TEDxOverlake – Dr. Sara Goering – Philosophy for Kids: Sparking a Love of Learning

Translator: Carlos Arturo Morales
Reviewer: Tatjana Jevdjic (Applause) Hello. When I tell people
that I’m a philosopher, in casual conversation,
I typically get a look. A look that I think is a bit of a mixture
between awe and fear. As in, “Wow! really cool stuff,
deep questions,” and also, “Oh my God, please don’t make me
defend everything I think I know!” So philosophy is really something that – When I say I teach philosophy
to kids as well as adults, those same people look at me
like I might be crazy. Philosophy is understood to be
a deep, abstract, rigorous, difficult kind of discipline. People don’t think children
are capable of doing it. When they look at me like I’m crazy,
I think, “You’re wrong. Kids are actually
very natural philosophers. They ask these kinds of questions
on their own.” And it’s our job to help give them
uptake on those questions. So what are philosophical questions? Philosophers are wondering all the time
from the Ancient Greeks through today, all about the nature of the universe
and our place in it. Philosophers want to know,
for instance, if we are really free. And what it would mean for us
to say that we’re free? And could we both be determined and free? Most people think
that’s absolutely insane, impossible. But a lot of philosophers believe
that’s the only way we can be free: if we are both determined and free. Or, we’ll ask questions about
the nature of right and wrong. We don’t just want to know the answers:
“What’s right?” and “What’s wrong?”, “What should I do?”,
“What should I not do?”, but the reasons behind that, and whether
we are really justified in thinking that certain things are right and wrong. Or “If the Sun’s going to burn out in five billion years,
does anything really matter?” How would we know if it does? How do we make meaning in our lives
knowing that we’re all going to die? These are the kinds
of philosophical questions. Even, “Can you know right now
that you’re not dreaming?” We’ll get you to worry
about that question. (Laughter) You won’t be sure
right after an introduction to philosophy. So these are the kinds of questions
that philosophers ask and, like I said, I think kids ask them very naturally. Adults have a much harder time
asking them. In part, I think,
because philosophers examine the most fundamental assumptions
that we have about our place in the universe
and who we are. And it’s hard to give those up, when we’ve put them
in our background as adults. Just like Jim Copacino said earlier, “Adults have to unlearn
those assumptions.” Learn to sort of be aware of what they are
and then examine them really carefully, whereas children are fresh to the world. They are wondering about where they are and how the world works
and what their place is in it. They haven’t yet made those assumptions
and so they’re very eager and open to thinking philosophically about ideas. So children raise
these philosophical questions. When I’ve gone into classes,
and I’ve worked with third grade up through twelfth grade in high school. A particular course
I went to, fifth grade. I did a little intro
on what philosophy is, because most people unfortunately
only hear of it in college or if they stumbled upon a class. And I asked the fifth graders, after saying something about
what a philosophy question is, “Just take a minute and reflect,
and write down philosophical questions that you ask yourself,
that you’ve raised for yourself, late at night
when things are calm and quiet, or on a car trip when your damn DVD player
breaks down, right, and you have to actually think
for a little bit, what are the questions
that you ask yourself?” And it’s amazing what they come up with. So this particular fifth grade class,
some of the questions they asked were: What are numbers?
Where do they come from? And how is it possible
that they go on forever? Or they ask, “Why do
people hate each other? And why do we start wars?” And others ones of them ask,
in a public school, “If there is a God, who created God?”
(Laughter) Right? These are great
philosophical questions. Questions that deserve a little uptake
from the adult world, right? We need to engage kids on the questions
that they have. They’re trying to understand their world.
And make meaning in it. And I think, unfortunately,
that in our current system, those questions aren’t getting uptake. So they don’t really get uptake
in the educational system, in part because teachers aren’t trained
to deal with those kinds of questions. The answers are ambiguous:
there are better and worse answers, but there’s not one clear, right one. You can’t teach that
for the test very easily. We’re increasingly getting funneled
in that direction in education. But even at home, I think,
often they don’t get uptake. Because parents, many of us, haven’t fully
thought these questions through and informed our own answers,
or figured out whether or not we’re justified in what we tend to think
might be right about those questions. We’re a little embarrassed by that
when our kids call us on it. And so we fumble, right,
and maybe we put it off a little bit and we don’t actually address them. And the result is that kids think
these are questions that don’t matter. But they do matter. Right? They matter for our understanding
of ourselves and our place in the world. And we’re trying to get philosophy
into schools as a way to excite kids
about their learning and to give meaning to these questions
that they are already raising. So, how do we do that? We don’t take Kant, and Descartes, Hegel
and Heidegger and say, “Read this.” Now let’s do some reading comprehension,
and see what you think. No, of course, they would hate philosophy,
rightfully so, probably, at that age. Instead we go in
with the classic techniques from the history of philosophy. So what are philosophers known for?
Thought experiments. And the beautiful thing about them
is they don’t take any lab space. We don’t need beakers or chemicals,
there’s no safety training. It’s this. (Laughter) You have to think really carefully
about some hypothetical. So, a famous one from Ancient Greek
philosophy is The Ring of Gyges. Imagine that you find a ring,
and if you twist that ring, it makes you invisible. What would you do with that ring? We give them a little
time to explore that. Why would you do that with that ring? And you can imagine the things
that they are saying. And once we figure out
why they would do… Why do you not do those things when you don’t have the ring?
What stops you? So a lot of them want to do things
that are strictly speaking wrong, immoral. Or at least funny and inappropriate. (Laughter) You know, they want to spy on people. So why do you not do that? What makes those kinds of things wrong? And initially some kids will think, “It’s wrong
because we get punished for it.” But then we can help them,
through the process of discussion, to come to see that we punish those things
because they are wrong. They are not wrong
because they are punished. We have to get the arrow
going in the right direction, and we can build these really interesting,
deep conversations with kids, based on maybe thought experiments
that we start with, but they are really coming from the kids’
own questions that they’re raising. Or we’ll use philosophical puzzles. The ship of Theseus is another
famous example from Ancient Philosophy. Imagine you have a boat. Over the course of time, maybe five years, you actually replace every single board
or every single part of the boat. At the end of that process,
do you still have the same boat? Well, some people’s intuition says,
“Yeah, it’s the same boat.” If you think it is the same boat – Why? What remains the same
through that process of change over time? Right? And if you think
it’s not the same boat, well, now, tell me,
when did it not become the same boat? At what point in this process of change
would you have said, “Ah, no, you have a new boat.” Right? And then starting with the boat, we can translate that into a discussion
about personal identity, human identity. We’re creatures
who change over time. Right? Are we really the same
as our earlier selves? Will we be the same as our future selves? And what allows us to make
that kind of claim? Either remains the same, or how do you retain an identity
over all of this change? And the kids love doing this kind of work. They are really interested
and invested in these questions. We’ll also use
just great children’s literature. The best children’s literature
has deep philosophical questions in it. So we’ll use even simple things like Arnold Lobel’s
“Frog and Toad Adventures.” If you’re a parent,
you’ll know those well. We’ll talk about bravery. Frog and Toad run away
from a lot of things, all the time saying, “We’re very brave.” “Look at us run away from the snake,
but we’re being very brave.” So we have an interesting discussion
with the kids. What is bravery?
What is the nature of that thing? And can it be in tandem
with really being afraid? Is it standing up in the face
of your own fear and doing something? So we develop
these really interesting discussions out of literature, out of puzzles,
out of thought experiments, and we have various philosophical games
that we use. What we are aiming at is really threefold. We want to enhance their cognitive skills.
Critical thinking, right? They are going to learn
to build an argument, to evaluate an argument using logic, to respond to objections
to their position. Those are good skills
that are going to do well for them in other kinds of endeavors as well. We want them to think creatively. Come up with a counterexample! Your friend just made this claim, can you imagine a counterexample,
or a different alternative? Say what it is and show
how it meets that person’s claim. We’ll also talk about behavioral skills. How can you converse with your peers? Listen to them carefully,
take them seriously, and disagree with them without fighting or feeling hurt by the disagreement. One of the greatest things
is you’ll get best friends saying, “I never realized
I could really disagree with him about something that
we both think matters, but it’s OK, we’ve figure that out.” And then finally, in addition
to the cognitive skills and the behavioral ones,
philosophical awareness skills. Knowing what a philosophical question is,
and knowing that they can answer them. They can work through
the difficult questions, and try to figure something out
for themselves. I think this is really empowering
for them. And what we’ve found,
not only in our own work, where kids really enjoy it, and love it, but in work done around the world, with little pockets
of philosophy for children, is that they do better
on some of the standardized tests that we have for critical thinking,
for language and literacy, for other sorts of things
that we are already broadly valuing. And perhaps even more importantly,
the students really love it. They are excited by it,
it reinvigorates their love of learning, they realise that these questions matter
and that it can be beneficial for them in answering them with their peers. And I think that’s what education
is all about. That’s why we need to do philosophy. Thanks. (Applause)

