Tuesday, May 18, 2010

How much philosophy does a pre-college philosophy teacher need to know?

I'm working on a review article for the journal Teaching Philosophy, writing about five books that have been written in the past few years about pre-college philosophy. In the course of reading these books, it's been interesting to me to observe the range of views about the level of training necessary for a competent pre-college philosophy teacher.

This is a real issue, as most K-12 teachers in the US have had little exposure to philosophy. Some philosophers and educators with experience in pre-college philosophy think that there are only a few rules for conducting philosophical discussions and that even teachers with little background in philosophy can successfully introduce philosophy to their students. Others argue that extensive preparation in how to teach philosophy and a solid familiarity with the history of philosophy is necessary.

I come out somewhere in the middle, I think. I think there is a significant difference between introducing philosophy to elementary school students and teaching a philosophy class for high school juniors or seniors. For teaching younger students, I think that what is essential to leading a philosophy session is a philosophical ear. By a philosophical ear, I mean the ability to recognize when a philosophical issue is being raised (by a student, a story or film, etc.). Certainly, extensive exposure to philosophy texts and discussions is useful to the development of a philosophical ear, but I don't believe that this kind of background is essential. I think that teachers who have had even a little experience with philosophy discussions can, with strong skills in facilitating student discussions and a good curriculum, facilitate philosophy discussions among elementary school-age children.

This is not to say, however, that any teacher can pick up a pre-college philosophy curriculum and lead productive philosophy sessions with children. Many teachers, in my experience, are too much invested in the "teacher as repository of wisdom and students as vessels to be taught" model to be able, without a great deal of training and commitment, to introduce philosophy to their students.

As students get closer to upper-level high school age, I think the requirements for successful philosophy teachers grow, for two reasons. First, in my experience, high school students (and particularly those who have not had any exposure to philosophy in earlier years) are more reticent about engaging in classroom philosophy sessions than are younger children. The philosophy teacher who has had strong preparation for how to teach philosophy and at least some exposure to philosophical texts is more likely to be successful at involving students in high school philosophy discussions. Second, students at this level are capable of analyzing much more complex philosophy questions, and teachers familiar with these questions will be able to facilitate fuller, more sophisticated discussions. I am hoping that, with the growing interest among philosophy departments around the country in high school philosophy classes, there will be greater opportunities for high quality instruction for potential high school philosophy teachers in the future.

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