Teaching Middle School Philosophy


    Like elementary school children, middle school students are native questioners and thinkers. What’s more, they have reached two stages important for rich philosophical exploration:
    • the social stage at which most have begun to realize that the authorities around them are not always correct, leading to a willingness to assess received wisdom and to form their own judgments
    • the cognitive stage at which they have a sizeable array of facts about the world and the ability to follow, critique, and mount sustained arguments.

    Indeed, the very idea of a “middle school” for 6th-8th or 7th and 8th grades is based on the twin realizations that students at this age are undergoing greater psychological, physiological, and sociological re-orientation than at perhaps any other period in their lives as they transition from childhood into adolescence, and that they nonetheless have capacities distinct from elementary and high school students. To those of us who view philosophy as a life skill, middle school is a time when this skill is much in demand.

    Middle school students are thus well primed to do philosophical reflection, and can benefit immensely from the skills and concepts that philosophy can provide. In addition, middle schoolers are often a joy to work with because they engage deeply with many key philosophical issues.

    There are many questions that people interested in starting a middle school philosophy program need to ask, whether they are already inside the school system or outside of it in academia or some other profession.

    1. What is my background in philosophy?
    • If my background in philosophy is limited or if I am out-of-practice doing philosophy on a regular basis, what people at local universities or books or discussion groups might I consult?

    2. Do I want to run the program, do I want to bring someone else in to run the program, or would I like to team-teach the program with someone?
    • Team-teaching is often a good solution as it allows philosophers or undergraduate majors who have college-level experience and deep knowledge of philosophy to work with teachers who have valuable middle-school teaching experience and prior knowledge of individual students.

    3. Do I want the program to operate within a school, or informally outside of it?

    • If within a school:
    i. Do I know which school I would prefer to base the program in, and am I interested in expanding it to other schools in the system and able to do so if it succeeds?
    Additional Considerations: Do I have social justice concerns or particular skills and interests that might lead me to choose a school based on economic or other demographics? The Philosophical Horizons program in Memphis, TN, has an explicit mission of serving those students whose schools would not otherwise be able to provide such a program. Other potential examples of how social justice concerns or your particular skills might influence school choice include using Spanish-language fluency to work with children of recent immigrants or having a particular interest in philosophical issues of science and technology (such as bioethics) that would lead me to seek out a magnet or charter school with those specializations or a public school with particular strengths in those areas.
    ii. Should the program meet daily, as an elective inside the school’s existing curriculum or a regular after-school activity; or should the program meet at regular intervals, as an after-school activity or regular curriculum element such as music or PE, or as a lunchtime discussion? The answer to this question will depend on the options available at particular schools.
    iii. Do I want this to be discussion-based only, or to have reading and writing assignments as well as class discussion? We strongly recommend a heavy discussion orientation with an emphasis on reflection, skills, and dialog, rather than teaching the philosophical canon.
    iv. If you are a philosophy grad student or philosophy professional, are there teachers within the school system who majored or minored in philosophy as undergraduates and would be interested in team-teaching a course or having you work with them regularly?
    v. If you are a teacher within the school system, are there philosophy undergraduate or graduate programs in the area in which you can find students and/or professors who may be interested in volunteering their time and skills?
    vi. Who is in charge of curriculum development? How do I contact local principals?
    vii. How will I publicize the program to both parents and teachers? The Memphis Philosophical Horizons program uses a publicity flyer to make people aware of the program. Other options include asking the local newspaper to write an article on the program or sending handouts home with students.

