Episode 3 - Jana Mohr Lone - Philosophy for Children

Alan: Hello everyone! Welcome to In Limbo Conversations! Today, we have with us Dr Jana Mohr Lone. She is from the University of Washington in Seattle and she is the Director for the UW Center for Philosophy for Children. She's also an Affiliate Associate Professor of philosophy. She's also the founding President of Plato Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization, which is a non-profit focused on bringing philosophy to schools which is a very exciting idea. Welcome Dr Lone! It's really nice to have you here for this conversation.

Jana: Thank you! I'm glad to be here.

Alan: Just to begin, if you could tell us about the work that the Center for Philosophy for Children does and maybe a little bit about your larger work as well, because it's really interesting and I haven't found too many people who do the work that you do. So I think it's quite nice! Could you just tell us a little bit about that?

Jana: Sure! The Center was founded in 1996. It became part of the University of Washington soon after that. We are an academic research center at the university. We're affiliated with the Department of Philosophy, but our work is multifaceted. On the one hand, we host international scholars who are interested in philosophy with children. We host conferences and workshops and we do a lot of teacher education work. We have a workshop that we do every June as well as an ongoing monthly seminar with teachers and various other programs that reach educators.

We also have philosophers in the schools program which brings University of Washington faculty graduate students and undergraduate students, once they are trained to do so, into local public schools to engage in philosophy sessions with children. Then, we also host the Washington State High School Ethics Bowl which involves high school students from aound the region engaging with each other in conversations about various ethical issues based on ethics cases. We also have a Parent Education Program. So, we do a lot of work with parents and grandparents around children's philosophical questions and how to have these kinds of conversations with your children.

Our larger goal is to help to have children's voices taken more seriously because one of the things that we believe is that children have very strong philosophical inclinations when children are young. We all know children ask these big why-questions, when they're four or five years old and actually those questions often are echoes of issues the children are wondering about. These are issues that are kind of the larger philosophical issues of our lives, questions about ethics, questions about life's purpose, questions about death etc and what I found in my work over the years is that if you really listen to what children have to say, there's a lot we can learn from them because they approach these questions with an openness that comes from being so new to the world. I think, as adults, it tends to get diminished, so the work is in large part to empower children. It is help them to develop confidence in expressing what they think, to have an expectation that they will be heard and to gain greater skill at being able to express their views, to give good reasons for them and be willing to take into account other perspectives which might be very different from their own.

Alan: That's very interesting! I wish there were more efforts and initiatives that worked on this, especially the whole social, not just the institutional part, but even the personal talking to parents. I think it's pretty important- that's really good. Professor, before we really get into some questions, this is one really interesting concept I came across in your work which is "philosophical sensitivity". Could you explain to us what you mean by that? Because I think it's a really important part of what you're doing and it's sort of the core tenet.

Jana: I'm glad you asked about that. So, a little background on this conception. When I first started really thinking about the larger deeper questions that surround this work, one of the questions that I often get asked and that I really think about a lot is what do you need to be able to lead philosophical conversations. What makes someone equipped to facilitate a conversation with children or adults or anyone? I can say when I go into a school or a classroom or a group of adults, "Well, I have a PhD in philosophy. That that qualifies me." But is that necessary or is it even sufficient for doing philosophy in the way we do it?

One way that we engage in philosophical conversations, whether it's with children or with adults, is very different from kind of the standard model in an undergraduate philosophy education or graduate school education. These often tend to be- tend to read the great philosophers, understand their arguments and be able to engage with them in that way and that's all very important, but of course, that would be pretty hard to do with five-year-olds. I think there are also some limits to that way of doing philosophy. "Limit" maybe is a strong word- more that I think it's not the only way. The academy holds on to that way of doing philosophy as The way- that's what makes you philosophically involved and I think that's a mistake. I think philosophy is not the province of the academy, it's part of being a human being and so, we engage in philosophical thinking all the time right?

When we think about, say, 'Is this person really a good friend?' or 'What's the right thing to do or what am I doing here in the first place, on this planet?' etc- those are all philosophical questions and everyone at some point in life asks those questions of themselves or at least questions like those. So I think that in order to lead a conversation around those questions, it's important to be what I call philosophically sensitive. But that's different from being a philosophical expert, because a philosophical expert, for example, someone with a PhD might think it's really important, when engaging in questions about the purpose of lifem, to start to talk about what Kant had to say or what Hume had to say and of course, for some people, they're not that interested in what the great philosophers had to say- at least not in some very detailed way of explaining their arguments. They're more interested in the questions themselves.

One of the things that brought me into this work in the first place was when I was in graduate school, I felt like there were things about graduate school that made me lose touch with the reason I was there in the first place- which was that I was really passionate about the questions and that graduate school, while there- that was a part of it, it wasn't the central part of it. The central part of graduate school often was showing how philosophically sophisticated you were and how much you knew about philosophy.It wasn't really very interesting to me. Actually at the time I started listening to my child- I had very young children at the time- my oldest son was four- I started listening to the things he was asking and I remember thinking that's what I'm interested in. I'm interested in talking about what makes someone brave or whatever. So, I started thinking about what is it that you need to leave these kinds of conversations which are question-focused, so that you don't need to necessarily know Descartes' dream argument or what the great philosophers have to say about the questions. But you do need to have sort of a philosophical sense, so I came up with this idea of philosophical sensitivity- which really is based on Aristotle's idea of moral perception.

