TEHRAN – Professor Tom Wartenberg says it is of “crucial importance to children” to learn to have a “philosophical discussion with their peers”.
“When we expose children to philosophy, we are getting them to see that their fundamental questions about the world can be explored in dialogue with their peers,” Wartenberg, a professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College, tells the Tehran Times.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What is the importance of teaching philosophy to the children?
A: Learning to have a philosophical discussion with their peers is of crucial importance to children. Education focuses on preparing kids for standardized tests. Although it is important for children to learn basic skills, education can offer so much more. When we expose them to philosophy, we are getting them to see that their fundamental questions about the world can be explored in dialogue with their peers. They learn to listen to each other carefully, a skill that many adults have not learned. They learn that disagreement does not have to end in hostility; that even good friends could disagree on some things. These are important life lessons that come from philosophical discussions.
Q: Is there only one method to teach philosophy to children, or any culture should design its own approach?
A: Although there is no single method for teaching children philosophy, the central strategy that all different methods have accepted, allows children to express their own ideas in a critical dialogue with one another. I have favored using children's literature to spark philosophical discussions among them, because children love having books read to them. This also has the side benefit of getting the children to see how wonderful literature is. It's also a practical method since teachers usually use picture books in their classes any way, and all they need to do is to learn how to use our method in order to have a philosophical discussion in their classrooms. However, as a philosopher, I have also engaged children just by telling them a hypothetical story and asking them what they think about it.
I don't think every culture needs to develop an utterly new method for teaching philosophy to children, although everyone wants to figure out how to adopt given methods to their own situation. We are all aiming at empowering children, helping them grow and develop intellectually and emotionally, so there will be a lot of commonality in our approaches even in very different cultures.
Q: How can we teach philosophy to children in digital media?
A: You're probably asking the wrong person to answer this question! Although I have a website that many people from all over the world access and use it for their own lessons, I still believe in the power of creating personal relationships in teaching. There is nothing as important in my view as finding a strong personal connection with a teacher to develop a child's interest in learning and thinking. As a matter of fact, I think the relationship could have a lasting impression on them. But I realize that the world is changing and that digital media are impacting every aspect of our lives. I've even been working to create a digital platform to use with older children for teaching philosophy at: http://whatsthebigideaprogram.com. The idea is that any classroom teacher could use the website to introduce English-speaking children between the ages of 10 and 18 or so to ethical issues. It features clips from films and has me and others talking about the issues. But the crux is still the discussions that an individual teacher has to conduct. So that's one example of how we can develop materials that can extend the reach of philosophy for children beyond what a single teacher can do.
Tom Wartenberg is a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke College. He has recently finished a book, Big Ideas for Little Kids, a guide for teaching philosophy to elementary-school children. His main research interests are philosophy for children and philosophy of film. His most recent publication is “thinking on Screen: Film as Philosophy”.