Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Plain Vanilla Philosophical Inquiry Process

In order to engage a classroom in philosophical discussion, we have found that students and teachers need a structure for classroom inquiry that supports the "doing" of philosophy. As Makaiau and I stated in the "Philosopher's Pedagogy",  Thomas Jackson's (aka "Dr. J") "Plain Vanilla"represents one strategy for eliciting topics for philosophical discussion, and how to proceed from there. While it is not the only way to engage a classroom of students in meaningful and rigorous philosophical inquiry, we have found great success in using the Plain Vanilla structure in kindergarten to doctoral level classes. The process generally follows this sequence of events:

1.    Participants (students and teacher) read (or are exposed to some sort of stimulus, such as art, music, video, field trip, speaker);
2.   Each participant creates a philosophical question in response to the reading/stimulus (Emily Fox calls these questions "Juicy Wonderings" in kindergarten). We teach that philosophical questions: 1) Use the Good Thinker’s Toolkit 2) Move beyond the “text” or use the text to question a larger issue 3) Are something they truly want to think about.
3.   Participants make their questions public (i.e. they write their questions on the white board).
4.   Participants read their question and provide a real brief background to the group (i.e. explain where the question came from)
5.   Participants vote democratically on the question they want to discuss. Each participant gets two votes and can place them both on the same question or two different questions. We typically just go around the circle and let every student vote.
6.   Once the question is selected, the participants write a response to it. This is done to provide necessary “think” time to the participants and to also keep a record of their thinking. The response should have some examples, identify assumptions, seek clarification, ask more questions…
7.   The person whose question was chosen begins the inquiry. They explain where the question came from and provide the first response;
8.   Participants then raise their hands and use the community ball to facilitate turn taking. This is when the participants are able to provide insights, examples, counterexamples, and ask questions in order to inquire deep into the question or topic. Remember, it is an inquiry to gain a broader understanding by considering and exploring multiple perspectives. It is not an argument or a debate.
9.   Participants reflect on the inquiry: What question, thought, or idea are you leaving with today? How does what you learned today connect to your life and the world you live in?
10. Participants use the evaluation criteria to reflect on and evaluate the classroom community, as well as the  inquiry. (i.e. Was it intellectually safe? How was our listening? Did we scratch beneath the topic of the inquiry? Did you challenge your thinking?)

As a Philosopher in Residence, I have the opportunity to participate in several Plain Vanillas each week with students and teachers of various ages and abilities. Below you will find a list of the "greatest hits" from this semester. The purpose is to provide an opportunity to "see" the depth and types of questions that students are capable of asking and exploring with their peers if given the chance. I hope you find them enlightening and maybe they will even inspire someone to give Plain Vanilla a shot in their classroom.