On this idea, we have these perceptual capacities that can be developed over time with experience and training. For example, you might think an art critic has great artistic sensitivity- that person has cultivated over time a knowledge of the history of art, a way of seeing paintings. For example, that person could walk into a museum and see a work of art in a way that someone who is not trained in that way just doesn't see the same thing- they see something different. In the same way I think, the more that we think about these questions, the more we start to see. You know how it is in philosophy- the more you think about a question, the more you realize it contains many other questions. I think the more practice you get in thinking in that way, the more philosophically sensitive you become, such that when someone else is speaking to you, you hear the philosophy in what they're saying. Many times, children will make comments that, if you are not listening carefully and are not very attuned to the philosophical content of their speech, you'll miss it.

Another example is a naturalist- so you go walk for walk in the woods with someone who's trained in science and they see all kinds of relationships between the plants and the trees and the insects etc that you just miss. You may see other things but you don't see the detail and the whole web that the naturalist sees. I think in the same way the more that you work at this, the more you start to see all the questions within the questions and the way in which a very simple question, for example, asked by a child might actually contain within it layers of philosophical depth.

Alan: So, if you think about philosophical sensitivity, is it something that you can sort of inculcate or you can grow in a child or is it something that you think we all have? Like we have a germ and then all you have to do is sort of water it and bring it out?

Jana: It's a really good question. The honest answer is I'm not entirely sure but what I think is that everyone has some measure of philosophical sensitivity. For some of us, that is of greater interest than for others. The more that you cultivate it, the more it becomes a larger part of you- in the same way that everyone, for example, has some artistic ability but for some people, that ability is not something that they follow and cultivate and so it isn't as developed as someone who becomes, say, an artist. You can see when you meet people and it's not about them studying philosophy necessarily- it can be having the kinds of inquisitive conversations with other people or reading books in it with a certain perspective that cultivates this state of mind or this capacity. So, it's not that you have to become, as I say, a philosophical expert- it's that you have a way of seeing. I meet teachers all the time, for example, who have no background in philosophy but who have a great deal of philosophical sensitivity.

Alan: In that sense, what you're saying is you're not teaching children that two plus two is four but you're just teaching them how to add stuff. You find that it's more important that they think in certain ways.

Jana: Exactly, yes, although I don't even say we're teaching them. Teaching them is a certain we have a certain view of what teaching is, so even though I think that there can be questions and questioned and interrogated but given that we do see teaching in a certain way, I try not to actually use that term, because that term conjures up the expert at the front of the room which is really not the way in which we do this with children or with anyone. So, the idea really is to help the children to be able to articulate their questions.

If you're working with very young children, say preschool kindergarten, it's helping them to figure out what a question is and how you form a question and these kinds of things. Then, they may have lots of questions but they may not articulate them as questions necessarily- so,it's helping them to form their questions and then to be able to give good reasons for their questions and to be able to understand what a good reason is and what makes something a good reason and to be able to connect with what other students are saying, so that the conversation makes progress in a way and to help them see what that means. So, there are lots of skills involved in this.

I'm just finishing the manuscript of a new book and one of the things that I talk about in the book is that a lot of this is about listening and really being able to put your whole self into listening to what someone else has to say without starting from "Okay, when do I get to say what I want?" or "How do I respond?". Just really being able to listen wholeheartedly and I think that, if you can do that, then the conversation becomes, in some sense, owned by the children. You're not coming in with "Here's what we're going to talk about!" and "Here's what I want you to do!". You're really following their lead, being a guide- helping them to give reasons, pushing them when the reasons aren't very good, helping them to connect to each other, maybe providing counter examples and those kinds of things, but you're not there to teach them about free will or anything like that.

Alan: That is a great point and I do wish that that was a bit more prevalent and that people did think a lot more that way. Because I have been teaching the last three-four years and one thing that I've learned in those three-four years is that you can't really teach anything to people, you can only help them learn in that sense- I love that! Given the experience that I've had as well and what you have just told us, I agree that is the best way to be a teacher or an educator. So, that's very interesting and I do hope a lot more people see that and like you said, move the teacher away from the center and put the students at the center.

I would urge other people who are listening or watching this to really go and look at Dr. Lone's work. I think there's a lot to this idea of teaching. Not just how to talk to kids- but also this different approach on how to teach or how to even be a teacher, an educator in such a situation.You mentioned the website and that it has a lot of resources for people- so if you have certain questions, you can go there, check the questions and see those things. This brings me to a related question.

Generally as adults or as parents, our first reaction usually is to answer questions in a piecemeal fashion, for example, if you get a big question about something, the tendency is to just answer it, to give an answer and then move away, as though it's not a larger thing or anything. Is that the best way to do it or is there a more holistic approach where you encourage the child to think about it more as opposed to just giving them an answer and say, 'That's the big question for today.'

