Fourth Grade Philosophers Hit the Airwaves

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Nancy Joseph 11/01/2010 November 2010 Perspectives

For the past fifteen years, Jana Mohr-Lone has introduced philosophy to children in classrooms across Washington state, guiding philosophical discussions of everything from art to happiness. Now the rest of us can hear one of those discussions unfold on Philosophy Talk, an hour-long radio program. The show will air December 19, after which it will be downloadable as a podcast. 

Philosophy Talk usually highlights adult experts in their fields, but this segment focuses on fourth grade students from Seattle’s John Muir Elementary School. For the program, the students participated in a philosophical discussion in Kane Hall on November 5, much like the weekly discussions they have with Mohr-Lone in their classroom. Philosophy Talk hosts Ken Taylor and John Perry, both philosophers at Stanford University, also interviewed Mohr-Lone about working with children.

Fourth grade students engage in an animated discussion during a philosophy session. 

“Philosophy is all about questions—those questions that are most general and abstract,” says Mohr-Lone, who earned a PhD in philosophy from the UW in 1996. “Children are always wondering about the world and the meaning of human life. Exposure to structured philosophy sessions can help them explore fundamental questions and articulate and give reasons for their own views.”

Mohr-Lone first hatched the idea of introducing philosophy to children when her oldest son, at age four, began asking questions that she recognized as “deeply philosophical.” She set up a program in his preschool and soon expanded to other K-12 schools. In 1996 she created a nonprofit, Northwest Center for Philosophy for Children, which became affiliated with the UW’s Department of Philosophy in 1998. The program has introduced philosophy to more than 2,000 students in more than 50 schools, from elementary to high school. 

While Mohr-Lone is the guiding force behind the program, she also leads workshops for teachers and parents interested in learning her methods. And she co-teaches (with David Shapiro, MA ‘97, education director of the Northwest Center), a fall quarter UW course, “Philosophy for Children,” offered by the Department of Philosophy.

Jana Mohr-Lone guides a discussion at John Muir Elementary School. 

Students in the course visit K-12 classrooms, first observing Mohr-Lone and Shapiro, and then taking the lead in guiding philosophy sessions. Back on campus, they debrief and receive more training. The Center offers similar seminars through the UW Pipeline Project in the winter and spring, taught by Mohr-Lone, Shapiro, and Sara Goering, assistant professor of philosophy and program director of the Center.

The UW students, only about one-third of whom tend to be philosophy majors, quickly discover that young children are asking many of the same philosophical questions that they ask themselves. “People sometimes think that what we do in elementary schools is baby philosophy—not the same as real philosophy,” says Mohr-Lone, “but in fact children are capable of way more than we think they are.”

Among the topics covered in sessions at area schools are friendship, courage, identity, and fairness. Mohr-Lone encourages children to think like philosophers, giving reasons for their views and anticipating counterarguments. “At first, children tend to ask questions that are more concrete and less abstract,” says Mohr-Lone. “They need help learning how to have a philosophical conversation. We help them move in that direction.”

Asked if there’s one topic that always sparks a spirited discussion, Mohr-Lone describes a session she does on music. She has a pianist come to the school and perform a John Cage composition in which the performer sits at the piano without playing for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The students are always silent and respectful, she says, and the conversation that follows is always animated. 

Jana Mohr-Lone with Philosophy Talk hosts John Perry (left) and Ken Taylor.

“'Was that music? What makes something music? If the person sitting at the piano was not a pianist, would that make a difference?’ It’s one discussion I know the students will never forget,” says Mohr-Lone. “And I think John Cage would have loved this use we’re making of his work.”

After 15 years of guiding such conversations, you’d think Mohr-Lone would have heard it all. But one of the pleasures of this work, she says, is that there are always surprises. 

“Frequently I will come out of a session with kids and think, ‘I would never have thought of it that way,’” she says. “Even if I’ve led a discussion on a topic many times, I still don’t know what’s going to happen in the class.”

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