    • If the program will develop informally, outside of a school:
    i. Are there community organizations such as the YMCA, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, or evening enrichment classes at a local university or community college that have a built-in format for short-term, inexpensive (or free) activities for young people? (Check first to ensure that you agree with the organization’s ethos.)
    ii. Can I hold sessions with either continuous or revolving membership at local bookstores, community centers, or public libraries?
    iii. How can I best design sessions that will interest both those people who regularly attend as well as those who occasionally drop in, as well as those who have previous knowledge and those who do not?
    iv. How will the setting and access to transportation affect the kinds of students (class, race, educational background) who can attend? For example, YMCAs often run latchkey programs at schools, which solves the transportation issue and creates a hybrid alternative between in-school and out-of-school programming.
    v. How will I publicize the program with the resources available to me? Schools are sometimes willing to announce out-of-school programs to students if they are judged to be consistent with the school’s goals. If you offer a class through the YMCA, you can use their catalog and website for publicity. You might also be able to get the local newspaper to write a story on the program, and establish a website.

    Next, plan how the program will run. Your curriculum should be fairly detailed and can be conceptualized in several different ways:
    • PROGRESSIVE: builds philosophical skills and content over time, bringing topics in to illustrate or hone particular skills and concepts. If you choose this, you should sketch out a rough order of skills and concepts in advance, and be willing to revise it as the situation demands. This need not be as formal as a syllabus unless you are working within a school whose administration requires a formal syllabus with a schedule of topics.
    • TOPICAL: assumes no knowledge of prior discussions; each meeting considers a new topic. If you choose this, make sure you allow sufficient time to elapse before revisiting any one topic. However, since you can assume rotating membership, topics of common interest can be recycled with minor variation so that frequent participants can raise new issues and new participants can still benefit from the discussion.

    Consider discussing the annual topic for the Kids Philosophy Slam, the pre-college national philosophy competition similar to the national spelling bee. All grade levels engage with the same topic, but with different expectations. The 2010 topic is the famous question posed by English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton: “Is the Pen Mightier than the Sword?” Philosophy Slam’s website also includes a “philosopher of the week” which may provide a framework for discussion as well.

    Philosophy sessions need ground rules and clear expectations. Everyone needs to know what type of speech, attitudes, and behavior are conducive to rigorous reflection, debate, and discussion. In a progressive course, you may only have to set ground rules for civil discussion and open-minded debate once at the beginning and then remind people as the program goes on. You can debate which ground rules should be adopted during your first session. In a topical course with revolving membership, you may need to state a very concise set of rules at the beginning of every session.

    This works best in progressive programs which have continuity of membership and in which participants will abide by the rules they set, rather than in topical programs with revolving membership in which participants may be governed by rules set by others. To prepare students for this, try this exercise:

    You’ve had some arguments with peers and family. When we talk about arguments, we don’t mean a fight, but an attempt to persuade someone to a particular point of view or simply to justify that point of view and show that it is reasonable. This kind of argument uses reasons – sometimes called premises – to give the listener or the speaker good reason to believe the speaker’s conclusion is true.

    • “What can people say or do to turn a good argument into a fight or a shouting match?” (Let students discuss before moving on to the next question.)

    • “Have you ever seen two people disagree and discuss in a calm way? What behaviors did they exhibit?” (Let students discuss. If you are concerned that students may not have seen such examples, you might show clips from both the O’Reilly Factor and a PBS debate.)

    Divide students into groups or two or three and ask each group to come up with two or more ground rules for class discussions so that they can have arguments based on good reasons rather than fights or shouting matches, and so that they can help each other think about issues. Then, as a class, reach a consensus on the wording of rules. Finally, print and display the ground rules as a gentle reminder, and refer to them as “your rules” rather than “the rules.”

    In topical programs with revolving membership, members cannot effectively set their own rules every time, so the rules and expectations need to be clear, concise, and easily explainable to new participants. You can encourage frequent participants to briefly explain the rules to new participants, and serve as role models.

    Here are some easily explained, concise ground rules for rigorous, vigorous, civil discussion and debate:

    1. Agree that disagreement is not always bad, and that reasonable people of good will can disagree.
    2. Don’t deliberately be mean or insult someone.
    3. Be charitable (that is, assume other people are doing their best and are not being deliberately mean).
    4. Say why you think something is true and ask the same of others. Every person should support his or her claims.
    5. Be open to the possibility that you are wrong.
    6. Have fun thinking.

