Monday, September 24, 2007

Children and Philosophy part 2

At the end of my last post on children and philosophy, I mentioned a project that I've started with a bunch of GT 8th graders. The project is this: they can read whatever they want, and then they have to blog about it. It's simple enough, really. I've compiled a booklist of reads that are on the HS or college level that they may or may not find interesting. Pretty much, I've thought of books that I think I might have been able to enjoy when I was in the 8th grade (that is, before they were ruined by literature classes). The books are actually a little on the risque side, but what great literature isn't? And besides, they'll encounter it eventually, so why not pique their interest early?

I told the kids this: "You should pick any book you want, even if it's not on the list. Try to make it a hard book, you know, so you'll be challenged and stuff. Make sure your parents say it's okay for you to read the book. If you start a book and it sucks, then stop reading it." At this point, they were floored. They were never given the choice to stop reading a book they weren't enjoying. Several of their faces showed mistrust. Was I for real? I continued, "Then I want you to think about what the author is trying to say about life, or society, or morality. You know, the philosophical questions." Now they were confused. "What exactly is philosophy," they asked. Ha! Heck if I know. I only studied it for 3 years, but I can't for the life of me explain it to 8th graders. I explained their mission like this, "You guys are sick of doing plot diagrams, finding the climax, and making character sketches, right?" Total agreement. "Well, I don't want you to write about any of that. I want you to look for the deeper issues, and all of these books talk about them in some way or another. Your job is to figure out what questions the books bring up, and how are they answered. You can agree or disagree with the author. Or maybe the author doesn't even answer the question, but you may think you can. It's up to you. I want you to go beyond the plot when you read. Find what you are interested in. Then, write about it. If you are only interested in one page, write about it. This is not a book report; this is a blog where you can take your interests and develop them. The blog is very informal. Write about whatever you want, but try to be meaningful. I don't want you to tell me what happens. I've read these books; I already know. And frankly, I don't care. I want to know what these books make you think about."

Now I had their attention. They looked excited. For once they could get credit for doing what they do anyways, read books for fun. I also stressed that they should be reading each other's posts and leaving critical/helpful comments on them. I was overjoyed to see them that excited. Several of the students went out that very night to get a copy of Heart of Darkness from the public library. They were ready to get started.

The cons: blogs are on the Internet, and older people are afraid of the Internet. My fun project was not met well by some teachers, and probably won't be by some parents. A blog, heaven forbid. Is that like myspace? Yeah, wonderful. No a blog is not like myspace. Yes, the students can write whatever they want. But, the students are well aware that their teachers, parents and principal plan on reading their blogs/comments regularly. They have been instructed to post at their own risk. Their blog may be on the Internet, but that also means that their parents (for the first time) will really be able to see what their kids can do. I think it's great, and thankfully so do some of the teachers and the principal (and now I think, the superintendent!). We have had one student's parents opt out, which is fine. That student will be writing within the school's network, so it won't be online. The point of having the blogs be independent and online was for them to be able to keep it if they want when they leave the 8th grade. I wanted them to develop a skill that doesn't stop when the grades come in. They may not keep them, but they can, and some might. Sure, a crazy person could find their blog and leave a strange comment. But they have been removed from the listings, and honestly, unless someone goes to the 2 millionth page on a google search, their blogs won't be found. But because the blogs are open, we can show their project to other schools/students/teachers/etc. So we'll see how it all pans out.

Now back to the philosophy bit. These students are not formally exposed to philosophy at their school, and they won't be at their high school. Some may never really come across it at all, depending on what they study in college. But, that doesn't mean they can learn how to exercise some critical thought on their own. Because their blogs are independent, they won't have any formal instruction on how to argue, analyze, etc. But they will start looking for these questions on their own. And they will at least start to think about their own answers. This project is about getting them to start thinking critically on their own. It's not the perfect way to do it, but it's not a bad option. The other teachers and I will be reading their posts and writing comments to challenge them to think harder. The dialogue will begin. It may be the best we can do, and I think it's worth a shot.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Human Rights Blog...

