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?

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


Since my previous post about the role of the facilitator in philosophy sessions, I have been thinking more about listening and specifically the roles of listening and of silence in discussions. This is the subject of the last chapter of my new book, which will be out this spring. 

Almost by definition, listening requires attentiveness to silence. Appreciation of the silent intervals within a conversation allows the exchange to unfold more deliberately and makes more space for all voices to emerge. Especially for those of us who are comfortable speaking and quick to do so, receptivity requires that we refrain from always rushing in to fill the conversational pauses. A listening culture encourages us to be attentive to when to voice our ideas and when to make space for someone else to speak.

Cori Doerrfeld’s beautiful picture book The Rabbit Listened evokes the power of a listening presence. (There is also a lovely video read-aloud put out by Dorchester County Library in South Carolina.) In the story, Taylor, a young child, is very proud after building a complex structure with blocks, until it comes crashing down. The animals around Taylor notice and each tries to help by immediately offering advice, suggesting that Taylor talk or shout about it, fix it or throw it away, laugh about it, or pretend nothing happened. Taylor doesn’t respond to any of these suggestions, and eventually is left alone. 

A rabbit quietly approaches. The two sit together in silence until Taylor asks the rabbit to stay, and then the rabbit just listens as Taylor talks, shouts, laughs, and thinks through what to do next. Taylor ends up deciding to rebuild the structure. The rabbit is still and receptive, physically close to Taylor, listening without interruption or judgment. This is all Taylor needs to find the motivation to start over again.

The story makes me think about the way that the kind of receptive attention the rabbit embodies can encourage children, and all of us, to express our what we are thinking. Genuine listening lets speakers know that they are being heard, that what they have to say is valuable to someone else. Perhaps the most important facilitation skill, then, is to be a good listener, to model genuine listening and a comfort with the silent spaces within conversations.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

The Quiet Facilitator

This autumn, as I have begun leading philosophy sessions on Zoom with children again, I have spent some time considering more deeply my role in these sessions. Part of my job as an educator is to help children learn to articulate and examine their questions and beliefs more lucidly. Additionally, though, I am responsible for helping to create an environment that nurtures understanding and trust and values each child’s voice. I consciously approach my sessions by working to develop spaces for children to explore the questions that matter to them, without imposing my own views about which questions or conversational threads are particularly significant or interesting. 

I have been thinking about the relationship between the facilitator's responsibility to construct a framework for the emergence of high quality philosophical conversations (introducing philosophically suggestive prompts, asking good questions, helping to ensure that every voice is heard, intervening in stalled discussions) and the importance of the conversation being authentically the children's inquiry, so that my questions and comments do not push the discussion in a direction that comes from me and not the children. It is easy to say that it is what matters to the children that should control where the inquiry leads, but in the experience it can be quite challenging to determine when to let the discussion proceed without any interference and, when it seems some intervention is needed, what to say that is helpful for the process but does not influence the content. 

We want to make sure we are giving children the space they need to think through and express their thoughts without superfluous intrusion by the facilitator. There is a fine line between responding in ways that help others tease out their own ideas and altering what they mean to express. Especially because of the power adults have relative to children, and particularly in a classroom (virtual or not) situation in which I am seen as the expert in the room, it is all too easy for me unintentionally to sway the conversation's focus. 

Paraphrasing what a child says, for example. Sometimes we try to help children convey their thinking more clearly or fully by suggesting a different way to say something. “Did you mean to say . . .?” Although this approach can be a useful way to help a child to communicate a thought, it can also result in putting words in children’s mouths, thinking that we already understand what they are saying and that they just need our assistance to articulate their thoughts more precisely. This practice risks distorting or silencing what the child has to say. 

Moreover, when we mistakenly interpret or rephrase what we think children mean to express, they can hesitate to tell us we’re incorrect. In these situations, a child may naturally assume that the adult knows more and therefore instinctively agree, even though the rephrased comment actually misrepresents the child’s thinking. 

