A few weeks ago, after Mind Bubble’s Spring 2017 tutoring wrapped up, I turned my attention to summer workshop planning. I’d wanted to run a middle school philosophy workshop since our workshops program began, so I decided to run an epistemology workshop on 5/19 (this past weekend). The closest I’d ever come to teaching pre-college philosophy before this was several years ago when, encouraged by the administration at Georgia Highlands College (where I worked at the time), I went into a public high school English class in Douglasville, GA to lead a short group discussion on bioethics in hopes of drumming up greater interest in GHC. But high school students and middle school students are vastly different (and a Mind Bubble workshop has a vastly different environment from a high school English class), so this experience alone wasn’t terribly helpful as I started to prepare my workshop.
Overall, I think the workshop went well, and I got some very positive feedback from the students that attended. I had a great experience, one that I hope to repeat again as soon as possible without annoying the students who’d rather that our workshops focus on STEM topics or creative writing. So I want to list here a few things that I learned from this experience, both for others who might be interested in this kind of pre-college philosophy and for myself to consult before I run another one of these workshops:
- Middle school students are, on the whole, a lot more capable of picking up on philosophical content and methodology than I assumed they would be. We talked a little bit about theories of truth, which led to a disagreement between two students about the best account of truth, and, unprompted, one of the students suggested that the best way to deal with this disagreement over the definition was to draw a distinction between two different notions of truth that people frequently conflate. That this student was able to use a powerful and frequently-used tool from the philosophical toolbox without my having to set it up in any way speaks volumes to the philosophical sophistication of middle school students. Underestimate them at your own peril.
- Turn everything you can into a game. I introduced the students to two games in my workshop: the first, which I learned about back in grad school, I called “the counterexample game” (though I’ve heard it called by different names). In this game, a group of students works together to figure out the definition for a tricky term by adding necessary conditions for that term one by one (and proposing counterexamples that show that these necessary conditions are not yet jointly sufficient) until a counterexample-free definition has been reached. The second game, on epistemic justification, was based on a post I found on PLATO (https://www.plato-philosophy.org/teaching-middle-school-philosophy/). Students wrote down something they believed on a notecard, then wrote three reasons they had for believing it on the back of the card. I collected and read the reasons out to the whole group, encouraging them to guess the belief from the justification given. I then used this exercise as a jumping off point for a broader discussion of justification. I found that the counterexample game worked better for my students at this workshop than the justification game did, but both seemed to really engage the students, and they picked up on the philosophical value of each exercise pretty quickly. So I think, no matter the focus of a philosophy workshop or lesson plan, gamifying the material for a middle school audience seems to be a great way to drive student engagement.
- Go easy (really easy) on the formalism. This one is hard for me because one of the things that drew me to analytic philosophy in the first place is the fact that I found the formalism so intuitive. I found it incredibly helpful when accounts of knowledge expressed their focus as making sense of claims like “S knows that P”. But as smart and philosophically sophisticated as middle school students are (see point 1), many struggle with new terms or formalism. It helps to take a broad view of what counts as “formal” here: few of my middle school students had taken algebra, so just the use of variables seemed to lose a few of them. This warning may not be necessary to those of you with better sense than I had, but as I made my workshop presentation (and then revised it again after giving it), I had to go back and remove formalism over and over again.
- Some collegiate pedagogy generalizes. A number of techniques that I’ve found effective for teaching material to college students work equally well with middle schoolers. Small group discussions and punctuating your presentation with questions that generate class discussion at regular intervals worked well in my workshop, and I use these techniques all the time in my face-to-face philosophy courses. So don’t think that, just because the students are middle schoolers, you have to throw everything you know about effective pedagogy out the window if you’re used to teaching at the collegiate level.
- Be flexible. Leave lots of time for discussion, but have plenty of extra material to cover just in case you happen to have a workshop or class full of students who are reluctant to speak up. Over half of my workshop attendees were energetic and talkative, and our conversations could have lasted even longer than they did if I’d let them, but there were certainly a couple students who weren’t as excited to share their thoughts with the whole group. Having a contingency plan in case you end up with a whole room full of those students seems like a good idea. Just don’t let this extra material you have prepared as backup force you to cut a good discussion short.
- The specific topic doesn’t matter as much as whether you care about it and whether you can relate it to something relevant to your students. Before my workshop, I was worried that, by choosing to run the workshop on epistemology, I was setting myself up for failure. Most of the materials I found online for teaching philosophy to middle schoolers seemed to focus on topics in ethics or social and political philosophy, which made me worried that the topic of the workshop would be too advanced for middle schoolers. But the students were engaged from fairly early on with the material, which I attribute, at least in part, to the fact that I was able to tie it into things they already cared about (with this particular group, those things seemed to be the video game Fortnite, the latest Marvel movie, and the fact that the school year was almost over). I’m fairly confident that, given the right instructor, these students could tackle topics in a diverse array of philosophical subfields (though don’t expect me to run a philosophy of physics workshop for middle schoolers anytime soon – I think it can be done, and done well, but I currently have no idea what such a workshop would look like).
- Play around with the workshop and have fun! There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of material out there about how to effectively teach philosophy to middle school students, but, on the plus side, this means those of us who do have the opportunity to teach philosophy to middle schoolers should feel free to experiment. Try exercises that you’re not sure will work, and then share the results with others so that, at the very least, we’ll all know what not to do.
I’m sure I’ll think of additions to this list as I reflect on my experience in the weeks and months to come, but this seems like a good start. And if you have suggestions of what has worked (or hasn’t) when you’ve taught pre-college philosophy, I’d love to hear them!