My good friend's sister is meandering her way around Africa, documenting human rights violations and publishing articles while she's at it. She's a terrific writer with some interesting stories to tell. Go check it out here. (warning, it's under construction so most of the links don't work yet...)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Children and Philosophy

In the public school system where I grew up, philosophy was never an option. Physics, yes. Calculus, yes. History, of course. But philosophy, never. To many of you, this is no surprise. Philosophy hasn't been considered a core subject for some time (and by sometime, I mean at least as far back as I can remember, which isn't far...), and the future isn't looking good for resurrecting it. Of course you can sometimes find a philosophy class (or something like it) in some private schools, but especially in a religious private school, it's not likely to be taught as openly as it ought to be. It hasn't always been this way though. Philosophy used to be the subject, and all other subjects were really only subdivisions of it. So where did it go? Why aren't we teaching it anymore?

I think it would be a mistake to think that philosophy, or at least a course in philosophy, is about learning something. Learning philosophy is more like learning some way. Yes, you can teach a history of philosophy course and teach about all the different philosophers and all of their theories. However, a real philosophy class focuses on the method of obtaining knowledge. Whether you're studying what exists, what we ought to do, or how we can know anything, you have to learn a method for reaching those answers. I think philosophy hasn't been taught precisely because it's not a matter of simply presenting information and having students commit it to memory. If it was, then it would be easy enough to include. It isn't easy to teach a method for thinking, for critical thinking. In fact, I standby the rather heretical claim that I never really learned how to think critically before college. I probably did it on my own sometimes, or by accident, but I was never formerly taught that I ought to be doing it or how to go about doing it properly. At this point, you may be wondering, if the difficulty is that it's a method, then why do we teach math? Math, at it's best, is the method for rationally reaching a numerical sum for whatever problem we are facing. When you teach math, you teach a method for reaching a solution that is more than just the memorization of formulas and conversion factors. So why can we teach math and not philosophy?

That's a good question, and the only answer I can propose is that perhaps it's because no one ever fought over the square root of 25. And people certainly don't disagree over the sum of real numbers, or the multiplication of fractions. Math is numbers, and numbers are neutral. You can replace the numbers with letters, and even those letters are neutral. But moral realism, dualism v physicalism, does God exist, etc, are not neutral issues. Philosophy tries to get at basic truths about our world, and these truths are philosophical precisely because they can't be verified empirically. You can't argue about a math solution done correctly, but you can argue about a conclusion reached in philosophy even if the argument was valid. If we only taught a philosophy logic class, that wouldn't be very controversial. But I think children ought to learn much more than mere logic.

I think the biggest obstacle to introducing philosophy into primary/secondary education would be the lack of qualified teachers. Some universities make select students take some sort of philosophy course, but not everyone has to. And even if future teachers did take an introductory course in philosophy, that doesn't mean they would be well-equipped to teach it to impressionable students. If you're going to teach philosophy, you have to do it right. It's hard enough at the university level to teach a philo course without it being clearly biased by the ideology of the professor. If done improperly, students walk away with the ideas of their teacher, not the ideas that they examined on their own. It's difficult to teach because a philosophy teacher can't just lecture, he or she must facilitate open and critical discussion. The teacher must teach students how to think about ideas, but then give them the space to explore the issues on their own and as a class.

I think that the best way to introduce this sort of thing into schools would be to slowly spark an interest for philosophy in the students. You don't have to teach a full blown philosophy class to start raising philosophical questions and to think critically about them. Students should be critical of what they learn in school, whether it be in literature, history or science. We emphasise excellence on standardized tests or AP tests, and we forget that teaching to tests limits students' scope for independent thought. There's no time to criticize when you must learn said amount of information for such and such test to earn said amount of money for the school or said credit for college. Not that these tests are completely bad, but they have become the ends instead of a way of gaging whether the means are leading to knowledge.

