular people aren't very friendly."

"There have been several comments about being popular. That makes me wonder, what does it mean to be popular?" I asked.

Hands shot up all around the room.

"It means having lots of friends."

"It means lots of people like you and want to be your friend."

"It means people want to hang around you. But that doesn't mean you have a lot of friends. People might want to be friends with you because you are popular, but that doesn't make them friends."

"What does make someone a friend?" I asked.

"It has to be two ways. I was friends once with a popular girl, but she really didn't care about me or how I was feeling. It was always about what I could do for her. If I had a bad day or was sad, she wasn't interested. So she wasn't really a friend."

"It's really not important to be popular if popular means having lots of friends. What matters is having a few real friends. But you can be popular and have real friends. It just depends."

"I agree. Sometimes popular people have real friends and sometimes they don't."

"What does 'having real friends' require?" I asked.

"It requires that you like being together, that it's not always about one person giving something to the other."

"I agree. Having a real friend means that being with that person makes you happy."

"Always?" I asked.

"No, not always. But the friendship makes you happy because you both care about each other. Some friends can be people you like to do something with, and others can be from different parts of your life. Like if your parent is your friend, that's different than a friendship with someone in your class."

"So are there different models of friendship?" I asked.

"Yes, because you can have friends in lots of different ways. But having real friends always requires two things: time and attention. Both people have to give time and attention to each other."

We ran out of time after an hour, but could easily have kept going!

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Book of Mistakes



The Book of Mistakes is a first book by Corinna Luyken. I knew Corinna when we both lived in the Methow Valley, in the north central part of Washington State, some years ago. The book is about the way mistakes can lead to creative and novel ideas, and how they can provide a source for new ways of understanding the world and ourselves.

The book begins with one mistake.


"Making the other eye even bigger was another mistake."


Full of charming illustrations, the story goes on to demonstrate how "mistakes" can end up producing new ideas, ideas that would not have emerged without the mistakes.

I introduced the story last week in a fifth grade class at John Muir Elementary School in which I have been doing philosophy each week this year. I chose this book because earlier this spring, in the course of a conversation about beauty and ugliness, one of the students had asserted that "[O]ne thing is the most beautiful. Mistakes. You cannot learn without mistakes." This had led to a long and very spirited conversation about whether in fact all mistakes were beautiful and, specifically, about terrible mistakes such as murder that lead to capital punishment, and then about the ethics of capital punishment and the assumption that some mistakes, and perhaps some people, are beyond repair.

This week we had visitors from Colegio Newland Campus Juriquilla, a school in Queretaro, Mexico – fourteen 6th and 7th grade students visited the Center and participated in some of our K-12 classes. Philosophy is part of these students' regular education, and they were eager to learn about the way we are doing philosophy in Seattle schools.

After listening to the story, the John Muir students and the Colegio Newland students explored together the questions, "What is a mistake? What makes something a mistake?" In the course of the conversation, the children reflected about whether mistakes are always accidental or can be intentional acts that are then characterized as mistakes after the fact. We examined the differences between bad decisions and mistakes.

The students suggested that bad decision involve choice, but mistakes don't usually happen intentionally. However, some students pointed out, sometimes you can point to an intentional decision and characterize it as a mistake. One student suggested that mistakes are things we learn from, but another student responded that we can learn from bad decisions too. The students concluded that mistakes are always part of learning, though some mistakes can be more consequential than others, but that bad decisions do not always present learning opportunities.

Are mistakes beautiful, then? The students seemed to reach consensus that it all depends on where the mistake leads. As one student noted, mistakes are not beautiful when they involve bad choices that have the potential to hurt you or someone else. However, the students also acknowledged that, as in Corinna Luyken's beautiful book, mistakes can lead to inspiration and beauty, and this awareness can help us to be unafraid of making mistakes in many areas of our lives.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Four Feet, Two Sandals


Four Feet, Two Sandals, by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, tells the story of two ten-year-old girls, Lina and Feroza, and their families, who are living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, having fled the war in Afghanistan. The girls become friends when each finds one sandal from a matching pair, after relief workers throw used clothing from the back of a truck. The girls meet and decide to share the sandals, taking turns wearing them. 

The story describes the girls' lives in the camp and the stressful wait for new homes. The girls wait in long lines for water, wash their clothes with rocks in the stream, and practice their writing skills with sticks in the sand because the only "schools was small with only nought room for the boys to study."


Eventually, Lina's family receives permission to emigrate to the United States, and Feroza gives the sandals to Lina, saying, "You cannot go barefoot to America." But when it is time for Lina to leave, Lina gives the shoes back to Feroza, as Lina's mother has saved money to buy her shoes. However, Feroza tells Lina she must keep one sandal, noting that "it is good to remember." 


The story, with its beautiful illustrations, explores concepts of friendship, home and homelessness, the experience of being a refugee, and identity.


Here are some questions that elementary school students have asked after listening to the story:

Why do people become refugees? 
Are countries that can provide safety obligated to allow in people escaping their homelands?
Do countries have different obligations to their citizens than to other people around the world?
Why do the girls decide to share the shoes?
What makes Lina and Feroza friends?
Can friendship help people to feel more at home when they have fled their homes? If so, how?
Why are only boys in school in the refugee camp?
Are Lina’s and Feroza’s experiences in the camp different than they would be if they were boys?
Why does Feroza give Lina one shoe at the end of the story? 
Did Lina do the right thing in accepting the shoe?
Can giving help us even when we need what we are giving away?

