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

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