Schools aren't teaching the most important subject for kids

Photo: Getty/ Joe Raedle

Not too long ago, Jana Mohr Lone was at an education workshop in her hometown of Seattle when someone gave her a note.

The note was written by a fifth-grade girl. As Mohr Lone read it, the girl’s words began to fill her with joy.

“Ever since you left, I’ve been looking at my surroundings more and being careful about who I’m talking to and what I’m saying,” Mohr Lone later recalled, reading the note over the phone. “I’m thankful because you made me think deeper about things and care more about life.”

Mohr Lone isn’t a guidance counselor or a therapist. She’s a philosophy teacher, the founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children, and the 20-year president of PLATO, a nonprofit focused on bringing philosophy to schools.

She had spent an hour each week for the last year visiting the girl’s school to teach the ancient discipline. And now, just a couple months later, she was already seeing her impact firsthand.

Schools’ essential function (at least in theory) is to give kids the skills they need to navigate adult life. Amid the heavy focus on maths, science, and reading, however, they have skipped over one of the oldest intellectual pursuits.

While programs have been spreading across US high schools over the last several years, when it comes to elementary education one question still lingers: Why don’t more schools teach philosophy?

The surprising benefits of kids asking questions

The questions philosophy raises about life merit it a spot in the school schedule, but it’s the wide-ranging benefits to other school subjects that make it so valuable for students.

Numerous studies have found that kids who take philosophy go on to excel in reading and maths, too.

A recent study conducted among 3,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in 48 schools across England, for example, found that weekly, hour-long philosophy courses over one school year led to better literacy and maths skills on follow-up tests two years later than with kids who took no philosophy courses. Neither group received any additional help in reading or maths; the only difference was the introduction of philosophy.

Mohr Lone isn’t surprised when she hears these collateral effects. Year after year, teachers gush that her philosophy courses teach kids skills they can apply in other classrooms. The child who learns to reason through a philosophical argument can better tease apart maths problems, just as perspective-taking enriches a lesson about slavery in the 1800s.

Kids also get a master class in character-building. Philosophical inquiry teaches kids patience, listening skills, respect for others’ opinions, and, perhaps above all, grit.

Grit is the quality that University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth has found is the single greatest predictor of adult success — that stick-with-it trait that kids also tend to derive from sports. 

Philosophy helps kids realise they should direct their energy toward solving the problem at hand, not stressing out because they think the real problem is them.

Philosophy isn’t scary

The idea of teaching kids morals and metaphysics may seem unrealistic, but give kids the right stimulus and there’s no telling how far their minds will wander.

In Mohr Lone’s classroom, pretty much anything is up for grabs. Scout and Atticus Finch can stimulate a discussion on the nature of courage. “The Velveteen Rabbit” gets kids thinking about the question, “What is real?” Often, the simplest stimuli can produce profound insights.

In her 2012 book “The Philosophical Child,” Mohr Lone recalls asking a group of fifth-graders how we can know reality isn’t a simulation — a prompt many might assume is too daunting for mere 10-year-olds.

“OK,” piped up one girl in the front row, “maybe I can’t know that I am not just the mind of a computer or living in a cave and seeing only shadows. But what I can know is that if I’m thinking about what I can know, I can be sure that at least there is me thinking, even if that’s all I can know about myself or anything else.”

Mohr Lone writes that she was blown away. “I told her that the philosopher René Descartes had come to a similar conclusion almost four hundred years ago.”

Philosophy opens kids’ eyes to the world around them

Beyond helping kids understand themselves, philosophy also helps kids understand each other. Some of Mohr Lone’s favourite programs are those in which kids from predominantly white schools get together with kids from predominantly black schools to discuss issues of race in America.

She admits there’s been some pushback.

“Occasionally, I’ll have parents say to me ‘You know, I think it might be too early for my kid to be thinking about racial identity,'” she explains. “And I always say ‘Well, your kid must be white,’ because if you grew up as a child of colour, by the time you’re seven or eight years old nobody needs to teach you about racial identity. You’re already thinking about it.”

An open forum where children from poor areas can reflect on the hardships of growing up can illuminate just how well those with privilege have it. Philosophy can serve as the great equaliser.

Parents and schools should encourage kids to speak their mind

Philosophy shouldn’t replace maths and science — those are still vitally important to raising well-rounded thinkers. But its benefits mean that it does deserve a place in the classroom, even if just involves maths and science teachers weaving philosophical thought into their lessons.

The biggest reason schools haven’t done that is philosophy still feels largely inaccessible. People think it’s something old guys do by the fireplace or in the Ivory Towers of academia. “People don’t think about the fact that we all do philosophy all the time,” Mohr Lone says. Adults and children alike wonder if certain people are real friends, if what they just did was morally right, and how to find purpose in life.

Kids often ponder these questions on their own, but due to the pressures of formal schooling they learn to suppress their curious spirit and prioritise knowledge over understanding.

If Mohr Lone can do anything to help more schools bring a philosophy course to their students, she says it’s to demystify for adults what seems to come naturally to kids.

“Philosophy in many ways underpins all the subjects,” Mohr Lone says. “It’s sort of the original subject.”

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