I am aware that, at times, after a child has spoken I have jumped in too quickly with a clarifying question or description of what I thought the child meant, only to realize retrospectively that I had let my own ideas or interests get in the way of what the child actually wanted to say. If I really want to understand that child’s point of view, that point of view has to take priority. Listening and asking questions from a place of curiosity and respect, and letting go of one’s own agenda, can cultivate a space in which children can think their own thoughts and express their own ideas in their own ways. 

But the practical challenges remain. If I observe that a student's remark seems to involve a philosophical undercurrent that is not explicitly stated, should I ask a question that delves into the deeper meaning of the child's words? Is there a way to do this that does not steer the conversation in ways that interest me but weren't on the children's minds? Isn't my job to recognize the philosophical themes underlying the children's questions and comments, and help the children to see them, or does that risk distorting what they desire to explore? Or am I overestimating my potential influence on the inquiry?

I often say that the most successful sessions with children that I have had involved thoughtful philosophical discussions that would have continued if I had left the room. The quieter I am, and the more the children are focused on their conversation and what others in the group have to say, the more authentically is the inquiry the children's own. That takes time and practice, however. The facilitator's challenge is to balance assisting the children in learning how to have a vibrant and reasoned philosophical conversation with ensuring their ownership of the philosophical space. Perhaps being a "quiet facilitator" should be one of the goals of a philosophy class, so that as time goes on, the children grow increasingly skilled at managing the inquiry themselves, and the facilitator becomes more and more quiet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Thinking about Death

I have been thinking about death since I was about 5 years old. For much of my life, I've had the sense that other people don't think about the subject very much, or at least try not to think about it, and certainly don't often want to talk about it, at least not in the West. 

Since the pandemic began, however, questions about death, illness, and mortality have become inescapable. My sense is that right now more and more people are thinking in deeper ways about death and the meaning of living a mortal life.

But even before the pandemic, in my experience children have always thoughts and wanted to talk about these subjects far more than most adults. Over the years, when I have asked groups of children what they most wonder about in life, invariably many respond with questions like, “Why do people have to die?” or “What happens when you die?” My colleagues recount the same experiences, and parents and grandparents also relate that their children and grandchildren have many thoughts and questions about death.

For example, in a conversation on Zoom this spring with a group of fourth grade students, we were talking about whether you can be happy and sad at the same time. Most of us responded affirmatively, and wondered together about whether you can ever be purely happy, without any sadness.

One student said, "I agree that you can be happy and sad at the same time. Even though we think of sadness and happiness as opposites, they can sometimes be put together. That’s usually moments when you feel happy in your life and then you realize that your life isn’t going to last forever. It will maybe last a long time, I’m only 9 years old and I have my whole life ahead of me, but still, I want to stay in life and I know I can’t.”

This was such a powerful and poignant expression of the pathos of the human condition: we are mortal and one day our lives will end. I have been thinking about this comment since, and about the ways that children seem so attuned to the fact that mortality is at the heart of our existence, that our lives have what philosopher Samuel Scheffler calls “temporal scarcity.” We live every day knowing that our days, however long they continue, are numbered. Our mortality is the essential element of our identity as human beings.

I've been wondering if it is at the beginning and end of life that we are most in touch with this awareness: when death is new and when it is near. The concept of death is so powerful for us as children because it is then that we first become aware that our lives are finite. At the end of life, the reality of death's proximity leads us to evaluate how we have lived. In between, we become caught up in the demands and rhythms of life and don't seem to spend much time considering what our inevitable deaths mean for how we should live our lives, except perhaps when we suffer loss. 

But awareness of death, however sad and painful it can be, can help us to treasure life 's preciousness, and give our lives greater depth and meaning. As poet Wallace Stevens said, "Death is the mother of beauty."

Friday, August 21, 2020

In Limbo


In Limbo

I recently had a video conversation with In Limbo, a new online space dedicated to exploring the philosophical dimensions of the pandemic. The video is here.

The site began as a result of an effort to create a bibliography that records various philosophical writings on the pandemic, which can be found here. This includes both the way that the pandemic is affecting philosophical activity and the philosophical issues raised by the pandemic.

