Challenging Young Thinkers: Philosophy for Kids with Rory Kraft

I starting doing philosophy with children quite accidentally.  One of my main areas of interests was, and remains, what could be termed moral education – how is it that we come to learn to be ethically good people?  While I was at Michigan State Steve Esquith was looking for graduate students to take over a project that he had been doing at a local school – Chippewa Middle School.   This seemed to be a good opportunity to see how some of the ideas I had been studying in a different context.

My colleague Alison Reiheld and I started alternating days working with an amazing teacher, Sandra Sophia-Fairmont, and we all collectively starting “just” doing philosophy with the students.  We would come in with a philosophical question – Is it ever right to cheat?  Can we know if someone has the same experiences we have?  How do we know that we are not dreaming now? etc. – and see where the conversation went.  Running these sessions without readings and largely without a plan of where we would good, we in many ways ended up recreating a true Socratic discussion style.  Our jobs were to pose the questions and challenge the answers.  The kids loved it, at least in part because their ideas and opinions were being taken seriously.

To this day, I continue to think that this method – a real conversation – is the best manner to do philosophy with precollege students.  The best of these conversations have a facilitator who has background in academic philosophy, not only because of an awareness of content areas and “standard” approaches to questions, but perhaps more importantly because of exposure to the rhythm and flow of Socratic conversations.

For those without advanced training in philosophy, turning to books like Tom Wartenberg’s Big Ideas for Little Kids or A Sneetch is a Sneetch are good beginning points.  A book I routinely use at the college level, Peg Tittle’s What If, is also nice for ideas of how to start conversations.  For those quite interested in both the theory and the practice of philosophy with children, Sara Goering’s Philosophy in Schools (full disclosure: I have a chapter in this edited volume) and Jana Mohr Lone’s The Philosophical Child are also great reads.   Of course the classics by Matthew Lipman and Gareth Matthews are always good.

There is one great danger of encouraging our children to really be critical thinkers.  Invariably once we allow children to think they push back on adults’ claims from authority.  I have often wondered if this, more than questions about curriculum, are behind many schools lack of enthusiasm for integrating philosophy into their classes.

Lest I end on a pessimistic tone, I have yet to meet anyone in a pre-college philosophy session that did not in the end both love it and grow as a person.  The best part is that sessions can be integrated into any academic discipline:  discussions in high school history classes about the ethics of Nazi medical experiments, middle school science classes examining the challenge to our understanding of motion that Zeno’s paradoxes give, elementary school writing classes struggling with what gives a word meaning, or kindergarten students thinking about what it means to follow a rule.   I’ve had all of these conversations, and more.

Since the bulk of my teaching is at the college level, I often wonder just what my classes would be like if more of my students had been exposed to philosophy when they were younger.  My hunch is that they would be more open to thinking about the concepts behind their ideas, and would do a better job explaining why they believe what they do.  What I do know is that they would be better thinkers, writers, and citizens for having had more exposure earlier.

My hope is that the more that we all continue to work to get our youth to love wisdom that the more we will begin to see a generation (or generations!) that can truly be said to be flourishing individuals thriving in all aspects of life.  While it started as an accident, this aspect has become part of my own work on moral education now and going forward.

Rory Kraft is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at York College of Pennsylvania.  (www.ycp.edu)  His main areas of interest are in ethics (theory and applied) and philosophy with children.  He is editor of the annual journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People (www.questionsjournal.com), and treasurer of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (www.philosophyteachers.org).   He and his wife have two children who are often exposed to philosophy thought experiments without their consent.

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