Subjects that are already being taught are a good place to start. History and literature, for example, provide wonderful starting blocks for these sorts of discussions. When you learn about the civil war you can ask the students why slavery is wrong. Most just take it for granted that slavery is bad, just like their southern predecessors probably took for granted that slavery was okay. It's bad to blindly accept a moral truth regardless of whether you're right about it. So students should be actively discussing why slavery is wrong, and why we believe all people have equal moral standing. We didn't always think that (still today not everyone thinks this), and they can begin to learn how to understand the moral foundation their lives which may not always jive with that of modern society.

In the same way, literature classes are wonderful starting points for philosophical discussions. From Where the wild things are to The Giver to 1984, books perform the necessary probing to get students thinking. Unfortunately, too many lit classes focus on plot diagrams, character sketches, and other useless time wasters that are designed to analyse books to death. I had many a book ruined by literature classes where we spent more time on conventions, like: what is the climax? the anticlimax?, than on the actual questions of the book. For example, in a course we would have spent more time talking about what happened in The Giver then we would have on what the book had to say about society, diversity and the value of a human life. Even in the classes where we did find those questions, we never attempted to answer them. Even if we figured out what the author had to say about those questions, we weren't really given the opportunity to discuss whether we agreed or disagreed. We didn't even get that far until high school, and before HS we would never have looked past the actual plot of the book. Though, as you can probably guess, I strongly believe we should have.

I think that if I was forced to learn the origins of western society, and the shape of electron clouds, and the inner workings of a cow's eye, then I should have at least learned how to think for myself. Part of being a responsible citizen, or for being a responsible person is to be able to think independently and to think critically about our world. So why aren't we equipping students to do this?

I'm not the only who thinks this, and in one house at one school the change has begun. One of of the teachers at the school I've been helping at teaches literature to 8th graders. She happens to agree with me that the way books are currently taught isn't working. Kids aren't learning to love books, and they certainly aren't thinking deeply about them. So this teacher has let me try something new with the GT kids. The GT kids were singled out because they are the least challenged by the current system, but the method we're experimenting with is not only for gifted kids. I think all kids should be allowed to do what the GT kids will have the chance to do in this class. I'll leave it at that for now, and I promise to explain more soon!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Advertising to children

Today I went to the grocery store, and I saw the most appalling site. I was walking down the pasta aisle and I heard a little voice start yelling, "Scooby! Scooby momma!! Scoooooby!" I turned to see what all the fuss was about. A little girl, no older than 4 or 5, had a box of Scooby Doo macaroni and cheese in each hand. She was holding not one, but two boxes of the cartoon endorsed all-American meal. She threw the boxes into the cart against the pleadings of her mom. The mom, apparently, wasn't enticed by Scooby... This bothered me, not so much because of Scooby, but because the boxes were placed on the 2nd to last row from the bottom. I hadn't even noticed it, because I'm not 2 feet tall. The little girl, obviously, stood at the perfect height to see Scooby. I scanned the rest of the shelves and as you go up the products have a more adult appeal. The products advertised to kids are the bottom and about at the spot where a child sitting in a cart would see it. I was outraged. How had I never noticed it before? It was a stroke of marketing genius, that I'm sure many of you have already noticed, but I had never seen it before. How dare they market to kids (this isn't new, I understand, but my outrage is newly discovered)? I asked my mom if I did that sort of thing when I was little and she answered with a resounding "yes!" She had to resort to the rule that my sister and I could only pick out 1 thing to buy because we were so obnoxious. It's a wonder I never noticed before.

I think the reasons I was so oblivious were that a) I wasn't the one being targeted and b) I have only recently started studying up on this sort of thing. Now I wonder, what are they targeting at me?? I'm fairly certain that I am a marketer's golden child, because I truly am a product of advertisements. It makes me sick. I need to just start buying things I've never heard of with uninteresting boxes. That's the only way to be safe!

