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March 13, 2014 at 5:00 AM

UW philosophers help small children ponder life’s big questions

Jana Mohr Lone guides a discussion at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle. Photo courtesy the University of Washington.

Jana Mohr Lone guides a discussion at John Muir Elementary School in Seattle. Photo courtesy the University of Washington.

Most people think of philosophy as a subject for college, not kindergarten.

But University of Washington philosopher Jana Mohr Lone believes young children benefit just as much from discussing big questions about life.

In 1996, she founded the Center for Philosophy for Children at the UW, which has grown steadily and this year is working in 18 public and private schools in the Seattle area. Last month, the center hosted Washington state’s first high school ethics bowl.

Lone also teaches a UW class on how to discuss philosophy with children, has written a book on the subject, and will lead an upcoming webinar for teachers on how to lead philosophical discussions about literature.

But the center’s mainstay are the regular visits that Lone, other UW faculty members and trained UW students make to about a half-dozen elementary and middle schools, where they help young students ponder questions such as whether people are good only because they fear the consequences of doing something bad, and whether mental work is really work.

Last Tuesday, for example, Lone led a discussion focused on the latter question with a class of fourth-graders at Seattle’s Whittier Elementary. She read students a storybook titled “Frederick” about a mouse that didn’t help gathering nuts for the winter and instead spent his time composing a poem that later brightened their moods on a dark winter day.

Students vied for a chance to answer questions such as: What is work? Is mental work really work, or just physical work? Why does Frederick’s poem warm the hearts of the other mice? Is that magic — or  imagination?

“It could be both magic and imagination,” said one girl. “I mean magic … not as in wizards, but as something you can do. Something you can make people feel.”

“He’s exercising his brain,” said a boy who sat a few rows away.  “They’re all getting ready for the winter, but they’re not doing the same things.”

Another boy declared that mental work can be work because “your mind can get tired.”

“Philosophy can do that to you,” he added.

Lone didn’t share her views — that’s not the point. Her goal is to help students learn how to think deeply about questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer.

She’s not promoting a relativist view, she said, just encouraging students to closely examine different ways of looking at the world. That’s not the same, she said, as saying all views are OK.

“We are trying to give students a way of approaching questions,” she said.

And the academic value?

Students learn to ask good questions and to determine what constitutes a good reason for holding a particular view, she said.

“In my view, there are not many more important skills in life than those skills.”

Comments | More in News | Topics: Center for Philosophy for Children, Jana Mohr Lone, philosophy

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