Erik Kenyon is director of student and faculty engagement at the Hamilton Holt School at Rollins College. Sharon Carnahan is a professor of psychology at Rollins and executive director of the Rollins College Child Development and Student Research Center. Diane Terorde-Doyle is director of the Hume House Child Development and Student Research Center at Rollins.
The American people are stuck. Careful listening, deep reflection and efforts at civil persuasion are all but gone from public discourse. Opinions are polarized on quite basic questions: Is scientific evidence better than personal experience? What is our responsibility to people on either side of our borders? Can individuals be good political leaders without being fundamentally good people? With personal attacks and name calling on both sides of the political spectrum, Americans seem to lack the skills to come to consensus without coming to blows.
What role can our schools play in resolving this civic gridlock? Imagine a world where high school graduates across the country were adept at engaging civilly across the aisle, articulating and refining their ideas and moving forward collectively on controversial issues.
This, sadly, is not the world we live in. Performance-based funding models and a college admissions system based largely on standardized test scores have ushered in a new era of rote learning in our schools. In these zero-sum games, if it’s not assessed, it doesn’t make it onto the schedule. The art of engaging in useful dialogue is simply not a priority in American schools.
Philosophy for children and early-childhood education
At Rollins College, we are approaching these problems from either end of the K-12 system. Bringing together expertise in philosophy (Kenyon), early-childhood education (Terorde-Doyle) and developmental psychology (Carnahan), we have developed a series of philosophy for children (P4C) courses in which undergraduates guide preschool children through discussions of ethical questions. What does it mean to be a friend? To be brave? What makes an action fair?
Through a combination of games, carefully chosen picture books and art projects, we provide rich opportunities for children to disagree with each other. These lesson plans are now available in our book, "Ethics for the Very Young: A Philosophy Curriculum for Early Childhood Education," published by Rowman and Littlefield.
Our curriculum helps children practice the “philosophy rules” — listen, think, respond. These rules for dialogue distill philosophical techniques that go back at least as far as Socrates. They are also deeply in line with current research into the development of executive function skills. Young children are just beginning to learn the skills of self-control, working memory and focused attention, organizing and planning, regulating emotions and understanding different points of view. These are the all-important executive function skills children must have in order to be successful in school. Research supports the practice of these skills during the preschool years as a protective factor for future mental and physical health as well as academic success through elementary school.
People think of philosophy as an abstract undertaking. How would a group of 4-year-olds sit still long enough to engage in such deep conversations? Our curriculum matches young children’s developmental level, finding ways for them “to think with their bodies.” In the tradition of Reggio Emilia, we use art projects to scaffold discussions (think of the conversation you have while playing poker).
We also use a number of games. To practice perspective-taking, for instance, we roll out a paper river on the floor, ask a question — which is better: dogs or cats — and have children step to different sides. Once they have taken sides, we encourage them to verbalize their position: “I disagree with you about X, because Y.”
A lot of conceptual work is packed into this phrase: I have a view; you have a view; your view is different than my view; I have reasons for my view; you should care about those reasons too. Unlike many adults today, our children often change sides of the river after thinking through their initial ideas. At times they also straddle the river, with phrases such as “I agree and disagree some…”
The result? Our young friends listen to each other, wait to respond, and persuade each other to come to their side of the river in polite discourse. They come back hours or days later to continue a conversation about a difficult idea, such as what makes a good friend, or a good person. The National Association for Education of Young Children has long supported best practices of teacher-child engagement that foster interaction skills between children and support a child’s awareness of themselves through reflective thinking. According to the Center for Social Policy, “Scientists have provided much evidence of the critical importance of early childhood as the period in which the foundation for intellectual, social, emotional and moral development is established.” P4C discussions provide a natural framework for all of this.
Philosophy for children and undergraduate pedagogy
In guiding such discussions with children, undergraduates too are given a new perspective on education. After each lesson, undergraduates reflect on how the children’s discussion went and what can be done to improve the next one. This plan, do, review cycle teaches reflection and revision, important adult skills.
