Wednesday, April 28, 2021

If I Were In Charge of the World . . .

This week I read the poem "If I Were in Charge of the World" by Judith Viorst with a group of 9-11 year old students in our weekly online philosophy session. Using a lesson plan created by our Education Director Karen Emmerman, I asked the students to consider what they would do if they were in charge of the world. 

The students each wrote for about 5 minutes and then went into breakout rooms, in groups of three, to share their ideas and talk about what they thought as a group would be most important if they were in charge of the world. When they returned, they put their ideas in the chat, coming up with the following:

If I Were in Charge of the World


Racism and all ethnic, religious, and racial hate would end.

I would unite the world under one country. 

I would stop climate change.

COVID-19 would be banned.

I would make forever ice cream and candy.

There would be lots of veggies for me whenever I wanted no matter what.

Whenever I bought something it would be free for only me.

I would make ice cream have every single vitamin.

Climate change, tuna salad, and COVID-19 would be cancelled.

I would make peace in the world stopping wars.

Gasoline-powered cars would turn to electric.

I would make TV watching and video game playing healthy.

Pollution would be banned.

Baby penguins would be the symbol of America.

Grown-ups would have to stop being boring.

Everyone would have rights. 

After a short break, I asked the children which of the items on the list they saw as really important or as items that shouldn't be included. One student offered that she thought that the idea of uniting the world under one nation should not be on the list, because there was always the possibility that the one nation would be taken over by a dictator or other oppressive government, and there would be no other options for people. The student who suggested the idea conceded that this was an issue, but said he thought it would be most likely that the "one nation" would be a democracy, and if people didn't approve of the government it could be changed. I mentioned Germany in the 1930s, and the rise of Hitler and racism after Hitler was democratically elected, and asked whether being elected was always a safeguard against the emergence of an oppressive government. The students talked about the benefits of having a diversity of nations to protect against a government like Hitler's, while noting that the existence of many nations created other problems, like war. Everyone agreed that making peace in the world and ending wars belonged on the list. Several students commented that part of making that happen would involve requiring nations having disputes to talk with each other.

We then moved to the suggestion that "grownups would have to stop being boring." The student who suggested this said that she thought adults should have to talk about more interesting things than money and politics, which led to a thought-provoking discussion about the responsibilities of adults, the differences between adults and children, what counts as boring and to whom, and whether anything can reasonably be said of "all adults" or "all children." I think many of the other items on the list could have led to equally interesting conversations, but we were out of time!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

HIgh School Ethics Bowl

Since 2014, the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children has organized and run the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl. Modeled after the Intercollegiate Ethics Bowl, the High School Ethics Bowl involves teams of students analyzing a series of wide-ranging ethical dilemmas. The competition utilizes case studies relevant to youth, such as questions about plagiarism, peer pressure, abuse of social media, free speech, gun control, cloning, parental consent, and stem cell research. 


Although the High School Ethics Bowl is competitive, it is intended to promote collaboration. Teams do not have to take adversarial positions; in fact, they can agree with each other. They are not required to hold fast to an assigned perspective or refute each other’s points. Instead, students have a forum in which to engage in dialogue, and they are judged on the quality of their analysis and the degree to which they engage in a thoughtful, civil exchange.


The Ethics Bowl is about giving an insightful perspective on each case, one that an intelligent layperson should be able to follow. The competition values students’ reasoning abilities, and the emphasis is more on the broader ethical implications of the cases and less on a rule-oriented approach. It's not about memorizing ethical theories or important philosophers, but is designed to promote thoughtful, civil dialogue about difficult questions. Judges for the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl are drawn from the local legal, education, and philosophical communities.


After consulting with all our coaches in fall 2020, we decided not to hold a formal event in 2021, but instead arranged a series of two-hour virtual scrimmages between schools between April and June 2021. In the fall, participating schools were all given 10 cases to consider and discuss over the course of the year, with some schools beginning to meet in the fall and others waiting to start until winter. There was no fee to participate this year.


Scrimmages each include two cases, both involving a presentation, a commentary on the presentation, a 10-minute open dialogue, and judges’ questions. They are not scored, but each scrimmage involves three judges who provide detailed feedback at the end of each scrimmage, often engaging in an extended conversation with the students about how the scrimmage went.


Across the board, the feedback from the coaches and students has been enthusiastic. Appreciating the flexible opportunity this year's format has offered, students have appreciated the thoughtful and interesting conversations they have had with one another about topics such as:

·      Should schools hold classes virtually during the pandemic? 