    The following list is not exhaustive but a beginning.

    The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell. This slim, classic volume offers an overview of philosophical issues including the nature of reality and the value of philosophy. It does not touch on ethics or social or political philosophy. This work is best for adult readers.

    What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy by Thomas Nagel. Even slimmer than Russell’s classic, this modern overview of philosophical issues is an easy read for most adults, and probably by many upper-level middle schoolers and some lower-level middle schoolers. As the author puts it, “This book is a brief introduction to philosophy for people who don’t know the first thing about the subject.” Nagel’s chapters consider nine problems of philosophy, in a style that is very engaging.

    Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips. Phillips began the Socrates Café movement, which sets up adult philosophy discussion groups at bookstores and other free-access public venues. Phillips’ book is based on the idea that philosophy is something you do –through debate and discussion – rather than simply study, an approach which is very appropriate for middle-schoolers. Questions spotlighted in this book include: “What is insanity?” “How do you know when you know yourself?” “What is a world?” “Does anyone have the right to be ignorant?” and “Why question?” Because the tone is colloquial rather than scholarly, it helps those without a philosophy background grasp the nature of philosophical discussion.

    Dialogues with Children by Gareth B. Matthews. Matthews records his philosophical conversations with children aged 8 through 11. Matthews wants us to take seriously “…the possibility of tackling with children, in a relationship of mutual respect, the naively profound questions of philosophy… children’s contributions may be quite as valuable as any we adults have to offer.” In addition to giving a sense of what children can do, Matthews describes stories and questions that prompt rich discussion which you may wish to adapt for your own use.

    Philosophy in the Classroom by Matthew Lipman, Ann Margaret Sharp, and Frederick S. Oscanyan. Lipman has been a leading figure in philosophy for children. This textbook for teachers offers a pedagogical argument for how philosophical thinking can be used in teaching children. The authors describe a curriculum developed at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children and explain its use. They advocate converting the classroom into a critical thinking community of inquiry (not just for philosophy programs, but for any subject).

    Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature by Thomas E. Wartenburg. This teacher-friendly, easy-to-read book suggests how teachers can discuss philosophical questions embedded in works of children’s literature. This may be particularly effective for teachers who want to do philosophy in conjunction with reading and writing. Its audience is primarily elementary school children, but the book’s suggestions can easily be adapted for middle-school aged children. The author’s website describing his well-regarded Philosophy for Kids program features a video of 5th-graders discussing philosophy of art (aesthetics). The site’s “For Educators” and “Stories” pages list children’s literature of philosophical interest, and provide a list of the philosophical issues in these stories.

    Questions: Philosophy for Young People This annual journal publishes work by young people and by adults working with young people; it provides a unique forum for the philosophical questions – and answers – of young people and their teachers. Each topical issue contains philosophical discussions, drawings, and philosophical writing by students in an easy-to-read newsletter format. The journal also publishes articles offering advice and ideas for teachers and parents interested in facilitating philosophical discussions with young people. In addition, the journal publishes the winning entries of the annual national K-12 Philosophy Slam competition. Questions may also be a venue for publishing your work reflecting on your philosophy program or your students’ work.

    Middle-school students love logic puzzles – and there are many excellent puzzle books to choose from. The following books are also good texts and can provide teachers with classroom material.
    • Thomas Nagel’s What Does It All Mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy, (described above).

    Socrates for Kids by S. Sage Essman. This book, for a middle-school audience, presents engaging stories. Despite the title, it is not intended as a comprehensive overview of philosophy or even of Socrates’s thought.

    Philosophy for Kids: 40 Fun Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything! by David A. White. This book, for children in grades 4-12, focuses on philosophical issues raised by well-known philosophers including such questions as, “Who are your friends?” “Can computers think?” “Can something logical not make sense?” “Can you think about nothing?” The book contains activities, teaching tips, a glossary of terms, and suggestions for further reading.