Examples of Plain Vanilla Questions Explored During the Spring 2015 Semester
·       Can I assume a school system should be responsible for the death of a student being bullied? (10th grade)
·       Besides “because of science says so” are there logical reasons why our brain is the last part of our body to develop? (12th grade)
·       If many of the people in the world have the same virtues, can I assume we are all the same? But if that is the case, what are the reasons we see each other so differently? (11th grade)
·       If dinosaurs and dragons lived with us, would that be a good idea or a bad idea? (Kindergarten)
·       What are the reasons people think they need to live up to their stereotypes to indentify as their ethnicity? (10th grade)
·       Do you control the virtue or do the virtues control you? (11th grade)
·       What are the reasons the crusades were created in the first place? Was it power or religion? (10th grade)
·       What are the reasons we have the right to pursue happiness, but not be happy? (9th grade)
·       What are the reasons kids are afraid to stand up to parents for what they believe? (9th grade)
·       Can I assume growing up around drugs and alcohol will influence a person to do the same or inspire them to totally do the opposite? (9th grade)
·       Is it safe to assume alcohol is worse than marijuana because there are more alcohol related deaths than marijuana? (9th grade)
·       If psychology says people’s behavior is dictated by a set variety of variables, then what are the reasons we can relate to people brought up differently than us? (12th grade)
·       What influences you to make decisions? (5th grade)
·       Is it a good idea if everyone in the world had a magic hat and a magic wand? (Kindergarten)
·       What are the reasons we continuously put ourselves in bad situations for a short period of excitement or joy? (10th grade)
·       Is the unexamined life not worth living? (UHM undergraduates)
·       What are the reasons some people are homeless? (2nd grade)
·       Can we ever truly know anything or are we just making interpretations of our realities? (UHM undergraduates)
·       What if bats lived in the ocean? (Kindergarten)
·       What are the reasons success is often based off of a diploma? (12th grade)
·       Why did Columbus think Native Americans were animals? (2nd grade)
·       Is if fair to assume that urbanization challenged our ideas of morality? (10th grade)
·       What prevents children from exploring and discussing questions that make them feel anxious? (UHM undergraduates)
·       If the government didn’t exist, would people branch out and still make a system to follow and remain civil? In other words, is a form of government or control destined to be made? (11th grade)
·       Is it always true that teachers follow the rules? (Kindergarten)
·       What makes a person follow others and how does a person become an independent thinker? (5th grade)
·       At what age do we become an adult? (UHM undergraduates)
·       Do we need an inspirational person to look up to or do we want an inspirational person to look up to? (11th grade)
·       What makes a baby boy’s life more important than a girl’s life? (11th grade)
·       What are the reasons we let some things hold us back and prevent us from moving forward? (11th grade)
·       Are your friends only friends with you because you are good at something? (5th grade)
·       What are the reasons a “normal life” seems as a negative? Do you have to be something extraordinary to be extraordinary? (UHM undergraduates)
·       If disorders are so common, especially in America, what or who determines the standard of “normal”? (12th grade)
·       What are the reasons we are so afraid of death? (10th grade)
·       What are the reasons people don’t stand up for themselves when they know they can? (9th grade)
·       Are we killing kids’ imaginations? How different would the world be if none of us lost our sense of imagination? (UHM)
·       Do we need to study to change the world? (5th grade)
·       What are the reasons we feel the need to connect with people through Facebook, Instagram, etc? (8th grade)
·       Can I assume that seeing life through another language would help people understand one another better? (10th grade)
·       What decides your fate? You or others? (10th grade)
·       Is it always true that cars can go everywhere? (Kindergarten)
·       What if we could ride on a cloud? (3rd grade)
·       What will happen to the earth in a million years? (2nd grade)
·       If it is true that violence and substance abuse are cyclical, then what would it take to end that cycle? What makes someone change their fate? (9th grade)
·       What are the reasons some people are able to manage their impulsivity better than others? (9th grade)
·       Are you stronger after defeat or after success? (9th grade)
·       What are the reasons science is deemed more important than cultural beliefs? (11th grade)
·       Why can’t boys and girls tell each other they like each other? (5th grade)
·       Why are teachers so nice? (Kindergarten)
·       What is the definition of living? Are we living or existing? (9th grade)
·       In our society, have love and affection become solely based off material things? (9th grade)
·       Is war easier than peace? (12th grade)
·       Do we choose our choices or is it bound to happen? (10th grade)
·       What are the reasons we choose bad choices knowing that it would hurt us? (9th grade)
·       Is it always true that people are good to their moms? (Kindergarten)

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Written Philosophical Inquiry

This past Thursday I took a visitor from Austria, Janine, with me to do some philosophy in a tenth grade language arts class. Unlike many of the classes I visit where philosophy is primarily conducted as a verbal exercise, these tenth graders were having at “silent philosophical inquiry.” I utilized this activity many times in my years as a tenth and twelfth grade language arts teacher, but Jake’s innovation on the activity was really interesting. 

