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.