Headlights — The Educators Blog

Jewish Studies elicit young children’s philosophical reasoning

Elaine R. S. Cohen, EdD, is the Solomon Schechter Day School Association Executive and has worked as its lead professional since 2003. She is the former Head of School of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union, in NJ.

Elaine R. S. Cohen, EdD.

Last week’s New York Times Education Life supplement (4-18-10) featured am article by Abby Goodnough entitled “The Examined Life, Age 8.” The story cited the work of a professor of philosophy, Thomas E. Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College. Together with his students, he structures classroom discussions with young children in ways that lead them to ponder big questions. As I read through the examples of inquiry based conversations about ethical issues that occur in the second grade classroom of a charter school where Prof. Wartenberg conducted his study, I kept saying aloud to myself “This is everyday practice in Schechter day schools at their best!”

Goodnough acknowledges that for more than 30 years, a philosopher named Matthew Lipman argues that children could think abstractly at an early age that the philosophical questioning could help them develop reasoning skills. Yet it appears from the two-page feature that it is still uncommon practice to engage young children in open-ended questioning about philosophical matters, such as how we should treat natural objects.

In Schechter day schools we often teach big ideas through the study of Torah as well as through children’s literature. The avenues for this kind of philosophical inquiry are many and lead to fascinating explorations. A couple of examples from the MaToK Bible curriculum demonstrate how an inquiry-based approach empowers students as interpreters of the Biblical passages that they encounter. Third-graders first examine the text itself, as in the prohibition to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the book of Beresheet not to eat of the tree of knowledge. Then the teacher asks the children “What kind of knowledge should people not have?” The students’ responses then lead to further questioning in a learning environment that values their ideas.

The Times article highlighted a discussion about whether inanimate objects have feelings through the example of The Giving Tree, a well known children’s book by the author Shel Silverstein. This reminded me of the midrash that is often taught to children about why the challot on the Shabbat table are covered before Kiddush is said over wine. There is an allegorical interpretation that we go out of our way to protect the bread (an inanimate object) from being “insulted” by the fact that the blessing over wine takes precedence. The notion that the bread has feelings leads to making connections with the children’s lives. How do the choices that they make protect them from embarrassment or expose them to it? How might this example lead them to a discussion about displaying the same sensitivity toward the feelings of other people? In this challah example, teachers want to elicit as many ideas as possible about what can and cannot be learned from this mini-story.

When day school educators are asked whether time spent on Jewish Studies is time take lost from core subject areas in General Studies, we often reply that in Jewish day schools, the reasoning skills that children acquire in Jewish Studies transfer and apply to all areas of the curriculum. They become strong independent thinkers who engage in nuanced ethical reasoning. The NY Times article offers strong support for this claim. Professor Wartenberg says that “philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests.” He asserts that his program gives “kids a way to figure out what they think, support their own views and reason with one another.” Without calling what we do “philosophy lessons”, we work to cultivate in young children the very skills, abilities and ethical sensitivity in a seamless and totally integrated way.

I invite Schechter educators and other day school teachers and principals to share additional examples from their classrooms that give further evidence of how our students are encouraged to think about complex, open-ended issues, discuss and debate them, and learn to respect what their classmates say.


The Examined Life, Age 8 at the New York Times

“Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” (Rowman & Little field, 2009)

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