Rather than having each student raise a “question that is good for philosophy” on the top of their sheet of paper, which would equate to 32 different questions, Jake broke the class into seven small groups of 4-5 students each. Then in these groups, students wrote their questions on a single sheet of paper and then they voted on the question they most wanted to think about with their peers. This is a modification of Thomas Jackson’s (2001) “Plain Vanilla” activity, so instead of discussing the question that was chosen, each student wrote the selected question on the top of their loose-leaf paper and got busy letting their thoughts flow on the paper. Janine and I sat with a group of five students, two males and three females, that selected to have their silent inquiry concerning " What are the reasons people would rather daydream about being someone else than be themselves?" (I am not sure what the exact story was for the stimulus, but I do know that it came out of the Springboard curriculum, which gives me great hope for more teachers to follow Jake's lead on being innovative while still using a "prescribed" curriculum in the classroom). As the students feverishly responded to the question, it took Janine and I a bit to get moving. I had a hard time answering the question at first, but I fed off of the students enthusiasm and constructed my own response. After a few minutes of writing, the students were instructed to pass their papers to the person on the right. I got Fernando's paper and it was clear these 15 year olds meant business. His answer was detailed, full of thoughtful examples, as well as several insightful questions. How did this guy write all this in three minutes! 

The students were instructed to treat the activity like a verbal discussion, so instead of simply answering the question again in the same manner as they just did, their peers' initial response (and not the question) served as the stimulus for the inquiry.  The students were to reply to the previous response (and later responses) by posing new questions/wonderings, making connections, and providing examples or counter examples to support or test ideas. In essence, the written inquiry should resemble a dialogue of sorts, except the written remarks have lines darting back and forth to ideas and new questions, which makes it look a lot more like the back of a bathroom stall door. Each "round" the students got a bit more time so they could respond to all the comments and, surprisingly, as the responses added up, each one was a bit longer than the remarks that proceeded it. However, what was really amazing was that all seven of us sitting in that small circle initially responded in very different ways to the same initial question. One student originally believed it was easier to be someone else than yourself. Another was trying to figure out at what point do you know who you are and if it was possible to be sure of that. Another student took it as a commentary on our values as a capitalist country, while another believed we can only know our true selves by comparing ourselves to those around us (and the other ones are slipping my mind right now). 

What I find to be most intriguing is that the students did not stick to their initial ideas for the remainder of the activity; they responded to their peers' ideas with fresh insights and new examples that corresponded to the manner in which the inquiry was unfolding on the paper. Like Paul Reps' "A Cup of Tea," the students were able to "empty their cups" prior to engaging in each response. Somehow they were able to view the same question differently each time they read a new response. This is worth noting largely because this is a difficult skill to develop, especially when it comes to putting our thoughts into writing (even more so when it concerns philosophically rich topics). 

At the end, all of our hands were hurting, but we had engaged in several extremely intense and meaningful inquiries with each other and not one word had been spoken in nearly 40 minutes. During the post activity reflection the students remarked on how much they liked the activity because everybody had an opportunity to share their ideas and they were able to see things from many different perspectives, which they said was pretty challenging. However, from my perspective, it seems to come natural to them and that has a lot to do with all the great work the faculty at KHS has done to make philosophy a living aspect of the school culture. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Teaching the philosophical question?

Student initiated questions driving instruction are all the rage these days and rightfully so. However, this is not a new pedagogical aim; we have wanted kids to ask questions in the classroom for a long time, but the problem often lies in how do we teach kids to ask the “right” questions. This post is not intended to dive into uncovering or defining the right question. Rather, I would like to think about a certain type of question, particularly philosophical questions or as Matt Lawrence, the 2014 Hawaii State Teacher of the Year, would say, “a good question for philosophy.”

My dissertation, Philosophy Goes to High School: An Inquiry into the Philosopher’s Pedagogy, aimed to clarify what we mean by philosophy, especially in the context of the 21st century American school. I found that we tend to look to the history of Western philosophy to provide the “guidelines” of the philosophical question; if it is an inquiry that Plato, Descartes, or Kant engaged in, it must be philosophical. Or we generically define philosophical questions as those that cannot be answered. Yes, I am over-generalizing, but the point is that neither of these definitions help educators teach students how to ask philosophical questions.

