Friday, January 7, 2011

Book Review: Big Ideas for Little Kids

Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy through Children's Literature by Thomas E. Wartenberg. Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc., 2009, 150 pages, $24.95 US.

Brief overview of content:

In this book, Thomas Wartenberg describes the process he has developed for teaching elementary school students (first to fifth grades) basic philosophical topics and ways of thinking and communicating. This is accomplished by a guided classroom discussion of popular children’s picture and chapter books. In the first part of the book, he gives his overall point of view: Children are naturally inquisitive which is precisely what you want for philosophy. They are natural-born philosophers. The classroom atmosphere then needs to be more learner-centric, where the students seek out knowledge under the guidance of the teacher, rather than teacher-centric, where knowledge is moved from the teacher into the student by a highly controlled process. He then discusses how to play the “game of philosophy” (see the rules below), wherein the children learn to discuss and refine and defend their points of view on certain topics. They learn to engage in a philosophical dialogue.

In the second part of the book, he reviews the basic curriculum he has developed, provides some guidance and samples for lesson plans, and describes how to lead a philosophical discussion. The great thing here is his explanation that even if you know nothing about philosophy, you can still facilitate a philosophical classroom discussion. His undergraduate education students do it all the time without previous philosophical training and you can too.

In the third part of the book, he goes through eight children’s books and the philosophical topics to which they apply. Sets of appropriate discussion questions are included for each book. These are not the only books that can be used. Each year his students use these books but substitute in one new book and develop a lesson plan and teaching resources around that new book. This information is then posted on his website, so there is always an expanding set of resources and texts to use.

The book has an appendix with a list of helpful books and websites and a list of references (though there are no footnotes in the book).

Author overview:

Blurb from the back of the book: “Thomas E. Wartenberg is professor of philosophy at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, and has been working with educators on teaching philosophy for children for more than a decade. He is a member of the American Philosophical Association Committee on Precollege Instruction in Philosophy, and his other books include Existentialism and Thinking on Screen.”


1. Read cover to cover vs. consult as needed.

The first two parts are fairly linear and need to be read as wholes in order to get the benefit of what he’s written. The third part, where he goes over how to use individual stories, is easily read out of order and can be consulted as needed if you want to try it out with a group of children and already have one of the books mentioned.

2. Readability.

For the product of a philosophy professor, this book is delightfully non-technical and highly readable. He’s still precise in what he says but doesn’t get mired down in special philosophical language.

3. Helpful to a parent?

In case you didn’t know it, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates was executed by the Athenian government for impiety and corrupting the youth. He was considered a gadfly who constantly pestered anyone he met with questions, trying to figure out what they really thought and if they were logically consistent. Often he would tie them in uncomfortable mental knots from which they could not escape. If this wasn’t annoying enough, he taught others, especially young punks like Plato, to do the same. So let that be a warning to you: if you teach your child to parlay like a philosopher, you’d better be ready to argue out your own opinions and decisions. “Mommy said so” and “Daddy said so” won’t cut it once you’ve gone down this route. On the other hand, you will have a more intelligent and expressive child. “Precocious” is the word for that, isn’t it?

4. Did we use it?

Jacob and Lucy are still too young for this, but I would like to try it out. It seems like you need a group of kids in order to achieve the proper effect. Maybe we can get a playgroup together and experiment on them. Finally, the tables will be turned! Though turning your children into philosophers is probably a lot better for them than your children turning you into zombies is for you.

Sample text

On the rules for the “game” of philosophy:
1. State your position on an issue—that is, answer a question that has been asked—in a clear manner after taking time to think.
2. Figure out if you agree or disagree with what has been said.
3. Present a real example of the abstract issue being discussed.
4. Present a counterexample to a claim that has been proposed.
5. Put forward a revised version of a claim in light of criticism.
6. Support your position with reasons. [table 4.1 on p. 33]

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