I keep reading articles about the potential of technology in the K-12 classroom. At AltSchool, for example: “Younger children have tablets, and older children laptops, which they use to complete a personalized ‘playlist’ of lessons, projects and activities, updated each day.” But the one thing that’s missing from this debate is an awareness of the fact that technology is only as good as those who use it. Fortunately, an excerpt from a book by Kentaro Toyama, the W.K. Kellogg Chair Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Information, has been published recently in The Atlantic and The Washington Post that makes this clear.
It was Toyama’s experiences in India that caused him to rethink his assumptions about technological innovation. “In education, technologies amplify whatever pedagogical capacity is already there,” he writes. This echoes what Leon Botstein, President of Bard College, wrote recently about Internet technology: “What Wikipedia does not provide me — which schooling can — are the tools of interrogation and criticism.”
Both Toyama and Botstein are unwittingly making a great argument for the pedagogy of Philosophy for Children, or P4C for short. P4C began with the late philosopher Matthew Lipman’s 1969 novel Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery and an accompanying teacher manual. The centerpiece of P4C pedagogy is “inquiry dialogue,” which is similar to what the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates does in Plato’s famous dialogues. Socrates was a master at engineering discussions that examined people’s beliefs about themselves and the world because, as he famously said, “the unexamined life isn’t worth living.” He also considered himself an “intellectual midwife,” having no ideas of his own but helping to give birth to the ideas of others.
In the classroom, teachers act like Socrates, presenting their students with a variety of different prompts, such as a poem, a piece of art, or readings from textbooks already being used in the classroom for traditional subjects. The focus is on the thoughts, ideas, and questions of the students themselves, rather than any abstract philosophical concept.
Toyama says that technology “may level the playing field of access, but a level field does nothing to improve the skill of the players, which is the whole point of education.” But P4C can bring all the players up to speed, ready to exploit any technology to the utmost, because teachers can modify P4C practices in order to respond to the cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs of their students. Toyama also notes that no matter how well-designed the technology is, children, especially those who are behind, need adult guidance more than anything else. Toyama goes on to say: “Even when the technology works, it’s not necessarily used well. Students are often asked to copy-and-paste bits of information they find online into PowerPoint slides without being challenged to think about how to select good material or how to construct a strong argument.”
The experience of Clayton Filter, a social studies teacher at Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Washington, who utilizes the P4C pedagogy, shows just how relevant P4C is to the concerns of Toyama and Botstein. Filter told me that one of the major goals for his students is to have them become better writers by focusing on their use of claim, evidence, and reasoning. “The P4C sessions are wonderful,” he says, “because they present students with highly interesting topics —like the Trolley Problem, or developing laws for their own island — that they can make claims about, knowing full well that they will be expected to justify whatever claim they make with reasoning.” A P4C teacher like Filter is equipped to provide the adult guidance Toyama believes kids sorely lack, fostering a climate conducive to the critical thinking skills of their students, guiding and informing their inquiries, and helping them pay attention to the quality of their reasoning.
In “The Philosopher’s Pedagogy,” teacher Chad Miller writes that P4C isn’t just another off-the-shelf program that can be implemented directly into the curriculum, but a transformative approach to teaching that reshapes the way one teaches. Miller teaches English language at the Kailua High Complex in Hawaii, and he utilizes P4C in his own classroom. “We need a pedagogy,” he writes, “that provides the intellectual and academic content for our students to meet state standards as well as an approach that encourages them to think philosophically about what they are studying.”
But Miller acknowledges that implementing P4C isn’t easy — it doesn’t “emerge organically by simply arranging students in a circle or around a table.” Teachers have to create opportunities for students to engage in philosophizing in their classrooms by thoughtfully designing and implementing philosophically rich activities and assignments. Teachers like Clayton Filter recognize this.
“One of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher,” he says, “is making difficult decisions about how to manage very limited time. That necessarily means that I have less time to give students a chance to encounter new ideas and develop new skills. I need to be even more intentional about how our ever more limited time is utilized. I always try to make it a priority to give students access to experiences that strengthen critical thinking and reasoning skills.”
Over the past two decades, public education in America has become driven by national standards and high stakes testing, but Miller believes that P4C aligns perfectly with the current accountability movement. “The spirit of the Common Core is that it wants people to think for themselves,” he says. “And the way that I’m teaching, using Philosophy for Children — that’s exactly what I’m trying to get at in my classroom.”
You can think of the critical thinking instilled in kids through P4C as a bit of old-school technology, one they carry around with them internally, everywhere they go, ready to use for any situation they encounter. What students learn through P4C can amplify technology, instead of the other way around. Learning how to learn is every bit as important as what you learn, or what technology you use to learn it.