·      Should buildings and institutions be renamed if their namesake has a problematic past?

·      Is it ethical to dine-in at a restaurant during a pandemic?

·      Is it unethical to buy fast-fashion clothing? 

Read these and the rest of the 2021 ethics bowl cases here


Tuesday, March 30, 2021


This year the journal Questions: Philosophy for Young People, which I founded 20 years ago and which has become one of the official journals of the organization PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), publishes the philosophical work of young people. The theme of the 2021 issue is hope.

I recently met with a group of fifth grade students to talk about hope. We began by watching the video "What is your hope?" A Missouri middle school put the question "What is your hope?" on a chalkboard outside school before students arrived, and created a video of the ways the students and teachers responded.

After viewing the video, I put these questions in the Zoom chat:

What do you hope for and why? 

What is hope? Is it an idea, a feeling, a virtue? Something else?

Is hope necessary for living a good life?

Can art express hope? How?

Can hope ever be a bad thing?

Can it be good to hope even if there’s no good reason to do so?

We talked for a few minutes about the first question. The students' hopes included the following: that there be opportunities for everyone to learn, that there would be better understanding among people, that there would be no more racism, and that everyone would feel they belonged.

We then talked a bit about the meaning of hope. Some students said that they thought it was a feeling, and one student suggested that hope is also an attitude, a way of dealing with difficult situations by imagining a time in which the situation no longer exists. A couple of students observed that hope can be a bad thing when we strongly hope for something that is unlikely  ever to happen and become worried or depressed as a result.

The students then spent about 40 minutes writing and drawing to express their thoughts about hope. It seems an especially timely topic in this moment in our world.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type

My colleague Karen Emmerman, the Center for Philosophy for Children's Education Director, has contributed this guest post:

Doreen Cronin’s book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type is one of my favorite books to use in philosophy for children sessions. It lends itself to many different sorts of wondering.


In the book, animals on a farm acquire a typewriter and generate a list of demands for Farmer Brown. The cows and hens are cold at night and demand electric blankets. Farmer Brown is angered by these demands and insists on productivity from the animals. In return the cows and hens go on strike, refusing to produce milk and eggs. 


Through a neutral third party (the duck), negotiations ensue, and a compromise is reached. The cows and hens get their blankets and they are supposed to return Farmer Brown’s typewriter to him. Unfortunately for Farmer Brown,, the ducks take the typewriter and write a letter demanding a diving board for their pond, thus beginning a new cycle of demands on the farm.


Recently, I read Click, Clack, Moo in an online session with second-grade students.  We talked about how the cows, hens, and ducks made demands and then we generated a list of students’ demands for their teacher. The resulting list contained everything from “less homework” to “movies all day instead of school.” We then reviewed the list, vetting the demands for whether they were reasonable, a good idea, and/or something to which everyone could agree. 


One demand was that English Language Arts (ELA) be made more challenging. We discussed whether that demand would work for everyone— whether more challenge is what everyone needs. Several students noted that they do not need to be more challenged in ELA and that new students might find too much challenge upsetting or off-putting. The demand was then modified to: “Make ELA the right level of challenge for each student.” 


We also carefully considered the demand to lessen or even eliminate homework. The students thought together about the goal of homework, with some noting that if your goal is to get an education and have a good job, then some homework is likely necessary. I always share the list of demands with the teachers and the conversation continues in the classroom beyond philosophy time. I often find the children are delighted to have an opportunity to think of what they would demand from school if they were in the rare position to do so. 


Another, quite different, direction Click, Clack, Moo can take is to think together about human interactions with other animals. Students have asked why Farmer Brown is so angry, for example. That has led to rich discussions of what humans expect from other animals and how we make demands on their lives and bodies. 


Students have also wondered why the cows asked for electric blankets, which enabled us to discuss what needs animals have and whether humans caring for them are morally obligated to meet those needs. The use of the typewriter often raises question about how other animals communicate and whether/when humans can understand them. 


The versatility of Click, Clack, Moo makes it a great philosophical prompt for students of many ages.

Monday, March 1, 2021

What's Your Reason?

Recently I played the game "What's Your Reason" in a virtual philosophy session with a group of eight- and nine-year-old children. The game was created by my colleague David Shapiro, and I have adapted it for a virtual setting. 

