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‘Philosophy for Kids’ Sparks Reasoning : Schools Adding Missing Fourth ‘R’ to Curriculum for Children

United Press International

The professor this day asked first graders what it would be like to know everything.

“Awful,” a little boy said.

“Why?” the professor asked.

“Because there would be nothing to wonder about,” the boy said.

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The exchange took place in a “philosophy for kids” course at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, S.C. The school is one of 4,000 nationwide that has adopted a curriculum pioneered by Matthew Lipman, professor at Montclair State College in Upper Montclair, N.J.

The Fourth ‘R’

Philosophy for kids is aimed at helping children reason, a skill many believe should be the fourth “R.” Research shows it may be the missing link in education and may hold the key to why an awful lot of Johnnies and Janies cannot read or add, subtract and multiply better.

Encouraging Discussion

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Many of those teaching philosophy for children have taken a teacher-training course designed by Lipman. Curriculum materials include novels written especially for the course and designed to raise questions and encourage discussion about life’s important topics--ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics, friendship, justice, love, truth.

“Kio and Gus,” the novel developed for children from kindergarten to fifth grade, tells about Kio, who visits his grandparents’ farm and becomes friendly with Gus, who lives with her family not far away. Gus, who cannot see, helps Kio become aware of the world as the blind experience it.

Among the contrasting concepts that Gus and Kio ponder are illusion and reality, fear and courage, saying and doing, and truth and beauty.

As a result of the intense interest shown by Kio and Gus in animals, space, time and many other aspects of nature, the book serves also as an introduction to science, the relationship between language and the world.

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Higher Test Scores

An evaluation of philosophy for children was conducted by researchers at Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, N.J. When reading and mathematical gains were compared in terms of average standard scores, experimental subjects made a 36% larger gain in mathematics than did control students, and the gain in reading was 66% larger.

ETS conducted another experiment in 1980-81. Involved were over 2,000 middle-school students who took a highly sensitive test of formal and informal reasoning. Children who had taken a one-year philosophy course had an 80% greater gain than other children.

Prof. Robert Mulvaney of the University of South Carolina says the subjects covered in philosophy raise down-to-earth questions that every human being raises some time in his life. Included, he said, are questions about human nature, moral responsibility, right and wrong, and individual destiny.

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James Ward, an education professor who teaches the Heathwood Hall course with Mulvaney, added: “We make every effort to have the class operate as an open dialogue, without too much dictation by the teacher. At times the level of operation is exciting, even startling.”

Thoughts on Thoughts

A third grader recently asked, “Your thoughts ‘are’ thinking, so how can you think about thoughts?”

And a sixth grader said: “A hundred years ago, black people were slaves. Now white people just won’t live in the same place with black people. Maybe in the next century, they’ll be friends.”

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