Welcome to Wondering Aloud -- a blog about introducing philosophy to pre-college students. I'm the director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, and I started this blog to create another way to communicate about doing philosophy with young people.

The blog includes posts about some of my philosophy classes with pre-college students, thoughts about doing philosophy with young people, and ideas for how to introduce philosophy in K-12 classrooms and with your own children! Also check out our website,
http://www.philosophyforchildren.org/, for more resources and ideas.

My hope is that this blog will help further the online community of those interested in pre-college philosophy, and will illustrate the vitality and joy of talking about philosophy with young people.

Jana -- September 2008

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Leo Lionni's Pezzettino is the story of the small Pezzettino (which means "little piece" in Italian), who is a small orange square surrounded by other beings who are all made up of many different-colored squares. Pezzettino observes that everyone around him is "big and [does] daring and wonderful things." He concludes that he must be a little piece of someone else, and he sets out to discover whose little piece he is. He talks with many other creatures, asking if he is their little piece, and all of them respond that they couldn't be themselves if they had a piece missing.

Eventually, Pezzettino ends up on an island of pebbles. Tumbling down the rocks and breaking into pieces, he realizes that he too is made up of little pieces. Pezzettino makes sure he has all the pieces of himself back together, and then hurries home and joyfully announces to his friends, "I am myself!"

What makes an individual that person? Are we the sum of our parts? If you lose a piece of yourself, are you still you? What is the relationship between our bodies and who we are?

Monday, March 3, 2014

Fourth Grade Students on Plato

I had an interesting conversation about Plato's Ring of Gyges story with the fourth grade class I've been teaching at John Muir Elementary School. As is my usual practice, I read the students the story and we began talking about what they would do if they had a ring that allowed them to become invisible, and whether the character Glaucon is right when he contends that people act morally only because they are afraid of the consequences if they don't.

We talked about many issues, including whether people might choose to do good things with the ring that they could not easily do otherwise (for instance, the students suggested, helping people who would be embarrassed to know you were helping them, or helping solve crimes). The students commented that sometimes we do good things without wanting recognition (like giving money anonymously to charity). Several reflected that they wouldn't do bad things, even if they couldn't get caught, because they would feel badly inside. "It just isn't the kind of person I want to be," one student said, "and even if no one else knew what I had done, I would know."

The students also discussed whether the ring would end up isolating you from other people because you wouldn't be able to let people know you had it. Some students concluded that they would not want the ring, because they would be afraid it would change them and their lives in ways they wouldn't choose.

We then got into a conversation about whether being invisible would really protect you completely from the potential consequences of your actions. One student proposed what I thought was a particularly interesting idea. He noted that being invisible keeps you from being seen, but does not keep you from being perceived in other ways (he noted, for example, that you could brush up against someone and they would feel your presence, or someone might hear you), and so there is some chance that you could be caught engaging in bad acts, even if you're invisible at the time. What if, he asked, instead of making you invisible, the ring of Gyges made you imperceptible? Not only couldn't you be seen, he explained, but you couldn't be touched or heard and you would lack any perceptible scent. But, he reflected as he was thinking this idea through, would you then still exist? If you aren't able to be perceived, he questioned, then are you still a person?

Friday, February 21, 2014

Let's Do Nothing!

Let's Do Nothing by Toby Fucile illustrates the perplexity of the concept of nothing. The book tells the story of two boys who, after concluding that they have "done it all," decide to do nothing.

The trouble is that doing nothing is not easy. If you blink, you're not doing nothing. If you open your eyes, you're not doing nothing, but if you close them, you're not doing nothing. Finally the boys conclude, "There is no way to do nothing."

What do we mean when we say we are doing nothing? What would it mean to do nothing? Is it impossible to do nothing if you're alive?What exactly is nothing?  Can "nothing" exist?

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Hole

In The Hole by Øyvind Torseter, a man is moving into a new home, and he notices a hole in the apartment. The hole seems to move around, appearing in a wall, on the floor, in a door, etc. 

The man makes a phone call, saying, "I've found a hole . . . in my apartment . . . it keeps moving . . . take it with me . . . to you?" Attempting to capture the hole in a box, he heads out the door with the box and takes it to a lab for tests. 

The book has a die-cut hole that runs through the entire book, and in every page the hole is part of the story.

Are holes part of the world? Are they physical objects? What are they made of? If they're made of nothing, how do we perceive them? What makes something a hole? Does it have a shape? Do holes really exist? If you fill a hole, is it no longer a hole?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Black Dog

Levi Pinfold's Black Dog tells the story of a black dog that arrives outside a family's home one morning. The father in the family wakes up first and calls the police, reporting that, “There’s a black dog the size of a tiger outside my house!” The police officer tells him not to go outside. The mother wakes up next, and yells to her husband that, “There’s a black dog the size of an elephant outside!” One by one, the other family members wake up and cower at the sight of the huge black dog.

Finally, the youngest member of the family, called Small (“for short”) wakes up and sees that her whole family is hiding from the black dog. “You are such sillies,” she says, and opens the front door to confront the black dog.

Small then starts running, telling the black dog that if he's going to eat her, he has to catch her first. The dog follows her, appearing to shrink along the way. By the end of the chase, the dog, no longer looking very big, follows Small into the house. The family members all notice that the dog "was neither as huge nor as scary as they had feared," and they comment about how brave Small had been to face up to the dog. 

