“Gee, I Never Dealt With That Question Before”: Philosophy For Children

Some years ago, Matthew Lipman, a professor at Columbia University, created the Philosophy for Children program.  The basic tenet was that children were born natural philosophers and that many of their queries had philosophical import.   On the basis of that tenet, he created a curriculum dedicated to utilizing and developing children’s philosophical skills.  His first book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, proved enormously successful with 5th graders in a New York City school.  His project was quite ambitious, because philosophy encompasses such areas as:  ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, logic, foundations of mathematical and scientific principles, politics and the law.

In 1973, Professor Lipman established the Institute for the Advancement for the Philosophy of Children at Montclair State College in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.  Using money from grants, he developed philosophical readings and exercises from K-12.  He also provided a comprehensive teacher’s manual with plans for discussions and future projects.

Dale Cannon, a professor of philosophy at Western Oregon State College, describes the five basic elements in the Philosophy for Children program.  “First, a thought-provoking story and subsequent comments.  Typically, in Philosophy for Children, the students read the story aloud, even though they may have read it before.  Second, student interest is what sets the agenda for discussion.  Children are interested in talking in response to what they have read.  Third, a community of inquiry is a fundamental concept for Matthew Lipman and the program itself.  A group of children gradually develop a sense of cooperation in trying to clarify and comprehend what they are working on.  They are pondering about whether the argument makes good sense and are holding each other responsible as well.  Fourth, a trained adult facilitator is crucial.  The facilitator needs to be able to draw out the ideas of children without saying, ‘ I want you to pay attention to these ideas, these answers and not those.’  A trained facilitator might say, ‘Those are interesting thoughts you are coming up with, and I wonder where they might lead.’  Fifth, a set of discussion plans and exercises offer guidance when the opportunity for philosophical dialogue presents itself.  The teacher or adult may wonder,’Gee, I never dealt with that question before.  How should I respond to that.’  The discussion plans and exercises represent people who have worked with the program before and offer helpful suggestions to teachers or adults.”

Over the years, the Philosophy for Children program has made its way into many schools as a means of encouraging thinking and promoting discussion.  However, the program does not limit itself to reasoning only.  It also seeks to encourage creativity and personal and interpersonal growth.  Dale Cannon explains in further detail.  “Creative writing is one method of developing creativity.  And there are questions of a philosophical nature that relate to personal/interpersonal growth.  Some examples:  ‘What am I?  How am I like other persons?  How am I different from other persons?  What is my relationship to my own body?  What is my mind?  What is my mind like?  What is imagination?  What is the relationship between imagination and thinking or mind or thought or dreams?’  All of these are philosophical questions that are returned to again and again throughout the Philosophy for Children program.”  Matthew Lipman was a true pioneer in legitimizing a relationship between philosophical concepts and children.