Along the way, we nudge undergraduates to more general questions: What makes a good discussion? Why do we use discussions in schools? How are you contributing to discussions in your own college courses? What are you hoping to accomplish in college?
As a recent graduate, Rachel Wasserman, put it, “To see them say, ‘I agree, because… I disagree, because…’ Those are skills I didn’t learn until I came to Rollins.” Through metacognition, work with preschoolers leads undergraduates to think about the educational enterprise as a whole.
The American Association of Colleges and Universities has identified 11 high-impact practices which have been shown to improve student retention and learning, particularly among disadvantaged student groups. Our P4C courses embody a number of them. First, they are an instance of community-based learning that allows undergraduates to practice problem solving by working on real-world problems. What’s more, this is a collaborative project, in which groups of undergraduates coordinate lesson plans, trading off roles from week to week.
In working across cultural and linguistic barriers between adults and children, undergraduates engage with a form of diversity, developing skills which can translate into other contexts. Finally, the course’s invitation for undergraduates to reflect on their education thus far and what they plan to do moving forward make it a natural fit for a first-year seminar. For a fuller discussion, see Kenyon’s “Bringing Undergraduates to Preschool: An Ethics Course for the Very Young” in "Philosophy in Classrooms and Beyond: New Approaches to Picture-Book Philosophy," edited by Thomas Wartenberg.
As our program enters its fifth year, our earliest students are discovering its uses after graduation. Jacob Riegler, now a medical student at the University of Central Florida, reflects, “Working with an interdisciplinary team to develop an incredibly specific plan of action by applying each of our own experiences from our respective fields is probably one of the most useful things a student could ask from a class because that’s what drives progress as a professional or graduate student. It also teaches by doing, rather than a traditional classroom experience, which is direct professional development that involves teamwork, organization and planning.”
The program’s combination of fine-grain detail — “How do I word this question to get children to understand?” — and large-scale critique — “What are the political ramifications of K-12 funding models?” — has led our students to think about systems in new ways.
Riegler has decided to pursue an M.D. and M.B.A., saying, “I definitely feel that will benefit my patients since there’s a lot more issues they’ll present than ‘my arm hurts,’ that involve big-picture, interdisciplinary issues like insurance, access, stress and ethical dilemmas that most people don’t receive training on in just medical school.”
A Way Forward?
Can P4C provide a way beyond America’s political gridlock? In our lessons, we have seen children get into heated disagreements, realize they were saying the same thing in different words and then calm down again. On the playground, we have seen disputes over toys turn into opportunities for sharing perspectives. In seminar rooms, we have seen undergraduates grow from being good at “doing school” to using their studies to confront entrenched social problems. Imagine a world where the skills of dialogue and applied, collaborative problem-solving were commonplace.
The P4C movement is 50 years old and supported by a number of professional groups, including:
- The Philosophy Learning and Teaching Association
- The International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children
- The University of Washington’s Center for Philosophy for Children
- Montclair State University’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children
- The Philosophy Foundation
Our contribution has been to move the starting age into preschool. The only comparable resource we know of comes out of Scotland: Berys Gaut and Morag Gaut’s "Philosophy for Young Children: A Practical Guide." Our work takes a quite different approach, expanding on the picture-book philosophy approach of Thomas Wartenberg’s "Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children’s Literature."
With our curriculum now published, the basic resources are in place for a longitudinal study of how children fare in the years following the program. As we argue throughout our book, studies on similar programs strongly suggest that they should do quite well. We are also interested in a more formal assessment of P4C as a mode of undergraduate pedagogy. For a similar approach, see Erica Yamamura and Kent Koth’s "Place-Based Community Engagement in Higher Education."
Time will tell what the effects of our particular model are for children and undergraduates alike. In the long run, Americans in general could benefit from careful listening, deep reflection and reasoned persuasion. We hope that our work can provide useful models for our colleagues in both preschools and colleges, and we welcome collaborators interested in pursuing these questions with us.