Think Piece

February 01, 2002 3 min read
The journal Questions offers answers on teaching philosophy.

What is a right? Are human rights universal? What responsibilities do rights entail? These questions and more will be addressed in the spring 2002 edition of Questions, a new journal designed to spark philosophical discussions. The surprise—Questions isn’t for ivory-tower scholars. It’s for teachers who want to get kids thinking.

This spring’s human rights-themed issue follows the journal’s premiere release, on children’s rights, produced last year by philosopher Jana Mohr-Lone and colleagues from several philosophy organizations. The first issue of the free journal, funded by the Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children and the American Philosophical Association, was distributed to some 3,000 educators nationwide, mostly at public K-12 schools. (This year, backers plan a smaller, targeted circulation to readers who’ve donated money or indicated interest.)

Reaction to the journal, which aims to inspire teachers to include philosophy in their lesson plans, “has been really positive,” according to Mohr-Lone. Readers especially enjoyed the excerpts of kids’ discussions about children’s rights, which the editors asked teachers to gather and submit. The two-color journal also featured students’ drawings representing children’s rights (such as the right to stay up late), classroom exercises in philosophy, and a reading list.

For Mohr-Lone, who directs the Northwest Center in Seattle, Questions is just the latest project in a longtime crusade: getting 21st-century kids to study a discipline that many think went out with the toga. Philosophical debate heightens students’ reasoning, logic, and critical thinking skills, she claims. What’s more, kids need to be able to think about questions without feeling there’s a right or wrong answer, she says, and philosophy is the ideal subject through which to explore the unanswerable: “You’re talking about questions [that] people have argued about for thousands of years. There is no right answer to ‘What is truth?’ ”

Although the Northwest Center doesn’t have statistics on what percentage of K- 12 schools offer courses in philosophy, Matthew Lipman, founder of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, admits that the number is “minuscule.” Still, philosophers hope to get more educators on board, if not to teach whole classes, then occasional lessons. While some organizations send philosophers into schools to run workshops, Mohr-Lone has long felt something else was needed to promote the subject in K-12 classrooms. So, Questions was born. “It’s a tangible thing to give to teachers,” she says.

The underlying message of Questions is that teaching philosophy to young kids is not as intimidating as it sounds. David Shapiro, education director of the Northwest Center and a Questions contributor, regularly leads workshops in Seattle schools. He explains that, though he discusses the theories of Plato and other famous philosophers, he focuses on the issues rather than the thinkers. “Kids are less interested in what so-and-so said” than in the ideas, he notes.

Shapiro’s convinced Vicky Hutchings, a 6th grade teacher at Seattle’s Marcus Whitman Middle School, that teaching philosophy to preteens is possible—though a little unusual. “He engages them in thinking,” Hutchings says. While her own lessons are geared toward producing written assignments, Shapiro’s workshops don’t involve any specific products, she observes. “They just talk and think.”

Still, many of her colleagues are reluctant to include philosophy in their classes. Some believe it’s only for gifted students, which Hutchings dismisses, noting that Shapiro teaches kids of all abilities. With the increased focus on testing, others are reluctant to participate in anything that’s not directly related to prepping kids, she adds. (Lipman says studies prove children exposed to philosophy actually perform better on standardized tests.)

Faced with these and other negative stereotypes, teachers need the encouragement and assistance that Questions provides, say the journal’s contributors. And particularly in a post-September 11 world, kids need the critical thinking skills that the field promotes, they argue. Put simply, philosophy aims to help people make sense of complex questions, says Shapiro, and “that’s what we actually do in our lives.”

—Deborah Kalb