Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Philosophy and Happiness

One of my absolute favorite things to do is listen to the weekly radio show Philosophy Talk on the local public radio station in the Bay Area.  They also have a massive back list of shows you can download and I listen to them on long car rides and runs. It is the perfect show for the armchair philosopher who enjoys the topic but lacks the time to study it on a serious level. Today's topic was "Philosophy for Children" and I pulled out two interesting points for discussion.

First, the show was taped in front of a live audience of fourth graders in Seattle, Washington. These students have regular classes on philosophy and are encouraged to think and play with topics and questions. One of the questions the students debated was "Mind and the Brain". It was truly remarkable to hear the pointed and brilliant observations of the young. I think it just goes to show that young people have creative minds that are just bursting with ideas. Unfortunately, there are very few opportunities for students to think for themselves and wrestle with material. In fact, the structure of education today squashes such creativity. When they are engaged and given the chance to really ponder material without fear of "losing points" magical things can happen. What I heard was young fourth graders enthusiastically learning and discussing complicated matters. It was awesome.

Secondly, I wondered if I allow my students to really think like this? I like to think of myself as a teacher who pushes real learning but all to often I bend to things like grades and standards. What can I do to foster meaningful discussion and authentic, unique thought? Are students comfortable to voice their true opinion? Do they even think of their own opinions? Or have they been conditioned to give me stock answers? One of the questions asked during the show was, "What is happiness?" Is it a feeling or a quantifiable condition? What are the connection between morality and happiness? Do we ever stop and ask our students what makes them happy? Do we reflect on it ourselves? I invite all teachers to forget about "standards" for at least 30 minutes after winter vacation and have that conversation with your students. If you have fostered a community where thinking and learning is the norm you may be as awestruck as I was listening to the show today. And for those of us that use blogs, wikis, twitter why not have students post their philosophical musing without the threat of a grade.

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