    If you’d like to organize a middle school program and are not teaching in a middle school, design a program that is compatible with this age group’s interests and cognitive capacities: emphasize dialog and discussion. In contrast to adults, middle schoolers are more apt to learn from social interactions rather than from solo activities. This approach is also consonant with the understanding that philosophy is an activity rather than a static body of knowledge.

    Next, decide whether you want to work in a school setting or outside of schools. In-school programs such as philosophy clubs can meet informally for guided discussions during lunch or after school or even as part of latch-key programs. More formal programs include teaching a philosophy unit as part of an existing middle school class, or creating elective courses for which grades may be assigned.

    How can you develop relationships with teachers or administrators in your area?

    • The Michigan State University Philosophy for Kids program began when a philosophy professor began talking with his daughter’s middle school teacher about philosophical issues; together they created a long-running and successful program that is part of the school’s regular elective curriculum. Classroom teachers, school administrators, and graduate students from MSU’s philosophy department have all been committed to keeping the program running.

    • The Philosophical Horizons program at the Univeristy of Memphis began when a graduate student in the philosophy department who had previously taught philosophy outside of academia approached Memphis school principals—without prior acquaintance—to explore interest in a philosophy discussion group at no cost. The program has become a formal component of graduate student education at UM and part of the curriculum in participating Memphis schools.

    • Landover Middle School’s lunchtime philosophy discussion group began when a teacher in the district who had experience teaching philosophy took over the district’s gifted and talented program and decided to open the philosophy component to everyone.

    • The University of Washington’s Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children in Seattle has facilitated a weekly philosophy class, which includes a six-week unit on “Moral Philosophy and Genocide,” at a public middle school since 2005. The class began when the director, who was doing philosophy classes in the school district, observed that eighth-grade students were reading about genocide in literature classes and had no real structure for discussing the moral questions the readings raised. The now-interdisciplinary unit includes philosophy, language arts and history; subject area teachers participate. It was approved by the local school district as part of the permanent curriculum in 2008.

    Note: When proposing philosophy programs, be respectful of classroom teachers. Approaching schools through school district administrative leaders, like superintendents or principals, can lead to the perception by teachers that a program is being forced upon them. To avoid this situation, consider asking an administrator to suggest a teacher who may be interested in the project, rather than having the administrator tell a teacher to become involved.

    This list of existing programs can help you refine or plan your own.

    Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering is a public magnet school that has a seven-year (middle and high school) program in philosophy. The program, run by two philosophy professors at a nearby university, uses a variety of techniques emphasizing dialog and personal inquiry such as student computer chats which provide a record of discussion and small-group work as well as a final class “showdown” debate.

    • Hickory Ridge Middle School offers a weekly philosophy discussion class for eighth-graders led by graduate and undergraduate students from the Philosophical Horizons program at the University of Memphis, and is open to all eighth-grade students who commit to attend for the semester.

    • Michigan State University’s Philosophy For Kids program works with middle schoolers at Chippewa Middle School in Okemos, MI. Graduate students in MSU’s Department of Philosophy team-teach the elective course with a classroom teacher who is involved in classroom management, making sure the discussion is pitched at the right cognitive level for the participants. Four days a week, graduate students run discussions based on basic philosophical concepts. On the fifth day, the classroom teacher runs the elective, relating the week’s discussion to other subjects in the curriculum such as English and history. There is no reading and or graded assignments. The course has been running continuously for nearly a decade.

    • Landover Middle School’s lunch discussion group for philosophy was recently the subject of a Washington Post article. This program engages seventh- and eighth-grade students who wish to discuss a “question of the day.” Two teachers proctor the discussions and provide the questions. The Philosophy Club is open to anyone, and often attracts between 20 and40 students.

    Socrates Café, though primarily targeted to adults, can involve young people who attend with their families or on their own. In this program, participants propose questions or topics, not the facilitator. The website provides tips for getting started and for facilitating discussions that can work in either a progressive or topical format.