18 thoughts on “TEDxOverlake – Dr. Sara Goering – Philosophy for Kids: Sparking a Love of Learning”

  1. I did some P4C camp counseling this July, and it was a brilliant experience! Having 10 year olds disagree so strongly about whether plants can think, or whether everything is magic because there comes a point where explanations fail, was truly inspirational.

    This world needs more people who can reason and question. The world needs more philosophers.

    Great talk.

  2. Thank you Thank you Thank you Thank you <3 That woman is absolutely right because I know that when I was a kid I asked all sorts of questions and no one would answer them or take me seriously or give me an incredibly simplified answer when I persisted. And it just broke my heart until one day I stopped asking and one day I must have stopped caring. Please make this happen. I definitely believe that kids are capable even if they don't really know how to word their questions or answers.

  3. I think the only way to go beyond borders & religions and create a truly united human race is by truly answering or at least encouraging these very basic questions. 

  4. I never knew the field of philosophy was what could have helped me during the critical moments when I made important decisions that changed the course of my life drastically.  If I had been able to ask myself deep reflective questions to really explore my decisions I would have made choices that were rational and resulted in clear great outcomes for myself and all around me. 

  5. !00% agree. A child's favorite word (and question) is 'why(?)', after all. It's about time we start taking the question seriously and responding like, well, adults.

  6. I don't think it's a matter of teaching kids that philosophical questions matter, but that no other ones do.

  7. Wee Sing is a great at getting kids to love learning. Check out our channel for the full library of videos!

  8. If a child believes that his religion is the final authority, then how would that influence doing philosophy?

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