In the classroom game, we hand out (depending on the students' ages) two to four note cards to each student. They are asked to write down, on each of the cards, one claim they believe in, for a total of two to four claims. Once they’ve written down the claims, they are asked to write down, on the other side of the card, three reasons they have for believing the claims to be true. 

Explain to them that the reasons should not repeat the claims, and give an example. For instance, last week I said that may claim was, "I believe that most people are good at heart," and gave my reasons as: there is a lot of kindness in the world; almost everyone loves at least one other person; and everyone I know means well, even when they make mistakes or do thoughtless things. I mentioned "because most people seem good," would not work as a reason because it repeats the claim.

Students are then divided into two teams. After the teams have formed, all the students' cards are collected, and I make sure to keep the cards from the two teams separate from each other. I then tell them the rules of the rest of the game, which now proceeds sort of like a game of charades. The goal is for students to be able to guess what the claim is from the reason(s) cited for believing it.

Starting with Team One, I read the team one of the three reasons from the one of the cards from Team Two. They have a minute or two to decide together on a guess for what the claim might be. If the students can guess the claim from the first reason, Team One gets 3 points. If they guess it after hearing the second reason, they earn 2 points, and if they need all three reasons to guess the claim, they earn 1 point. If the students can’t guess correctly, the team earns no points. If the guess is close but not exactly right, sometimes they can earn a half point.

The game is fun and pretty lively. Students enjoy trying to guess claims from the reasons offered for them. And they generally do a way better good job of it than I think I could do!

Sometimes disagreements arise about whether a reason offered for a claim is a good one. This is great and I encourage discussion about it. For instance, in one class David Shapiro was leading, a student was providing evidence for the claim that “stealing money from your mom’s purse is wrong.” One of her reasons was “it’s against the law to do so.” Other students objected to this on two grounds. 

First, they argued that it wasn’t against the law to steal from your parents. This was (more or less) resolved by other students pointing out that most parents probably wouldn’t press charges against you if you did steal from them but that, if they did, you could go to jail. Second, and more interesting from a philosophical standpoint, several students pointed out that something’s being illegal doesn’t necessarily make it wrong (seems a pretty sophisticated observation for 5th and 6th graders.) As an example, one student said that if he had to steal a car to drive his injured friend to the hospital, it would be illegal—first because it was car theft and second because it would be driving without a license— but that, as far he was concerned, anyway, it wouldn’t be wrong. Another student observed that killing is wrong but that in war, for instance, it isn’t illegal. This led to a discussion about the difference between something being illegal but not wrong versus wrong but not illegal; (at least some) students were able to see that the former, but not the latter counted as an objection to the evidence that the original student had cited in favor of her claim.

The game does a good job of teasing out students’ perspectives on the role of reasons in support of their views and helps them develop a better sense of how we employ reasons to defend our beliefs, as well as giving them some opportunity to practice doing so. It also is a reminder of how much easier it is to express our views than to come up with reasons for them.

In the virtual setting, I adapt the game by using two (or three, if there are more than 12 students) breakout rooms and asking each breakout room group to come up together with at least 5 or 6 claims, giving three reasons for each claim. Then the students themselves choose which claims to use, offering one reason at a time to the other team(s) to elicit their guesses, in the same way I do when I am in the classroom with the students. If the students are younger, I make sure there is an adult in each breakout room with the students to help them to organize their claims and reasons and, if the students choose this, to take responsibility for reading the reasons to elicit the other team's guesses.

The students seem to love the game and invariably ask, in a later session, when we are going to play it again. 

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Reality Scavenger Hunt

Yesterday in an online philosophy session, the children and I played a game created by my colleague David Shapiro, the "Reality Scavenger Hunt." This has been a popular philosophy prompt for years, and since the pandemic began, I have been adapting the game for virtual settings.

First, I divide the children up into groups of 3-5 students, depending on the size of the group. In breakout rooms on Zoom, they work together to come up with one or more things for each of the following categories:

1. Something that isn’t real but seems to be real

2. Something that is real but seems not to be real

3. Something that has to be real

4. Something that is both real and not real

5. Something that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not

We come back together after about 15 minutes, and then each group takes turns reading aloud one of their items, with the students in the other groups having to guess in which category the item belongs. Points are given for the correct guesses, and the group with the most points at the end wins the game.