One of the issues the conversation led me to think about is the nature of the community of philosophical inquiry and the many paths that can lead to it. For example, I have resisted for many years trying to facilitate philosophy sessions, workshops, and classes online, because I believed that the online setting was not conducive to creating a robust community of inquiry. I found it hard to imagine that the kinds of deep and open conversations that occur in the physical settings in which we lead philosophy programs were possible online.

Of course, this spring I had no choice but to take my classes online, and it has been a learning experience to discover that online philosophy sessions can be places of trust, openness, and sustained conversation. Perhaps it is the intimacy of a Zoom session, where we are starting at each other's faces and often glimpsing each other's homes and personal spaces. Perhaps it is the longing to feel more connected, in the midst of a time of isolation and uncertainty. Although I miss profoundly ordinary physical contact with students and educators, and the embodied texture of an exchange that is fostered by being in a room together, I have been gratified to find that online communities of philosophical inquiry can have genuine relational and intellectual depth.

This is not to say that I hope that the rest of my professional life can be spent in Zoom sessions! But given that for however many months to come, most or all of my philosophical classes will be online, this does present an opportunity to explore all of the ways that community can be developed and sustained in virtual spaces. 

Particularly in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, the question of how to create connections  intellectual, emotional, personal, social — while "in limbo" is a pressing one. On the one hand, life feels fractured and lonely, and many of the cracks in our communities are widening and becoming more visible. On the other hand, many people are expressing a renewed appreciation for the importance of connection and relationships. In the online philosophy classes I've been part of, I've observed an enhanced willingness to express vulnerability, to try out unorthodox ideas, and to remain open to differing perspectives. I come away with a great deal of hope.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Loneliness and Isolation

During the pandemic, the topics of loneliness and isolation came up in many of the Zoom conversations I had with children. 

The six-minute film "Baboon on the Moon" is about a baboon who lives alone on the Moon. Wordless and moving, the video portrays the baboon as full of longing for the Earth, struggling with feelings of sadness and loneliness. The video raises questions such as:
Is there a difference between being alone and being lonely?
Is loneliness always negative?
When we feel lonely, do we always also feel sad?
Do we appreciate things more when we cannot have them?
What makes a place a home?

In one conversation, after watching the video a group of nine-year-old children discussed how much more they appreciate both their friends and the opportunity to attend school than they had before the pandemic. One child talked about how much he had often dreaded going to school, but now that school was online he realized that there were many things about physically being in school that he really valued and missed. 

We explored the ways that solitude can feel differently when it is chosen rather than involuntary. "I like to be alone, but it's different when you have to be alone," said one child. But we also talked about how forced solitude might eventually foster a new appreciation for being alone, especially once the pandemic is behind us and our ordinary social lives resume. Will we have a greater capacity for solitude once it is no longer compulsory? 

Psychologist Sherry Turtle contends that solitude is necessary to develop genuine relationships with other people. She writes, “Solitude is where you find yourself so that you can reach out to other people and form real attachments." If this is true, might we be able to cultivate even deeper attachments and connections post-pandemic?

Friday, July 24, 2020

Guest Blog Post on Philosophy and the Covid-19 Pandemic

Lexi Pelzer, a high school student who volunteered for our Center this past year, was a student at Overlake High School and is now a rising sophomore at Phillips Exeter Academy. She asked if she could write a guest post for this blog, and I thought that the theme of her post, which describes how philosophy has been helping her during the pandemic, was particularly timely as we start to consider what education will look for the coming school year:

With a sigh, I turned on my computer screen for the twentieth morning in a row. As I tuned into Latin class, I found myself, as usual, longing for the closeness and camaraderie of in-person courses. I also felt a lingering sadness over my canceled lacrosse season, and I missed my friends, whom I had not seen for weeks. I knew that, in so many ways, I was incredibly fortunate: my parents still had their jobs, we were all in good health, and I was able to attend online school. Nevertheless I couldn’t shake feelings of frustration and depression. 