For example, a few years ago, two of my colleagues, Jake Nichols and Wess Unten, could not get their students to ask questions that moved beyond the texts of their freshmen English classes. Their students were more concerned with finding solutions to questions concerning plot, setting, and character development. Needless to say, the students were not inspired by their questions and the resulting “inquiries” rarely resembled anything that would be considered a philosophical inquiry. I guess they were pretty brutal. 

Nichols and Unten are not academic philosophers, but they are excellent veteran teachers. At this time they were relatively new to p4c and rather than giving up on the initiative, they realized they had to establish a set of criteria to help students move the depth of their questions from the “shallow end of the pool” to the “deep end.” Essentially, they were looking for a way to teach students to bring a certain level of wonder into the classroom through their questions. What they developed is an instructional tool we still use to “teach” teenagers how to frame a good question for philosophy. 

A good question for philosophy: 
1.      Uses The Good Thinker’s Toolkit (Jackson, 2001).
2.      Moves beyond the text/stimulus to question a larger issue.
3.      It makes you go "hmmmmm..." and produces more questions. 
4.      Is something that you really want to think about; it's meaningful. 

Would Plato or Deleuze agree with the criteria? Maybe not, but I am pretty sure students and teachers are not that concerned. They care about formulating deep questions that matter to them; questions that make school worthwhile and relevant. For now, this criteria seems to help us move closer to living the examined life. 

The Good Thinker's Toolkit Question Starters

*I have thousands of photos documenting the questions of our students. These just happen to be the ones that surfaced first. 

WATR= What are the reasons

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Glimpse Into the Future? The philosophical Schooling Experience

For nearly a week I have been trying to find the words that could possibly capture what I experienced. I came to the realization that I cannot accurately describe what I witnessed, but I must try. This is my attempt to share my perspective of Kailua High School’s second annual Future Surfrider Day.

This event brings the 8th graders from the local intermediate schools on campus to get a glimpse of what KHS has to offer. As the Philosopher in Residence, my job is to create an experience that will introduce philosophy’s role on campus (take a look at our mission statement. I wonder how many schools strive to meet that aim?).

Rather than having the students sit and listen to me tell them about philosophy, I ask 25-30 upperclassmen to facilitate philosophical inquiries with these soon to be freshmen. We want the 8th graders to leave campus having done philosophy with our students. This group of “seasoned” high school philosophers is a wide-ranging and eclectic mix of students, but they have all shown a keen ability and interest in engaging in philosophical inquiry in their classes.

Last year’s experience went well, but philosophical inquiry was so new to the 8th graders that many of them lacked the confidence to offer any meaningful questions or insights. It was just too scary to put their ideas “out there” to a bunch of strangers. As a result, the questions they contemplated predominately came from the high school students, which worked out fine, but was not necessarily what we were hoping for. That changed this year.

