'That Noble and Most Sovereign Reason..."
Is the difference between a lump of clay and a clay pot a difference in degree or a difference in kind? A rock smashes through a classroom window. Was it thrown with force, or with violence? And what are the grounds for deciding it was one and not the other?
These are some of the questions that sixth graders in 15 Bethlehem, Pa., elementary schools wrestle with for 45 minutes three times a week all year long under a three-year-old "Philosophy for Children" program.
Beginning next fall, fifth graders and seventh graders throughout the 11,500-student eastern Pennsylvania school system will also take a "philosophy" course, and eighth graders are scheduled to join the program in 1983.
In Vermont, a series of regulations was passed by the state board of education in the mid-1970's requiring that reasoning skills be taught throughout the state at all grade levels, and that, beginning in 1983, students demonstrate mastery of these skills in order to graduate (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1982). It was the first such statewide effort of the kind, officials say.
Reasoning Skills Taught
The Vermont program is designed to teach 15 different reasoning skills--such as how to distinguish fact from opinion and how to draw conclusions from facts--as part of the regular school curriculum at all grade levels.
Under the program, schools must chart the development of each student's reasoning skills in a "pupil-progress record" that is monitored regularly by the state department of education.
"Every single teacher--even a third-grade teacher in East Podunk--knows the [15 reasoning] competencies," said James G. Lengel, who has developed and led the reasoning campaign for the Vermont department of education. "They have infected our curriculum."
Next fall, the New York City public schools will hire a full-time "thinking-skills coordinator" in preparation for its own ef-fort--now in the initial stages--to develop a districtwide reasoning-skills project.
While there have been isolated attempts by teachers in schools around the country to improve the reasoning skills of their students, the scale of the systematic, districtwide efforts underway in Bethlehem and New York City, and the statewide program in Vermont, is unprecedented, according to Mr. Lengel and Matthew Lipman, director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State College in New Jersey.
Mr. Lipman, along with former University of Chicago philosopher Mortimer Adler, is considered a pioneer and leader in adapting the study of philosophy for children (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1981).
These comprehensive efforts are being made at a time when national surveys of student achievement suggest that a majority of students lack the analytic skills necessary to defend their views, interpret facts, and draw conclusions.
A study of the reading, writing, and analytic skills of 9-, 13-, and 17-year-olds across the country released late last year by the National Assessment of Educational Progress concluded that "hardly any of the students ... showed evidence of having and using a systematic approach to the analytic tasks."
The researchers who conducted the survey said this finding reflects the current emphasis in classrooms on the recall of facts rather than the discussion of ideas.
Elliot Salow, acting head of the social studies office in the New York City school system, agrees with this conclusion: "I see content, content, content. It's the open-bottle theory of education: you just fill it up with facts and figures."
But in John Acerra's sixth-grade class at Lincoln Elementary School in Bethlehem, "the emphasis is on dialogue" three afternoons a week when his 26 10- and 11-year-old students--including those with "good" grades and "poor" grades--arrange themselves in a circle at the back of the classroom to study "philosophy."
"There are no right or wrong answers here. The course helps the kids develop reasons for their actions," said Mr. Acerra. "You see a light go on once they realize they can express their ideas. They open up. And it spills over into their other classes. They take it into the halls, too."
Grant Received for Program
Introduced in six schools in 1979-80 as part of a campaign by the Bethlehem school board to fight drug abuse among the city's 11,500 school-age children, the "Philosophy for Children" program has recently received a $62,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to train the teachers who will teach the course when the program is expanded to include fifth, seventh, and eighth graders in the next two years.
By 1983, Bethlehem school officials estimate, there will be nearly 3,400 students enrolled in the course.
No grades are given in the course, which is based on a curriculum created by Mr. Lipman.
Instead, the young students explore the principles of logic and different forms of reasoning as they read--and often dramatize--the exploits of the characters in a novel written by Mr. Lipman, which serves as the "textbook" for the course.
"Students [who've had the course] no longer give you a yes or a no answer, " said Henry Richards, who has taught the course for three years at Governor Wolf Elementary School. "Children also learn to accept each other's ideas. And the course is great for developing their self-confidence."
Mr. Richards, who has been a teacher for 20 years, said that teaching the course has also improved his teaching technique.
"I no longer look for a specific yes or no answer, and I don't answer my own questions as I used to," he said.
Teachers Trained for Course
Like the other 32 Bethlehem teachers who teach the "Philosophy for Children" course, Mr. Richards was trained by members of Mr. Lipman's staff at Montclair State College in Upper Montclair, N.J., at a cost estimated by the Bethlehem school system to be about $1,000 per teacher.
Although he is comfortable teaching the course now, Mr. Richards said, he was initially apprehensive about teaching the principles of philosophy, a subject to which he had little previous exposure.
"I went to Penn State and took one philosophy course. The first day, the guy tells us that the tree outside the window wasn't there, so I dropped it," he said.
"Philosophy for Children" is getting results, according to preliminary results of an evaluation by the Educational Testing Service of the students who took the course last year.
The 32 classrooms of Bethlehem sixth-grade students enrolled in "philosophy" during 1980-81 were tested before and after the course. Of these, 29 showed "significant gains" in reasoning ability, as well as scores 60 percent higher than those of a "control" group of students in Secaucus, N.J., who were also tested twice but were not offered the course in reasoning, the study showed.
Moreover, the emphasis on discussion in the reasoning course, those who teach it say, has been beneficial to students who are low achievers in classroom settings where answers are simply right or wrong.
"Street kids have blossomed," said A. Thomas Kartsotis, a middle-school principal who leads the Bethlehem philosophy program.
Adds Mr. Acerra, the sixth-grade teacher: "I have a sixth-grade kid, Ricky, who reads at a second-grade level. But in the philosophy class he has opened up because he knows he will not be told 'no.' He has become more willing to take risks [in expressing himself in the class]; he has become a more important part of the class."
The New York City school system is still in the early stages of its reasoning-skills program, and unlike Bethlehem, it will not include separate reasoning-skills courses.
Last year, administrators from five of New York City's 32 school districts were trained by the school system to develop programs in their schools that will improve the ability of teachers to ask "higher-level" questions in each of their subjects.
"Too many teachers only ask recall questions," said Mr. Salow of the school system's social-studies office. "Certain questions get kids to do certain things. We're trying to get them to think on higher levels--to analyze, to draw conclusions."
This summer, one administrator and one teacher from each of 20 different schools will undergo expanded training from the school system, receiving two weeks of instruction in teaching problem-solving and study skills in addition to a week on how to develop questioning skills.
These administrators and teachers will also develop programs for their schools in the fall. Based on an evaluation of these programs, the New York City school system will decide whether to implement in all of the city's schools similar reasoning programs that would also in-clude curriculum guides and testing plans.
Mr. Lipman argues that, in addition to teaching students the needed skills, greater use in the classroom of the concepts of reasoning would make school decidedly more lively for students.
"The old-fashioned didactic textbook method of teaching that emphasizes facts and figures can be deadly. An alternative--a way of getting students thinking--is to treat all concepts as inherently controversial," he said.
Mr. Richards, the sixth-grade teacher in Bethlehem, seemed to agree. "We had a helluva session recently on the difference between the brain and the mind," he noted.