If you’re a parent, then you probably know that one of the many criticisms of the new Common Core standards in American education is that kids are being forced to deal with advanced material before they’re ready. An article in The Atlantic last year quoted Jason Cornett, a math teacher at Flat Lick Elementary School in Kentucky, sums it up: “They’re still having trouble mastering the basics and you’re trying to add stuff on top.”
While the Common Core has been met with significant skepticism and trepidation by teachers, the Gallup organization found that they generally favor the standards even if they question the implementation. Because the essence of Common Core is seen as a promising development in education, we should find ways to make its implementation successful. A project like Thinking Space, a non-profit organization in the United Kingdom, can do just that. Thinking Space promotes philosophical dialogue in places where they believe it can make a positive difference to individuals and the communities in which they live and work.
“Children are interested in many of the fundamental questions of philosophy because they are still puzzled about features of the world that adults no longer worry about,” Grace Robinson, the founder and Lead Philosophy Practitioner of Thinking Space, told me in an interview. The kind of philosophy Thinking Space engages in is different from what you might have experienced in college. The kids don’t read philosophical texts or write essays, for instance, or receive mind-numbingly boring lectures on the history of philosophical thought.
Instead, the philosophy practitioner’s job is to make sure each discussion remains focused and that each kid has a fair opportunity to contribute. The goal, which is a hallmark of philosophy, is that the kids are challenged and are challenging one another in a respectful way.
“Working together under the supervision of a facilitator,” Robinson says, a group of kids “encounters a stimulus—a philosophical puzzle, a story, or a thought experiment—and then formulates a question in response to the stimulus and explores the question in the ensuing discussion.”
Thinking Space shows that philosophy is a good way to teach children many of the basic skills they need to succeed at school. Instead of merely working to get a grade, Robinson observes that “children learn to think and read carefully and to articulate their ideas in dialogue with the views of others—children are encouraged to think analytically and creatively.”
There are some teachers around the country who engage in similar methods but who aren’t working within an organized structure like Thinking Space. In a recent talk on education, linguist Noam Chomsky related an anecdote of an enterprising kindergarten teacher:
“Each child is given a collection of little items: pebbles, shells, seeds, and things like that. Then the class is given the task of finding out which ones are the seeds. It begins with what they call a “scientific conference”: the kids talk to each other and they try to figure out which ones are seeds. And of course, there’s some teacher guidance, but the idea is to have the children think it through.”
Even though the teacher calls it a “scientific conference,” this approach is nearly identical to that of Thinking Space. Philosophy and science are closely interrelated—after all, it was philosophy that gave birth to science. But it’s the emphasis on really thinking things through that seems to be lost as kids progress through the educational system. The primary focus in American education is still “teaching to test,” and this emphasis on the regurgitation of material ultimately hinders its retention.To be fair, the original intention of the Common Core standards was to “build upon the most advanced current thinking about preparing all students for success in college, career, and life.” And Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, said in 2012: “Now, more than ever, education must be the great equalizer. It’s the surest path out of poverty, and the best way to give every American a fair shot at success in the global economy.”
But both teachers and students alike feel a lot of pressure to master the standards at the expense of a larger set of skills needed to be flexible in succeeding in life once they’re thrust into the real world. Katie O., a teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, relates her experience of this stress with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers on her blog:
“But because of the high-stakes nature of PARCC, knowing that schools just blocks away have been closed for their poor test scores, our school is in a sickening frenzy to raise our test scores by any means necessary. Everything revolves around this test. And my students who so desperately need safe, supportive, relevant, and engaging learning environments, instead are given high-pressured, standardized, test-prep CCRAP.”
The approach of an organization like Thinking Space may be just what the doctor ordered for all the CCRAP. Their kind of introduction to philosophy can lay a foundation that will prepare kids to tackle more difficult problems as they advance through the curricular gauntlet. It’s a method for exercising their mental muscles so they won’t be fatigued by the rigors of Common Core standards.
The U.K. seems to be ahead of us in appreciating the importance of philosophy to education. Ireland’s Minister for Education recently announced that philosophy will be part of the school curriculum for kids in the first and second years of secondary school. She said that the introduction of philosophy will make “a significant contribution to giving students the tools to critically engage in an informed manner with the world around them.”
The best thing about an organization like Thinking Space is that you don’t need to have a staff of intellectual giants like Noam Chomsky or famous education philosopher John Dewey. What’s most needed is an appreciation of the importance of the approach and the will to be creative in implementing it. As Robinson told me, “Like all educational offers, ours is something that children and adults can take, practice and develop if they wish.”