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Philosophy and Children: The Art of Questioning

Paper Fortune TellerAlmost all very young children are alive with questions; they seem to naturally recognize that this is the way to investigate and understand the world.

At some point, however, most children absorb the message that questions are often not particularly welcome. They learn that having a question means that there is something they should have already grasped but have not.

Asking questions publicly broadcasts what they don't know, and this has the potential to be somewhat shameful, or at least embarrassing. And so they go silent. Walk into a sixth grade classroom, and it’s obvious that students pose questions with a tentativeness absent in kindergarten.

However, the ability to construct good questions is indispensable for navigating one’s way through contemporary life. Developing confidence and skill in questioning allows children to evaluate critically the constant flood of information that bombards them, gather what they need to make good decisions, and convey what gaps remain in their understanding of particular topics or situations.

The more accomplished a child becomes at framing good questions, the more able he or she will be to think clearly and competently for herself.

Engaging children in conversations motivated by their questions and encouraging them to articulate their questions is vital for helping children develop the ability to formulate and pose clear and articulate questions.

Often a considerable part of a philosophy session with children will be spent listing the children's questions and then choosing which question(s) to discuss.

It can be easy, sometimes, in the goal-driven society in which we live, to see this part of the session as a precursor to the real work, the philosophy discussion itself. When I first began doing philosophy in K-12 classrooms, I was often impatient about the time it took to get all the students’ questions on the board and decide what to discuss.

I've come to understand, however, that the time spent helping children formulate their own questions is in the end just as valuable as the time spent actually talking about them. For one thing, learning to articulate questions in a clear way, so that your question accurately describes whatever it is that’s puzzling you, is an important skill that can only be developed with experience.

Moreover, devoting time to really understanding a child’s question lets him or her know that asking questions is itself a valuable practice, quite apart from the discussion of them (let alone answering them).

So much of primary and secondary education emphasizes knowing the answers, as if we had utter clarity about the meaning of most aspects of life.

But, as philosopher Matthew Lipman once noted, it is when our knowledge of the world is revealed to be “ambiguous, equivocal, and mysterious,” that children are most inspired to think about the world.

Questions are the keys to articulating that ambiguity and mystery. Philosophy can illuminate for children how vital questions are to examining the world in which we live and our place in it, and help them to cultivate their inclinations to question.

janamoreJana Mohr Lone is the director and founder of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children, part of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Washington. Since 1995 she has taught philosophy to K-12 students in Seattle and run programs to introduce teachers, parents, grandparents, college and graduate students, and others to methods for bringing philosophy into young people's lives. She is the author of The Philosophical Child, a book for parents and grandparents about having philosophical exchanges with children. She writes the blog Wondering Aloud: Philosophy with Young People. She is the president of PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization), a national organization that advocates and supports introducing philosophy to young people.

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