But just as I found myself developing a nihilistic outlook, I discovered Existentialism. While carrying out research for a history project, I stumbled across Sartre’s and Camus’s writing, which included their theories about living a meaningful life. This introduced me to existentialism, a philosophy based on the idea that existence precedes essence. This philosophy suggests that humans are not born with certain traits, but rather use our free will to make choices and complete actions that make these traits a part of who we are. While there are some parts of our lives—including age, class, race, and culture—that we cannot change and that significantly affect the options available to us, we can still make choices about how to approach the situations we encounter. It is our actions in response to these situations, existentialism argues, that determine who we are and give us a sense of purpose. 

Excited by these ideas, I decided to apply an existentialist approach to my recently upended life. To begin, I tried to identify the things in my life that I truly found meaningful. Online education, for example, had been a challenge for me, since I didn’t love virtual coursework, and my school had switched to a credit/no credit system that didn’t reward hard work with high grades. Thinking about it, however, I realized that what I found most meaningful about my time in school wasn’t homework or grades, but the chance to think critically about new ideas and challenge myself. I still had the opportunity to do these things in my online classes, so I threw myself into my studies. I set up meetings with my teachers to discuss new ideas for projects and used my assignments as opportunities to explore topics that deeply interested me. I soon saw that the online format of my courses—which had once seemed a huge hindrance to my studies—actually gave me the opportunity to work independently and to draw new connections between subjects.

In addition, I recognized that missing my friends was an indication of how meaningful they were to my life. Determined to take actions that aligned with what I valued, I took on the role of friendship facilitator, arranging FaceTime calls, scheduling Netflix watch parties, and even dropping off homemade cookies at my friends’ houses (made while wearing gloves and a mask). The events themselves may not have been quite what I was used to in terms of spending time with those I care for, but putting time into the things I valued made me feel good about myself. 

Perhaps most important, my changed circumstances gave me time to realign my priorities and support things that I found meaningful, but hadn’t committed enough time to in the past. For example, I had always considered myself a feminist and advocate for racial justice, but—studying my life through an existentialist lens—I realized that I hadn’t been taking enough action towards furthering these causes. In addition to discussions with my friends and family about social justice, I began signing petitions, making calls to legislators, taking classes on gender studies, and donating to organizations dedicated to racial justice and equality. While the pandemic made some forms of volunteering and protesting more challenging, I saw that there were still plenty of ways for me to take action and, in the process, to live a purposeful existence. 

Life is different these days. Whether we are worrying about family members, getting tested for the virus, or tuning into yet another online class, the things we do today bear little resemblance to the activities we carried out in the past. As existentialism shows us, though, we still can—and we must—take action to live authentically. That, at least, will never change.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

New Book and Zoom Philosophy Sessions

It has been over a year since my last post, primarily because I have been working hard to finish my new book, Seen and Not Heard, which is now with my publisher in the editing stage! Here is a description:

How might society benefit if children were recognized as independent thinkers, capable of seeing clearly and contributing in valuable ways to our world? How would children’s lives change if what they said was not often ignored or patronized? 
In a series of conversations with children about many of life’s important philosophical questions, Seen and Not Heard reveals children as perceptive and original philosophical thinkers. Guided by discussions about the meaning of childhood, friendship, justice and fairness, happiness, and death, the book considers how listening to children’s ideas can expand our thinking about societal issues and deepen our respect for children’s perspectives. 
In the United States and around the world, ageism remains a widespread prejudice, leading us to make assumptions about, dismiss, and underestimate the perspectives of people of particular ages, including children. Before they utter a word, their voices are judged as less important than those of adults, or as not important at all. Seen and Not Heard invites us to rethink our beliefs about children and become more receptive to the ways we can learn from the children in our lives. 

The book will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in early 2021.

This spring was for us at the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, like it was for many people, a launch into education via Zoom. Initially I was concerned that the interactive nature of my classes would not translate well to an online forum.

I have been surprised to find that facilitating philosophy discussions online, with both adults and with children, can be a powerful and meaningful experience. The conversations I had this spring were thoughtful, honest, and inspiring. I learned a great deal and was thrilled that a New York Times reporter wrote an article about our Philosophy Zoom classes for children. I'm anticipating our philosophy sessions online in the fall with far more excitement and far less apprehension than I felt last spring.