Sadly, one of the intermediate schools was unable to attend this year’s Future Surfrider Day, but the school that did make it, Waimānalo Elementary and Intermediate School (WEIS), came ready to “dig deep” with our students. In the past year philosophy, specifically philosophy for children Hawai‘i, has become part of their campus life and this difference was noticeable as soon as the students entered the room. They were not taken back by the circular seating arrangement, the “community ball” that is used for turn taking, or when prompted to share something they liked about philosophy. For example, some of the students said they liked philosophy because:
  •  it can sometimes be so deep that I don’t want to stop!
  •  everyone gets to have a turn to share their ideas and questions.
  •  we get to hear ideas from somebody else’s opinion.
  •  you get to bond with your class and teacher.
  •  I like the feeling of being a family and trust towards one another.
  •  you get to think about important things that you never understood.
  •  you could have a question but never find THE answer to it. 
After some brief introductions and a review of intellectual safety, the prompt to initiate inquiry asked the students to share a question that they have wondered about. This simple direction was all these intermediate school philosophers needed to get going. Rather than wasting time on superficial questions, these students wanted to jump into inquiries concerning meaningful topics. They asked:
  • Is everyone a relative even when we have different last names?
  • Is it better to be famous and sad or alone and happy?
  • Why do people wait until someone is gone to care?
  • Why do upperclassmen look down on lowerclassmen?
  • Why do we kill people?
  • Why do people care about what other people think?
  • Why do we need philosophy?
  • What happens after you die?
  • How on earth can you judge someone by their looks?
  • What is the point of living when you die?
  • Why do we insist on making life complicated?
  • Why is it important to continue your education?
  • How come something really bad has to happen to people to make them be nice or stop bullying?
  • Why do rich people believe that since they have a lot of money that they are better than other people? 
  • Why do we still have discrimination?
  • What is reality?
  • Should I trust the people I love the most?
  • Are people wiser when they are younger or older?
  • Why is there pain in the world?

The inquiries these questions prompted set the room buzzing. There was an overlay of questions, examples, and shared experiences coming from each group. It was a philosophical medley that was being played by students of various ages who had only met minutes earlier. It was clear the intermediate students saw themselves as philosophers and possessed the skills and confidence that had been missing a year before. Our high school philosophers also demonstrated their growth as philosophers. This opportunity provided a context to truly show they have become real facilitators in their years on campus. They made sure to create an intellectually safe environment, continually encouraged the younger students to participate and take ownership of their ideas, and provided ongoing questions and examples to really push the thinking to the “deep end” of the proverbial philosophical pool.

This, in itself, was a profound moment for our school complex, but I did not understand the true profundity of what was occurring until after our inquiries had ended. As the high school students reflected on their experience a few themes emerged. 1. philosophical inquiry is personally meaningful; 2. They were jealous that they did not have the same opportunities to engage in philosophy prior to high school; 3. Facilitating a philosophical inquiry is much harder than it appears; 4. Students see the benefits philosophy will ultimately have in the communities they live in. Needless to say, it is an exciting time to be working in this school complex.

I could go on and on, but I wanted to share an overview of the story because it says a lot about philosophy and the students, teachers, and administration at these public schools. Something special is brewing in the islands. I saw a glimpse of what a K-12 philosophical schooling experience may “look” like and it was powerful. I want more of it. The students want more of it. Actually, we need more of it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

What moves us to act in defiance of our reason?

I was in a fourth grade class today and they were having an inquiry concerning some recent developments during recess. Apparently, the teacher took away every sort of ball that is typically used on the playground (soccer balls, footballs, baseballs, kickballs, etc). I recall something similar happening to me in elementary school and I remember it being the worst punishment ever! However, what was different from my experience is that the teacher did not tell them the reasons the athletic balls were no longer available to them. Rather, she asked them to provide the reasons.

Hands immediately shot to the ceiling and students began sharing their perspectives with their peers. The students (29 in all) patiently listened to each other and waited for the “community ball” to come their way so they could also offer reasons for their punishment or build off of the ideas of others. Their keen awareness of the situation exposed their inability to follow the rules of the playground, which is what ultimately caused them to lose these privileges; they were slide tackling each other while playing soccer, playing tackle football, punting the ball over the fence when they lost, arguing about the rules, picking on each other, and not sharing with their classmates. In short, the games were causing them to turn into animals.

The depth of their insights surprised the teacher and me because many of their perspectives were not apparent to the adults in the room. The students quickly identified a laundry list of their inappropriate actions, but it occurred to me that this reflective awareness was not translating into informing their recess actions. I asked the students, “if we know that we should not be doing these things and treating each other this way on the playground, then what are the reasons we are still doing it?” Again, their hands pointed to the sky and what followed were a number of reasons to explain (and, in some instances, justify) their actions:
·      They choose not to do the right thing in order to get attention, even if it is negative attention.
·      Competition brings out the worst in them.
·      They get too caught up in the games they are playing.
·      “We don’t always think about our actions.”
·      When someone cheats, it causes a chain reaction of bad actions.

