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.

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