Yesterday, the items the children offered included a pangolin, a dream, and God. Everyone agreed that the pangolin belonged in category 2, something that is real but seems not to be because it looks like a mini-dinosaur. The other two items led to much more discussion. 

The students talked about dreams, wondering if they were not real but seemed to be, if it didn't matter if they were real or not, or if they were both real and not real. The consensus seemed to be that dreams are both real and not real, real because, as one student put it, the dream does exist in your mind, and not real because it doesn't exist outside your mind. 

The conversation about God began with a student stating that God belongs in category 5, because either God exists or doesn't, and because we can't perceive God, we can't know and it won't really change anything either way. Other students disagreed, with one arguing that whether or not you believe in God, it will matter to you if it turns out either that God exists or that God doesn't exist. We talked about how you know whether something is real or not, and if the fact that we cannot see or hear God indicates that God doesn't exist. We can't see or hear love, or happiness, or gravity, we mused, but yet we believe they exist.

We ended with a tie score and some reflections about whether anything at all really belongs in category 5.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

What is memory?

In a discussion yesterday with a group of eight- and nine-year-old children, we talked about what is most important for our identities; in other words, what could we not lose without ceasing to be ourselves? During the conversation, we began talking about the role of memory in making us the people we are. One child observed that "memory is what keeps us holding all our experiences over time," and another child commented that without memories your experiences wouldn't be meaningful. We began talking about whether remembering one's experiences were as important as having them. 

This led to a conversation about the nature of memory. One child said that we think of memory as "seeing things" and recalling images, but that memory is more than that, and includes scent and touch and sound. This prompted another child to ask, "But what exactly is memory?"

Neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists seek to explain the way memory works by investigating processes that take place in the brain. But I think these children were asking a more philosophical question, about the relationships between memory and what makes us who we are and gives us a foundation for finding meaning in life.

A couple of interesting prompts for a philosophical inquiry regarding the nature of memory are the film "Inside Out," which explores the connections between memory and emotion, and the picture book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox, which examines what it might be like if you couldn't remember and whether objects can help us recover memories. A nice video features Bradley Whitford reading the story aloud.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Is "everything" real?


In a couple of final 2020 Zoom classes with a group of fifth grade students, we played a version of the "Reality Scavenger Hunt," a game my colleague David Shapiro created. In small groups, the students come up with examples that fit into these five categories:

1.     Something that isn’t real but seems to be real

2.     Something that is real but seems not to be real

3.     Something that has to be real

4.     Something that is both real and not real

5.     Something that it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not real

We then come back together and students offer examples they thought of and the rest of us try to guess in which category they belong. The activity raises questions about what makes something real, whether there are levels of reality, and whether and how we can know whether anything is real.

In one session, a student offered "superstition." Student guesses ranged from "something that isn't real but seems to be," "something that is both real and not real," and "something that it doesn't matter if it's real or not real." We began talking about the nature of superstition. One student suggested that superstition is the opposite of coincidence  if you believe in superstitions, he suggested, you won't believe in coincidence because you will think everything that happens is a result of something you did or didn't do. 

We talked about what counts as superstition. David Shapiro, who was visiting the class, asked whether it would count as a superstition if he believes that if he wears a particular shirt each time he takes a test, he'll do well. There was widespread agreement that this would be a superstition. He then asked, "If I believe that if I study hard I will do well on a test, is that a superstition?" No, the students responded, because there is evidence that studying leads to better grades. 

But, we wondered, if every time David wears his lucky shirt he does well and when he doesn't wear it his grades are lower, isn't that evidence that the shirt leads to doing well on exams? Some students said that it's still a superstition, because it is not the shirt that is affecting your grades but your confidence that when you wear the shirt, you'll do well and it is the confidence that helps improve your performance. One student offered a hypothetical: if you lost the shirt and someone claimed to find it and gave it to you, but it was really a different shirt, you would have the same confidence and do just as well as you did with what you thought was your lucky shirt. 

In this sense, can superstition be useful? And, if so, are superstitions in some way real?

In another session, the concept in question was "everything." Some students said that everything is both real and not real, because it includes things that are real, like air, and things that are not, like unicorns. One noted that "everything" is a collection of all things, which includes real things and not real things. I asked if we could imagine everything as one thing, not thinking about the objects that make up everything, but just as everything itself. We wondered whether we could imagine "everything." A student suggested that perhaps we were all everything, in the sense that we might be as infinite as the universe. He said that he put it in the opposite of category 5  that is, something that it does matter if it's real or not.