At this point, there were only a few minutes left of class, so we were not able to hear all of their ideas (they also began exploring the purpose of recess). If we had more time, this inquiry would have undoubtedly moved into looking beyond the playground and examining why we do things that we know are not right or that we know are bad for us?

This is why the activity of doing philosophy is so powerful; it provides people, especially children, with the tools, the confidence, and opportunities to dive into the examination of their own experiences. That being said, what are the reasons we continue to do things that we know are not “right”? What moves us to act in defiance of our reason?

I am not sure if my explanations will be as honest as these fourth graders, but I do know I am inspired anytime I am around a room full of thinkers, even if recess is the pressing philosophical dilemma of the day. 

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

End of Term Update: Where Have We Gone?

As Hawaii’s public schools finish the last few days of the first term, I thought it would be the right time to pause and reflect on the philosophical activities students and teachers are engaging in during the school day. I have spent the better part of the past three school years as Kailua High School’s Philosopher in Residence, which means I traded in my own classroom and high school English courses to work alongside nearly 40 teachers who aim to implement (or experiment with) philosophical inquiry into the courses that they teach. I have participated with teachers and students in inquiries from pretty much every subject area on campus (Social Studies, Language Arts, Math, Foreign Languages, Special Education, Art, Health, ROTC, and the Sciences).

I find the willingness of these teachers and students to be revolutionary, which is the reason I wanted to devote this post to simply reflect and share many of the students' questions that have been (and in many cases are still being) explored in Hawaii’s public schools. I see it to be a progress report of sorts.

This term students have created and engaged in meaningful philosophical inquiries concerning the following questions (this list is by no means exhaustive or thematically organized. The intention is to provide a “greatest hits” of the term).

   Where do our thoughts go after we die? Especially if we do not write them down.
   What makes something a “fact”? Is this different than “hard data”?
   What does it mean to “accept” somebody?
   Why would we be willing to destroy nature if we appreciate its beauty?
   What makes a hypothetical example not a “real” example?
   Is it true that in order to see things clearer, you need to go through a bad experience?
   If the definition of immaturity is the inability to think on one’s own, according to Kant, and if no idea is ever original, are we forever immature?
   What makes something art? Is the artist the same thing as the art?
   Is it possible to truly see “things as they are” without interpretation?
   Can we ever say that we “are” somebody? Aren't we always in the process of “becoming”?
   What if your “chosen” path is not your “intended” path?
   What are the reasons some things look better in your head than on paper?
   Can I assume as technology and people's needs of consumption keep increasing, no matter what we do, the environment will continue to decrease?
   What are the reasons enough is never enough? Is satisfaction just an illusion?
   What are the reasons we let fear triumph over all other feelings?
   Can I assume younger drug users get the idea that drugs are “ok” or “fun” from celebrities or media?
   Who deserves a chance to live?
   If there is conflict, then will humans seek peace? Likewise, if there is peace, will humans seek conflict?
   Is there an importance or necessity to waiting? Do humans innately understand this importance?
   In order to be a terrorist, is it necessary to physically harm someone?
   Is there always a value to a variable that makes a statement true?

The questions by themselves are inspiring, but they do not paint the whole picture. The ensuing inquiries are what truly detail the importance of the activity of philosophy. My intention this term is to blog more often and use this space to share the questions and philosophical thoughts of Hawaii’s students in hopes of engaging a larger audience in meaningful philosophical inquiry. As I stated in my first post, I am not entirely sure how to accomplish this objective, but I do know we are all hungry for what the activity of philosophy has to offer. I cannot imagine what our world would look like if the schooling experience provided children the opportunity and skills needed to sit and rigorously inquire into and discuss meaningful topics, such as the ones listed above, with their peers.