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Q&A: 'Philosophy for Children' Founder Discusses Soviet Venture

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Since he published "Harry Stottlemeir" in 1974, Matthew Lipman's unique approach of teaching children to reason through philosophy has attracted international attention.

The curriculum, targeted to children in kindergarten through 12th grade, is centered around a series of novels featuring children who, in their own language, explore such complex philosophical concepts as fallacies and syllogisms. It is now used in 5,000 schools nationwide and 5,000 more abroad.

Recently, Mr. Lipman's Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair (N.J.) State College entered into an unusual agreement to export the program into schools in the Soviet Union.

Mr. Lipman, who is also a philosophy professor at the college, talked with Assistant Editor Debra Viadero about the new agreement and the program.

Q. Could you describe your program?

A. It is a discussion program that uses dialogue among children, with the teacher participating and guiding the discussion. The pump is primed by having children read a novel in which the fictional children discuss ideas they find interesting or puzzling.

The students ... form their own agenda about what ideas they would like to discuss. The teacher has a manual with hundreds ... of exercises and discussion plans that will pull out from children what they understand these concepts to deal with.

If, for example, kids say they want to talk about friendship, the teacher might ask ... " What is a friend?" A kid might say, "Somebody I like." Then the teacher might ask, "Oh, then is everybody you like your friend?" They begin to apply a logical discipline to their discussions.

These habits they form in philosophy can then carry over to other subjects.

Q. Why are Soviet educators interested in this approach?

A. Two key words in Soviet education over the last 25 years have been "cooperation" and "activity." They tend to think of cooperation as better relationships between the teacher and the class. What we're trying to show them is ... [that it also] means better relationships of the children to each other.

They also understand that if they can get children involved in verbal and physical activities, then these overt activities will be internalized by children and will become mental activities. What we try to do is get children to engage in activities which can be translated into mental reason and judgment and that way improve the quality of their thinking. ...

They understand it's important to get children to understand abstract principles, and their present education system is not doing that. It is bogged down in specificity so that kids' minds never get far enough above to see around. They just didn't know how to do it.

Q. What are the terms of the agreement with the Soviet Union?

A. There will be a Soviet-American seminar on problems of developing thinking, based upon concepts of child development and joint learning. They are to use our program of philosophy for experimental programs in teaching thinking. And Americans will be training their psychologists and philosophers here. ...

There have been many teacher exchanges with the Soviet Union in recent years. But what we are doing is exporting a curriculum and teaching them how to use it. That's something very different.

Q. Because the stories are written in the language of American children, do they have to be adapted to reflect Soviet culture?

A. Wherever we have books translated, they are being made so the children of that country will think of the children in the stories as someone just like them. These stories also have very little context. They're sort of like the "Peanuts" cartoon. You have figures, but no background.

Q. How do Soviet children respond to the program?

A. From the two, one-hour 4th-grade6classes I've taught, the response was very enthusiastic. After each question, as is our practice, we put the name of the child who asked the question on the board, and they are very proud of that, as most children are.

What surprised us was how fast we would get into the context. For example, in the "Pixie" story, there was a paragraph dealing with stories, so they wanted to talk about stories. I asked them: "Does your school have a story? Does your country have a story? Do you have a story?"

At the end of the hour, they came up to me and asked if I would be interested in reading their stories about themselves. That's the proof in the pudding.

Q. Is it false to assume that most Soviet children do not get much chance to practice classroom dialogue?

A. The [Soviet psychologist] Vygotskian movement was already stressing classroom talking as important for the development of thinking. But I examined some transcripts of classroom dialogue, and theirs are not nearly as advanced as ours because the teacher is still asking the question, and children are still giving the answer. ...

How are you going to build a democracy if the major questions are going to be formulated by the leaders?

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