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.