Monday, November 23, 2020


As this is Thanksgiving week in the US, I have been thinking about gratitude. Especially in difficult times like the current moment, in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it can be helpful to remember all of the things for which we have to be thankful.

In a philosophy discussion I was leading not too long ago, a nine-year-old child reflected that we should always be grateful to have a life, no matter what is going on in our lives. He said, “When you're alive, you're always happy to be alive." For him, gratitude entailed not thankfulness for anything in particular, but a constant state of awareness of the gift of being alive.

For many people, though, considering the specific reasons they have to be grateful can be enhance their joy in living. Psychological research suggests that giving thanks is associated with greater happiness.

This year the New York Times is inviting its readers to engage in an activity that asks them to say in six words what makes them grateful. Selections from the responses will appear in a forthcoming newsletter.

But what is gratitude? My colleague Karen Emmerman created an exercise to inspire exploration of this question. 

Start with an anecdote about receiving a gift that is disappointing. As a result, you are not feeling particularly grateful. You can use an example from real life, but it also works to make something up or think of an example from a book. Then ask the students to think silently on their own for a few minutes about these two questions (writing ideas down if they’d like):

1. What does it mean to be grateful for something?
2. Do you have to be grateful if you don’t like the thing you got?

After the students have reflected about these two questions, ask them to share their answers. You might spend some time determining exactly what gratitude is. At least one person usually suggests that gratitude can involve pretending to like something you do not like. It’s helpful to ask questions to push the students to think about whether gratitude has a broader meaning. 

The discussion around this question is often quite rich. Students sometimes start with fairly prosaic answers to the second question, such as, “Yes, you should be grateful even if you get rocks as a present.” Try to probe further and get them thinking about whether one really does need to be grateful if someone gives them something awful. Is it really the thought that counts? What if the person gave you something they really wanted for themselves just so they can borrow it? What are the limits of gratitude? Does it count as grateful to express gratitude that you do not genuinely feel? Is feeling grateful important?

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Snack Attack

The video "Snack Attack" portrays (without words) an elderly woman inside a train station, who buys a packet of cookies at a vending machine, putting them in her purse. She then heads outside to sit on a bench and wait for her train, sitting next to a teenage boy. Picking up the packet of cookies next to her, along with her newspaper, she begins eating the cookies and reading the paper. 

The woman then notices that the boy next to her, who is texting and listening to music, has his hand on the package of cookies. She is shocked and grabs the package, putting it on her lap. The boy then leans over and takes one of the cookies. The woman becomes furious, yelling at him. Earbuds in, he just smiles at her. At that point she tries, unsuccessfully, to grab a cookie out of his hand. He looks at her and breaks the cookie in half, offering her half and eating the other half. Incensed, she shows him the half cookie and crumbles it, just as her train is pulling in to the station. 

The boy watches, puzzled, as she leaves in a huff. Climbing the steps to the train, the woman looks back and sees him eating some of the remaining crumbs off the bench. Still angry, she finds a seat on the train and, when she opens her purse to give the conductor her ticket, sees the package of cookies. She realizes that when she sat down on the bench, she took the boys' packet of cookies, thinking they were her own.

The video raises questions about the assumptions we make about others based on age, the ethical dimensions of the way we communicate with people we do not know, and what is required of us when we realize we have wronged another person. I watched the video with a group of eight and nine-year-old children this week. Before we did so, I asked them each to describe in a word or two either children, teenagers, or adults, and we would all try to guess which group they were describing. 

One child said, "Hardworking and energetic," and another child guessed that this described adults, who, he remarked, "work the hardest." In fact, the description was of children, and several of the children commented that they do think of children as more energetic than adults. Another said, "Weird," and a couple of children guessed that this described teenagers, which was what the child intended. We talked about how children and adults can be weird too (and that what it means to be weird is also a philosophical issue!). 

One of the children said that our opinions of children, teenagers, and adults change depending on in which group we belong. For example, she said, children can see adults and teens as annoying, but if you're an adult, you might see the other two groups of people as annoying. We agreed that any of these groups could be characterized in ways  annoying, carefree, energetic, etc.  that could apply equally to people in the other groups.

After watching the video, we talked about why the woman became so angry at the teenager. Would she have had the same reaction if he had been an adult? A young child? Did the teenager react to her in the way he did because she was an old woman and he didn't take her very seriously? Why do we treat people differently due to their ages?