Monday, April 3, 2017

Beauty and Ugliness


Last week I had conversations with both a 4th grade class and a 5th grade class about what makes some things beautiful and some things ugly. Here is a sample of some of the things they wrote:

"Love is beautiful because most of us are here because of love we can't be standing here without loving each other."

"It is beautiful when the wind and the river both move in certain ways that give me goosebumps to scare me and chills for fun."

"Ugly is the way mud bubbles when it rains."

"Music is beautiful because I believe it is the soundtrack to our souls."

"Racism is ugly because it is a twisted state of being."

"I think anger is ugly because it always ends badly."

"I think our planet is beautiful because it's amazing how our universe created this one planet with over 100,000 species."

"In my vast imagination one thing is the most beautiful. Mistakes. You cannot learn without mistakes."

"Nothing in the world is ugly  everything is unique in its own way."

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

What makes something a home?


A couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with fifth grade students about the nature of home. The question we were exploring was: What makes something a home?

The students began by talking about home as a place, where you "feel comfortable and warm," where you "are cared for," where you "can be yourself." The latter comment led to a suggestion that home is a place of greater freedom than many other places, like school, where, as one student put it, "You can only be yourself there if the person you are fits within all the rules and the structure."

"Everyone has a different view of home," another student offered, "It really depends on how you see it."

"Everyone does understand the word 'home' differently," responded a student. "So I am not sure what the point is of talking about home. I mean, you could look up the word 'home' in the dictionary and it would give you a certain definition. But that definition doesn't cover everything people think of when they think of home. We can never decide one thing that makes a home a home, because everyone thinks of home in their own way. So what's the point?"

"If home is important to us," I responded, "doesn't it seem worthwhile to think more carefully about what we mean when we talk about it? Even if we won't end up agreeing on exactly what makes something a home?"

We then reflected about the nature of homelessness  what does it mean not to have a home? Can you be "homeless," in the sense that you have no permanent place to live, yet still have a home? Some students asserted that home is more about feelings than a place, and that it might be the case that even though you were "homeless" because you had no place to live, you might be around people who care about you and you feel at home when you're with them.

I asked the students whether, if you could have a home even if you have no place to live, you also could have a place to live, or even many places to live, and yet not have a home. Several students replied that yes, just because you live in a house or apartment, that doesn't make it a home. So what does? "It's really internal," responded one student. "Home is about your feelings. It could be how you feel about the people you live with, or you could live alone but surround yourself with things that make you feel comfortable and protected."

Then the student who had questioned the value of the discussion raised his hand and said, "You know, I've changed my mind. I wondered why we were talking about this when we weren't going to end up ever being able to define home. But now I think that talking about what home is and how different people see it makes you think more about what a home should be. That's why it's important."


Monday, March 6, 2017

Tuck Everlasting


Recently I read a chapter (Chaper 12) from the young adult novel Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit, to a class of fifth grade students at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle. I was surprised that almost none of the students had heard of this classic work.

Tuck Everlasting is the story of the Tuck family, a family of 4 who, years ago, discovered a spring of water which, they realized after they all drank from it, makes you immortal. Winnie Foster, a 10-year-old girl who has stumbled upon the well and made friends with Jesse Tuck (who appears to be about 17, but who is actually 104 years old), is then kidnapped by the Tuck family in an effort to explain to her why she must never tell anyone about the spring. 

In Chapter 12, Winnie has a conversation with Tuck, the father of the family, about time, the meaning of life, death, and what it mean never to grow old. Winnie is tempted to drink from the spring herself, but Tuck tries to describe to her what it would mean to be immortal and how living outside of the wheel of life presents its own challenges. Tuck reveals that he would like to grow again and change and tries to make Winnie understand that dying is an essential part of life, even if the prospect of it is frightening:

"[D]ying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can't pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that's the blessing. But it's passing us by, us Tucks. Living's heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it's useless, too. It don't make sense."

The children wanted to talk about whether they would drink from the spring. In the beginning of the conversation, several children said that they would, that living forever would be desirable if they could choose the age at which they drank from the spring (most of them said they would do so around age 25). But several students noted that living forever would change what it meant to be alive, that they might have no motivation to do anything if they knew they had eternity to accomplish anything. One student commented that if you were immortal, that wouldn't mean your children would be immortal, and how strange and awful it would be to watch your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. die. Other students said that life wouldn't be life without death, and that the feeling that your life would go on forever would be terrifying. We ended the conversation trying to imagine life without death, which, as one student pointed out, "would be a completely different form of living."

Some other questions raised by the chapter:
What would life be like if we didn’t die?
What is time?
What is the meaning of life?
What does it mean to grow up?
Why is death frightening?
What would happen if no one ever died?
How do we make other people understand our point of view?
How are things connected?
If you could be one age forever, what age would it be?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Philosophy Quotes from Children

This fall a reporter called and asked me if I had any philosophical quotes from children that I particularly liked. Of course I do!

For example:










and



For more: http://www.businessinsider.com/philosophy-quotes-kids-profound-2016-9/#-9