For the past year, I have been teaching the fifth grade. It is a departure far from teaching college students about Plato, Kant, James, and Arendt. However, I have been very pleasantly surprised and accordingly have learned a lot in the last year about expectations. Specifically, one of the things I have learned is that the small class of elementary students I had this year were more interested in learning certainly than any group I taught at the college level, learned much faster than the adults who were busy with adult (or adult-playing-adolescent) lives, and surpassed as individuals the total number of what I might think of as philosophically-minded students that I had in sum through the few dozen college courses I taught in that field. I learned that it’s reasonable for me to expect more from them than from adults – sad though it is to say this.
More often than not, in American schools, we do not ask children to think – only to remember. We already know how useless this mode of education really is, and that skills are more useful than facts. I’m a firm believer in teaching skills – especially critical thinking skills. Luckily, I teach at a school (I won’t discuss it in particular) for which the emphases in every class always boil down to cultivating the children’s abilities to think for themselves, to consider and evaluate evidence, and to respond to claims with counter-claims, where appropriate. They learn to read and to write, so that they may put their critical thinking skills to practice and in play wherever and whenever it will be invaluable to them as they grow up in a world full of unthinking people. To a point, being able to think in a world that favors non-thinking people is sad for those of us who rather enjoy thinking and doesn’t provide any obvious advantages; but knowing how to think makes communication, evaluation of facts at hand, and decision-making a whole lot easier. So in this other, less visible way, possessing a functioning, critical mind improves one’s life.
Near the end of the school year, when we were in “review game” mode, we played a logic game that looked a bit like Family Feud. I would give them a category and a letter or group of letters, and the four individual players on each of the teams would write down as many items they could think of that belonged in that category and began with the assigned letter(s). They’d all have sixty seconds to make as big a list as they were able, and then we’d derive points from how many unique items each player had listed on his or her list. For instance, I would say “cities, countries, or states beginning with the letter ‘A’,” and the students would write a list containing names like “Albuquerque, Albania, Atlanta, Azerbaijan,” etc. This was an interesting game, for one particular result of this process: when we played with the category games beginning with any letter, we had some disagreement about what counted as a game and what did not. Oh, joy of joys!
When I read some of the items on my own list, they nodded as I went through “hopscotch, naughts and crosses, ice hockey…”and so on. But when I reached “cars,” a few hands went up, indicating there was going to be some disagreement. Pleased with the outcome of the game so far, I asked one student what the problem might be. He replied that “cars” isn’t a game. I asked him, “Have you ever played with toy cars with a two-year old? I’m pretty sure the kid would think it’s a game.”
“But there are no rules.”
“Do we need rules to be playing a game?”
“I think so.”
He thought for a moment, and then gave up the argument. I recognized another student, who said that she wasn’t sure why “cars” wasn’t a game, but maybe it had something to do with the lack of competition. I suggested that there are at least some games with no real competition… we went on like this for no more than one minute, as I could tell the other students were anxious to get to the point-awarding part of the game we were playing just then.
I was happy with how far we’d gotten in the conversation. Of course, the Wittgensteinian in me – infinitesimal a part of me though it may be – wanted to have a longer talk about what made a thing count as a game or not-a-game. Unfortunately, as we were supposed to be doing something less boring than this tortuous exercise in thinking, we moved on to the rest of our game, which itself is good critical thinking practice for the students. We stopped at other list-items, giving our own reasons for and against a given list-item counting or not counting as a member of the category at hand.
Little did my students know they were doing philosophical thinking while we were playing our Family Feud game. It was fascinating, through this first year of elementary school teaching, how often discussions with children turned to questions about categories and members of classes. Most often, this happened when we were working with vocabulary words or while we were reading together in the classroom – the impetus, most often, was when we were working with synonyms.
I hate synonyms, by the way, because I really take the common definition of the word – “words that mean essentially the same thing” – to define the term. And no two words I’ve ever found really do mean the same thing. The connotations of so-called synonyms matter to me, and their denotations themselves often differ significantly, as well. Usually, they differ a lot. They make me think of something I read by Quine (in Word and Object?) about indeterminacy of translation… Anyway – I have digressed.
Here’s what I observed:
As the students considered concepts and words that were absolutely novel to them, they worked through a process that always seemed to follow a general pattern: they wanted to know how a new word or concept was related to other words or concepts they already had in mind. They’d ask how a given word was similar to or different from other words that belonged to a family of words meaning similar things.
They’d do sometimes define a new word by analogy, but much more often, they proceeded by describing the class of things or procedures to which a known thing or procedure belonged and asking how this new thing fits into that other class of things. They’d ask about the relationships between the new idea and the old ideas and would ask a series of questions that helped them to fill in the boundaries of the classes they had created for themselves to organize the information they already possessed. They did this seemingly to fit this new word in the pre-existing category, and then they’d either put the new idea inside an old category or adjusted the boundaries of the old categories to suit the new idea, depending on which seemed most easily achieved. It makes me think of William James, who suggested something like this in [reader, please remind me – “The Meaning of Truth”?], where he described the process of learning new things like the relief between tensions between novel things and things that are already fixed in our minds.
In any case, the thought that informs this post is that philosophy with kids is a fun enterprise for the casual philosopher, and children are often better at the exercise than adults, precisely because they’re not already settled on how the world should be and how the world really is. They’re filling in blanks and drawing in boundary lines as they go. It’s gratifying and inspiring to be a part of that process.