A couple of days ago, I taught my very first philosophy for children in my daughter's school. It is a bilingual (Dutch-English) international school in Amsterdam, and it has a very international group of students. The children were in upper primary, aged 9 to 11. I'll here describe how I approached teaching the class, and the children's and parents' reactions. First, I convened with the teacher about a suitable topic. They have a subject called "intercultural competence" which has different themes. The theme now was the Dutch dike system, which is a wonderful system of shared governance, instated after a deadly flood in 1953. So we decided that I would teach political philosophy (Locke, Rawls, Nozick), to have some connection with the dike system.
I started the class by letting children come up with examples of rights they enjoyed, and we explored some
of these examples a bit further (e.g., their right for schooling, healthcare, and several children mentioned women's rights, freedom of speech), which gave me the opportunity to briefly introduce some relevant people, e.g., "John Stuart Mill also thought freedom of speech was important, because…" We talked about what justice would be, and I introduced Plato's concept of justice.
The children were then divided into five groups of about five each (teacher helped to put children in groups that liked being together and worked well) to simulate the state of nature (source of this exercise here).
We imagined we were in a little Dutch neolithic village, where the only food for winter was a pond with fish (simulated by a paper bag with 15 cardboard fish, about 5 cm long each). Each family was to catch fish they would dry for the winter. If they caught 3 fish they would be comfortable, 4 was too much, but 2 was too little. If the group had only 2 fish, one member (a child or elderly person) would likely die. The settlement was told that they needed to leave 2 fish so the pond could repopulate next spring, and were told how many fish there were in the bag. They were then asked to calculate if that meant there was enough for everyone.
Once they established (quickly) that this wasn't the case, the children could discuss in their groups how many fish they took, before I went around with my bag. They were not allowed to talk to the other groups, and they could not see how many fish the others had taken until everyone had taken their share.
In round 1, to my surprise, there were 2 fish left. Of the 2 groups who showed restraint and had only taken 2, I asked a child from each group to get up and leave their tables (simulating their demise), waiting by the side. In the next round, you can imagine, everyone took 3 fish and there was nothing left in the pond. I then introduced to them Locke's concept of the state of nature (briefly) and asked the children who had only taken 2 fish how they felt ("it sucked pretty bad").
So then, I asked them for solutions of what to do. Some children wanted to introduce a leader in charge of dividing up the fish fairly (2.6 fish per group). Someone else suggested sending out small parties of people to explore for better land. I had them discuss in a big group if they should leave or try to move to a better place, and said that it was really more practical if everyone staid or went (given division of labor in the group, for example). One group refused to leave. This gave me the opportunity to introduce the concept of the social contract, and Locke's ideas about majority votes.
In a next exercise, we discussed Markus Persson, the inventor of Minecraft (a game many of these children
play or have played), and whether he should keep a lot of the money he earned, or should be taxed highly to help the poor. Many children went along Nozick's lines of saying that he should get proper compensation for his efforts, and how great Minecraft was and how well people like it, and why should he be taxed heavily? It would be disincentivizing creative work that benefits us all.
I then asked 10 children to sit on 10 chairs, standing close together, and told them that this is how it would be if everyone had exactly the same wealth. I then told them the situation in the Netherlands was different, and showed them a graph, indicating that the top 10% hold 60% of the wealth. One tall boy was instructed to lie across 6 chairs, the remaining 9 children were asked to try to sit on the 4 chairs that were left. I asked them how they felt and if they thought this was fair. They said no. I asked the boy on the 6 chairs if he thought it was fair, he said, well maybe I could do with 4 or so chairs, or maybe 5.
This was the point where introduced Rawls' veil of ignorance, and asked children if they did not know where they'd end up how many chairs the top 10% should have. Some children were strongly egalitarian. An American girl, however, was saying that people should get proper reward and incentive for their work and it wouldn't be fair if someone who sat home all day doing nothing would get exactly the same - so she thought 30, maybe 40% would be fair. Many children concluded that even there there should be limits on what someone can inherit.
- Teaching 9 to 11 year olds is very tough. They are restless and likely to talk out of turn and the class can quickly turn into chaos. Huge respect for primarily school and middle school teachers!
- If you want to introduce philosophy in the classroom, it really pays off to do something related (even if indirectly) to what they are currently learning. Good communication with the teacher is crucial.
- Also during the class, collaboration with the children's teacher can be very beneficial. For one thing, very few of us are trained to deal with how to keep an orderly classroom. The teacher stepped in a few times (when I could not restore order). She also made a few references to what they were learning, for instance, the special dike tax that all Dutch citizens pay to keep everyone's feet dry.
- The feedback I received from parents was uniformly positive, e.g., that their child was talking about the philosophy class all the way to home, or during the dinner. They wanted more! I would have probably done a few more classes, if I weren't moving house and country in a few months.
- I had prepared slides but ended up using none of them. It was all discussion and interaction, which is better for this age group. You can provide a slide with what Mill said, or you guide the conversation to facilitate children coming up with things similar to what Mill said (which happened for several philosophers).
Given the large benefits for teaching children philosophy, it would be helpful if philosophy could be a standard package in education. We can raise awareness of how good philosophy in the classroom can be, by going out there and putting ourselves forward (in my case, I just talked to the teacher and asked if she was interested in such a class - she was very enthusiastic about the idea and she's going to use the notes she made this class to do something similar next year).