"There was nothing to be scared of, you know," replied Small.

The story is philosophically interesting in a variety of ways, involving questions about ethics, metaphysics and epistemology, among others. Was Small brave to confront the dog? Did she see him differently than the rest of her family saw him? Why did Small believe that there was nothing to be scared of? Does bravery mean not being afraid? What makes us afraid? What is the connection between bravery and fear? Can the way we see things change them? Can it change us?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

I Am the Dog

Daniel Manus Pinkwater's I Am the Dog tells the story of Jacob, a boy, and his dog Max. One day they decide to change places. Jacob eats from a bowl on the floor while Max eats at the table with the family. Jacob runs around the yard while Max goes to school. Max does homework while Jacob snoozes on the floor. The next day, Jacob returns to being a boy and Max to being a dog. "That's how things are supposed to be." But, Jacob notes, they both learned that "being a dog is better."

What makes a boy a boy? A dog a dog? Can a person change places with a dog? Is it better to be a dog than a human being? Do dogs eat off the floor and run around the yard because that is their nature? Can this be changed? Does it seem strange for a human to eat off the floor and run around the yard, and, if so, why?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Favorite Daughter

Allen Say's picture book The Favorite Daughter is dedicated to his daughter. It's the story of Yuriko, who is half Japanese. She is upset when other children make fun of her name and tease her about a photo of her wearing a kimono because she has blond hair. Her art teacher mispronounces her name, calling her "Eureka." Yuriko decides she wants to change her name to Michelle, but after she and her father visit a Japanese restaurant and the Japanese Garden at Golden Gate Park, Yuriko begins to appreciate her uniqueness.

The lovely watercolor and pen and ink illustrations and the emotional expressiveness of Say writing about his daughter enhance the appeal of this book to children, and the story raises a range of interesting philosophical questions. What is the significance of a name? How do our names identify and define us? What makes up our cultural identity? Can it change? What does it mean to be part of a community? Can we be unique individuals and belong to a group at the same time?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Summer philosophy seminar for high school teachers

For the first time this summer, there will be a teaching and learning seminar for high school teachers at the American Association of Philosophy Teachers (AAPT) Conference. The seminar will be funded by the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO), the American Philosophical Association (APA), and AAPT. 

The AAPT Conference is a well-regarded biennial family-friendly event that brings together philosophy teachers around the world, emphasizing workshops that are practical and interactive and cover a wide range of subjects related to teaching. 

For a number of years the conference has included a highly popular teaching and learning seminar for graduate students, and the seminar for high school teachers will have a similar format. Seminar participants will explore issues and experiment with approaches aimed at developing and improving high school philosophy teaching. 

For more information and the application, see: http://plato-philosophy.org/call-for-applications-for-2014-summer-seminar-on-teaching-learning-in-philosophy-for-high-school-teachers/

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I Wonder

Annaka Harris has written a picture book, I Wonder, that expresses the feelings of wonder and mystery that many children have when thinking about the world. Eva, walking with her mother, asks questions like: Where does gravity come from? How many grains of sand are in the world? What was here before the beginning of everything?

Eva's mother, rather than responding with answers, responds with questions or by saying things like, "I don't know," or "I wonder about that too." She tells Eva that "It's okay to say, I don't know. When we don't know something, we get to wonder about it."

The illustrations are lovely and the story can inspire conversations about all of the things children wonder about. I asked a group of third grade students this fall what they wondered about. Here are some of their responses:

What will my life be in the future?
How is money made?
Why am I tired?
What happens when you die?
Is magic real?
Why do we have to pay for things?
Why do people die?
Will the world be more dangerous when I'm older?
How is freedom created?
Why do I have buck teeth?
How is television made?
Why can't there be peace throughout the world?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Music and beauty

What makes something beautiful?

Each year one of the paper assignments I give to my undergraduate students is as follows:
     1. List 10 songs that you think are beautiful and 10 songs that you think are ugly.
     2. For each song, write two-three sentences about why you think it's beautiful or ugly.

After the students have handed in these papers, we devote a class session to a discussion of the issues raised by the assignment. Students from Nova High School join us, having also completed this assignment (which was originally created by a Nova High School teacher, Terrance McKittrick).

This year we had about 25 undergraduates and 15 high school students together for the "beautiful/ugly songs" session. We started in small groups, each composed of a couple of high school students and 2 or 3 undergraduates. The students talked about their choices and what made the songs they chose beautiful or ugly to them. We then came together for a larger discussion, which included students sharing some of their music. As we listened to the songs chosen, we talked about the relationships between emotion and music, beauty and ugliness, and memory and emotion, and about the difference between liking a piece of music and thinking it beautiful. Is beauty an objective aesthetic quality of certain music? Or is it purely a subjective reaction, based on the listener and his or her experiences?

Engaging in this exercise every year always reminds me how intimate our musical choices are. When students share their songs and talk about why they chose them, the discussion often illuminates aspects of the students that are very personal. Students often mention how meaningful this assignment is for them, and also how hard it is to do. They note that it forces them to wrestle with what exactly is a beautiful (or ugly) song for them, and what makes it so. I think that this simple activity works so well because, for many of us, the music we listen to really matters to us, and thinking about why this is so engages students deeply in an analysis of the nature of beauty and art.