The idea that philosophy is a suitable subject for children is a hard sell. But in France, where educators recognize the value of helping children understand a complex world, the practice is catching on.
FEBRUARY 26, 2019 - PARIS - Cédric Cagnat begins his philosophy class by lighting a white candle in the middle of a circle of a dozen 7- to 10-year-olds here in the Médiathèque Eugène Flachat, a library in the northern Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.
Children participate in a philosophy workshop led by the nonprofit Les Petites Lumieres, which works to introduce philosophy to young children. The practice is catching on in France, where libraries, nonprofits, and schools are offering philosophy workshops for young children.Morgan Fache/Les Petites Lumieres“What is philosophy?” he asks. The group stares wide-eyed at first, until Mr. Cagnat breaks down the concept into chewable pieces. Philosophy, he explains, is a chance to listen to one another and communicate. And today is unlike a regular day at school, where teachers often talk at students without asking for their input.
“How many times in your day do adults ask you your thoughts on things?” he asks. The room is quiet.
This class, “Humans versus Animals,” sponsored by nonprofit Les Petites Lumières, is part of a growing movement of teaching philosophy to children in France. Until recently, philosophy has been a subject reserved for high school or university students here. As part of the country’s national education curriculum, it is offered to French students in their last year of high school and has been a part of the exit exams, or baccalauréat, since Napoleon created the test in 1808.
But now, educators in France are pushing to make the subject more accessible to younger children, with classes and workshops at schools, nonprofits, and local libraries.
As larger societal questions – from terrorism and immigration to climate change – make their way into daily dinner-table discussions in France and around the world, philosophy is becoming an important means of breaking down and understanding complicated concepts for children. Learning philosophy at a young age has also been shown to improve school success.
“Teaching philosophy to children helps them to ask questions, develop empathy and a collective consciousness,” says Cécile Viénot, a Paris-based child psychologist. “We’re here to shape our future citizens. One day these children will be able to vote and make decisions about our society.”
For children, a natural fit
The practice of teaching philosophy to children got its start in the United States in 1974, when Matthew Lipman created the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State College in New Jersey.
Mr. Lipman’s method proposes reading philosophical narratives to children and encouraging them to respond with questions. Researchers across the globe have since devised their own methods. In South Africa and Spain, educators use picture books and visuals to stimulate philosophical thinking and dialogue. The Philosophy Foundation and Thinking Space, both based in Britain, use thought experiments – encouraging thinkers to explore a specific line of thought – and other games and activities to promote critical thinking skills.
Children create art in a philosophy workshop led by the French nonprofit Les Petites Lumières in the Petit Café du monde, in Paris, April 9, 2014. Learning philosophy young helps children develop empathy, ask questions, and has been shown to improve school success.Morgan Fache/Les Petites LumieresIn France, educators have strayed from Lipman’s teaching, turning most often to French philosopher Michel Tozzi’s approach, which encourages the Socratic method of inquiry. Here, the educator simply acts as a guide, asking probing questions to elicit responses from students without lecturing.
Yet until recently in France, the idea that philosophy was a suitable subject to teach children was a hard sell.
“There is often confusion about the difference between studying philosophic texts in school and philosophizing,” says Chiara Pastorini, the founder of Les Petites Lumières, a nonprofit devoted to teaching philosophy to children. “But asking philosophical, existential questions is so natural for children.”
The benefits of learning philosophy are wide-ranging – listening to others, being exposed to different points of view, building a better sense of self. These skills are especially important to how children view others.
Children become less self-focused between ages 8 and 10, and thus become more interested in others, says Ms. Viénot, the child psychologist. “This can cause fears of others, from personal things like harassment at school to societal questions on immigration and how they view people different from themselves,” she says. “Philosophy helps build children as citizens of society, to ask questions. From a very young age, children are completely competent to do so.”
Cognizant of that competence, Dr. Pastorini tackles relatively complex themes in her workshops, like violence, friendship, power, justice, and knowledge, to talk about concrete issues taking place in society.
“Philosophy can be used to talk about power at the time of elections – what it means to be a leader – or terrorism and violence,” says Pastorini, whose nonprofit saw a boom in interest after the Paris terrorist attacks in 2015. “The environment and our relationship to nature, or war, are also very important themes.”
Learning philosophy also has more concrete results, and can spell school success now and later. A 2015 British study by the Education Endowment Foundation showed that children who studied philosophy made more progress in math and reading compared with students who did not. Previous studies showed children who learned philosophy showed improvement in reading and logical reasoning skills.
“In the end, my children will take the [educational] path of their choosing, but I think it’s good for them to learn philosophy now versus 10 or 20 years from now,” says Abaida Touda, who brought Mounia, 10, and Mouad, 7, to the workshop in Asnières-sur-Seine. “It’s a way to put philosophy in their heads already.”
The movement has gotten an added boost in France since the University of Nantes created a post-undergraduate diploma in 2017 on teaching philosophy to children, in partnership with UNESCO. France now joins Quebec, Belgium, and the United States in offering an advanced degree on teaching philosophy to young people.
“Just like with any pedagogy, this type of teaching requires training in how to provide discipline or how to use educational materials,” says Edwige Chirouter, a philosophy lecturer at the University of Nantes and the director of the philosophy for children training program.
Though the benefits of learning philosophy young are increasingly recognized, the subject has yet to be integrated into France’s highly centralized national education system. But France’s vision of children is starting to change.
“For a long time, we have thought children are immature … that they’re a blank page and it’s up to us adults to fill it in,” says Viénot. “Philosophy classes for children are an asset because the adult becomes the passive listener and gives the child confidence to offer his or her opinions, and not the other way around.”