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Child Education, Parenting

Why We Should Teach Children Philosophy

Rocket-scientist, Nuclear Engineer, Theologian, and creator of the TransformRadio podcast
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For centuries children were taught the basics of math, science, and grammar along with a rich education in the humanities, like philosophy and theology. This turned out some of the greatest thinkers of all time, in eras that were significantly less technologically advanced than today.

We’ve got a creativity crisis in the world today.

We’ve sacrificed the higher order learning offered by courses like philosophy, which teaches how to approach problems, see arguments from multiple sides, and how to think about complex situations. Children who study philosophy grow into being more creative adults; they’re more capable of handling problems in the workplace, in their relationships, and in life in general. Studying philosophy teaches them how to think, how to separate valid from invalid arguments, and how to effectively communicate with other people.

Think about the last time you had a challenge with a customer service representative. Was the teen or young adult employee able to resolve the issue creatively or did they just simply rely on a memorized understanding of policies and procedures?

Were they interested in solving your issue and turning you into a satisfied customer or were they more interested in just getting you to quit complaining?

For those of you, like me, who are at or just beyond the midpoint of our careers, think about the ‘new kids’ in the work place. Are they creative thinkers? Are they effective communicators? Can they negotiate and come up with solutions that benefit multiple parties? Are they able to come up with creative solutions for complex problems, seeing how seemingly separate systems and/or processes interact with each other?

If we’re being honest, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find people like that.

Kids who have come up through the school pipeline beginning in the late 1990s are now graduated from college and hitting the workforce. Other teens, born in the late 1990s, are now popping up in typical ‘teenager jobs’ (i.e. retail, movie theaters, fast food). These are kids who have come through a school pipeline that is full of standardized testing, and rote memorization. Today’s students are being taught what to think and not how to think.

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As technological expansion started to explode in the late 1970s, and early 1980s, it became apparent that the Industrial model of education, which has been in place since the Industrial Revolution, had significant weaknesses. These weaknesses led to the beginning of the decline in US student performance versus students in the rest of the world. As the world began to move faster, US students began to fall further and further behind.

Beginning in the 1980s, accountability in education began to grow as a movement. As the Americans saw educational performance begin to falter in comparison to other nations, educators, administrators, and legislators began looking for ways to improve school and student performance, particularly in math and science. This led to the birth of the accountability, or educational standards, movement. Now, almost 15 years after the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), we see that the focus on metrics and statistics to measure student performance hasn’t returned the results that were promised.

For example:

  • The United States dropped from 18th internationally to 31st in math and science between 2001 and 2009.
  • A 5 year study completed in 2007 showed that focusing on standardized testing pushes teachers to “teach to the test” and sacrifice more complex, higher cognitive thinking assignments.
  • Some schools devote nearly 25% of teaching time to test preparation.
  • Standardized testing is expensive, putting unnecessary stress on school district budgets.

(source: standardizedtests.procon.org)

This increase in standardized testing, (‘accountability’), has only served as a thumb in the dike, temporarily holding off the inevitable collapse of the American education system.

What has this focus on standardized testing changed?

Well, we’ve become more focused on fact and figures that can be memorized and regurgitated and less on the deeper meanings behind them.

Centuries ago, when most of the sciences were born, the Godfathers of those sciences were well versed in philosophy. Their study of philosophy led them to search for meaning within the universe. Today, students should be taught the basics of philosophy, preferably starting at an early age. Some of the very basic philosophical concepts that every student should learn include:

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  • A priori and a posteriori arguments: to understand the differences between knowledge, truth, and experience.
  • Causality: to understand the relationship between two events in the universe, or on a smaller scale, a system.
  • Deductive and Inductive reasoning
  • Logic and logical fallacies: to form better arguments
  • The philosophy of political and economic ideologies: Comprehending ideologies like democracy, socialism, capitalism, and so on, assists in understanding various countries, cultures, and historical events
  • Subjective vs. Objective observations: to understand the difference between facts and opinion

These basic concepts in philosophy are a good foundation for teaching children how to think, instead of simply what to think.

So, as parents, how do we do this? How can we teach our kids philosophy without getting tangled up in endless philosophical arguments with an 8 year old?

It’s actually a lot simpler to do than it would appear.

Many children’s books are built around philosophical concepts such as fairness, truth, honesty, and ethics. So, from an early age, children can be introduced to basic philosophical concepts. Instead of talking simply about the events in the book, question them about the philosophical theme in the book.

For example, in Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Day, there are a number of philosophical concepts that can be discussed. You can discuss:

  • Emotions – Discuss what emotions Alexander has, what they are, and how to handle them.
  • Art – Discuss the picture Alexander draws and how art appreciation is subjective
  • Mistakes – Discuss making them, fixing them, and how our actions impact others.

A great resource for divining philosophical discussions from children’s books is TeachingChildrenPhilosophy.org. Then, as kids get older, more complex concepts can be introduced like causality, peer pressure, and morality.

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As shown in a BPS Research Digest study, kids who are taught philosophy showed significant improvements on tests of their verbal, numerical and spatial abilities. The study also showed that the positive effects of the study of philosophy were long lasting. When the same students were tested two years later, those who were taught philosophy still had higher test scores while the scores for the control group students either didn’t change or declined.

Philosophy doesn’t need to be an existential exercise, nor does it need to be intimidating. By integrating philosophical concepts into everyday events and discussions, we can teach our kids how to think, instead of just what to think.

And by doing so, we teach our kids how to create a better world.

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