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Choice Theory and Nussbaum

So today I started volunteering (for the month) at my mom's middle school. She's an 8th grade math teacher, and this year she's decided to implement something called Choice Theory. You can find more out about it here at her blog. I witnessed the students first debriefing in Choice Theory, and below I've copied what I wrote for my mom's blog about what happened. The reason I'm including this because it seemed to me to be strikingly similar to what Nussbaum has to say (and other political philosophers) about flourishing. The approach with Choice Theory is more stoic, but overall the needs are quite familiar to Nussbaums list (life, bodily health/integrity, etc). I'm not in psych or education, but what I witnessed today was certainly familiar. Anyway, here's what I wrote about today (in the voice of a teacher, but really I was just a bystander):

Today was our first day with the 8th graders, and to start the year off we gave them their first lesson in Choice Theory. We started by having them play the triangle game during the 8th grade bonding time. The goal of the game was to pick two other people (who you aren't friends with) and --without letting them know that you've picked them-- position yourself in such a way that the three of you form an equilateral triangle. The game was a bit of a bust, because the students formed their triangles by talking and signaling to their friends. If done correctly, the triangles wouldn't be obvious, and you wouldn't know if someone else had formed a triangle with you in it. Instead we saw a bunch of mini-triangles comprised mainly of friends, that had clearly been organized amongst themselves. Down further I'll explain what the game was intended to teach, and I'll explain how the students proved our point even though they didn't complete it correctly.

Next we had them fill out index cards.
1. In the upper right corner they wrote a list of 3 people: one older, one younger, and one peer. These are people who have impacted their life in some meaningful way.
2. In the upper left corner they wrote a list of 3 things they would rather do today if they didn't have to come to school and money wasn't an option.
3. In the bottom left corner, they wrote 3 things they are good at or accomplishments they've made.
4. In the bottom right corner they filled out one rule they think everyone should have to follow (always), one rule that they think is really stupid, and one pet peeve.

Next we asked the students who, in the whole universe, they have the power to control (in thought, action, emotion, etc). Some said siblings and pets, but after a short discussion they all agreed that the only person they truly have control over is themselves. We told them that when they talk out of turn (which they were doing quite a bit of) it is irritating to us but there is nothing we can do to make them stop. They must stop themselves and exercise self-control. We also told them that all behavior is purposeful, and if they chose to sit and listen quietly, they were making that choice. If they choice to not listen and think "whoa, I wish they'd shut up," they were purposefully choosing to think and feel that. If someone makes you upset, you choose to be upset. We all try to control other people, but we can't. We can only control ourselves. We can try to coercive, manipulate, or persuade them, but ultimately each person must choose their own behavior.

This brings me back to the triangle game. The goal was to end up with a win-win situation where everyone formed their triangles without trying to control the other people that formed it. Had they done it properly, they would have shown the goal that Choice Theory works towards. However, they played the game by controlling other people, which showed one of their basic needs. At school, to succeed, you have to be right. They all wanted to be right, to get the game right, so they controlled each other to accomplish that. The need they were satisfying was their need to have power. Below I'll outline the four basic needs (taking survival for granted as a basic need), and how they fit into the index card activity.

The first need is love and belonging. The people in #1 represent those people who they love and value as friends or family. Everyone needs to be loved and feel belonged. Our goal this year is to make sure that every student feels like they are loved and like they belong. The second need is fun. The activities in #2 represent every one's need to have fun. Fun can be any activity that they enjoy, which can (and often) includes learning. One of our other goals is to make the learning process fun, so that they'll enjoy their time at school. The third need power. The positive form of power is power within. When you succeed or accomplish a goal, you feel power within yourself. That's a positive form of power. We want our students to learn how to tap their power within to succeed in the classroom. The other form of power that is not constructive is power over. When you try to control people other than yourself, you are using this form of power. We want to minimize the need people feel to have power over (including the teachers). The last need is freedom, which is represented by corner #4. Everyone wants a certain degree of freedom, and we need to determine what we want to be free to do and what boundaries we want other people to respect.

The overall aim of this year is to find a compromise between the students and the teachers. We want to have a win-win school year. That may mean that we need to allow more talk time in class or allow them to listen to their ipods during work time. At the same time, they will compromise by respecting our classrooms and behaving calmly. Ultimately, the choice is up to the individual. We want to teach the students to take responsibility for their actions. The atmosphere we will have this year will be determined by each and every student in our classes. If we can teach them how to choose wisely, then everyone will win. Let the year begin!