Jana: It depends. If a child is asking you, 'How do you tie your shoes?', then probably the simplest thing to do is show them how to tie their shoes and not turn it into a deeper conversation, because they're not asking for that. But if a child is, say, you're reading a story at the end of the day and the child asks a question like 'Why do people have to die'. I think often, adults do two things in response to that: one, we shy away from it because we don't really like to talk about death in the first place and we are also afraid that the child is going to get upset or get worried and so we provide a response that's meant to be comforting right like 'Well, that's not something you have to worry about for a long time.' or 'It's not going to happen to anyone you love for a long time.'. None of these are necessarily true but that's comforting- it is understandable. We don't want the child to go to sleep and anxious or worried. Or else, two, we might provide a simple answer like 'Well, you know that's the cycle of life and everything that lives.'.

Part of the reason for this way of responding is that as adults, we're used to being the advisors, the experts and so when a child asks a question, we think that our job is to provide an answer. When the question is a question that is like 'Why do people have to die?' or 'Why can someone be your friend one day and not your friend the next day?' or 'Why are people mean to each other?', these questions are questions for which we don't really have final answers and it's an opportunity to engage with your child or with children in your lives in a different way. So, rather than the initial providing the answer, you might just stop, pause, think about it for a minute, maybe ask a question like 'Well, so why do you ask that?' or 'What do you think?' and turn it into more of a shared inquiry. Turn it into a question that is really puzzling for all of us, as human beings.

I have three children and I found as they were growing up that those kinds of conversations lent the dimension to our relationship that was profoundly respectful- mutually respectful- so that, even though I was still their parent and there were times where we disagreed and I got to decide, there was a space in our relationship where we would have these kinds of conversations and we were more on an equal footing- because we were exploring together- each from our own perspectives. My perspective being one of someone with more life experience and maybe conceptual sophistication but their perspective of someone who doesn't assume they know a whole lot of things and is maybe more open to possibilities and more imaginative about thinking about various ways of resolving a question or a problem. So, together, we would be able to think about these questions in ways that were really mutually beneficial to both of us. I think that those kinds of opportunities are so important in parenting, grandparenting, teaching- any relationship- camp counselors, any relationship that you have with children.

Children so often get the message that they don't know anything, that what they think is really not of very much value, that their role in life is just to grow up and to develop into a healthy adult. All this is fine but childhood is not just becoming an adult. Childhood is an important time in itself and the more we can give children the sense that we value where they are right now and what they're thinking about- that's an enormous gift to give a child and it helps develop confidence in the way they see the world and in their own judgments and and also, a willingness to express what they think .

Alan: Thank you. That's a very nice answer. That not only looks at just how children think but also how it can, like you said, help our relations, help better relations with our children- something we don't really think about when we're answering these questions. What do you think really stops us from taking children seriously?

There is a quote that I saw in this article of yours on Business Insider where you shared a lot of quotes that you came across when you were talking to kids. Maybe I can pull up one of them- because one of them is this one where childhood is not just about them- it sort of shows that the break between being a kid and being an adult, how we leave something behind or as adults, we don't take some things along with us. Is there something that stops us from taking children seriously?

Jana: I think there are a couple of things and I will just name a few. They're actually in my new book- there's a chapter on childhood in which I talk about this very issue. There are larger excerpts from these conversations with children about the subject and the things they have to say about it. I think one element of this is that we are very much influenced by a developmental model of children, so we see children as in the process of becoming adults and we see them as kind of unfinished human beings gradually attaining the maturity of an adult as kind of the goal and so, we tend to pitch and hold children by "Oh well, that's how four-year-olds are." or "Yeah, well, look- she's only 10!". That kind of stops us from seeing them. It's the danger of a single story- we just see the child as the child, as opposed to a whole person, of which being a child is one part of that person's identity. It's not fully who they are. So, I think that's part of it- this whole developmental model that we're very deeply influenced by.

I think the other part of it you alluded to is that when we were children, we weren't very much listened to or taken seriously for the most part , unless we were quite fortunate and so we absorbed that message that children are to be seen and not heard. Children are not really valuable members of the community in terms of participants. They're valuable, in that, we all care about children- we want them to have healthy childhoods and grow up into healthy adults. Much of that is really future-focused- that we want to help them to grow into the adults, we aspire for them to become adults. It is not necessarily focused on how important childhood itself is, the experience that a child is having and the way in which that child might want to express their perspective on the world. We don't see that as particularly valuable in large part because our perspectives, when we were eight and ten, weren't seen as particularly valuable and maybe, we just haven't questioned that very much.

Alan: If I were to push this a bit, especially nowadays with the pandemic and we have a lot of questions from kids about big issues. Like you mentioned, even things about loneliness, not meeting friends, a lot of these big things but in general- if there are any other cardinal rules that you can put out, maybe a handful of them, for talking to children.

I think one of them you mentioned was listening, which is very important. Like that- are there a few things that, irrespective of the situation, an adult or a teacher can keep in mind when they're talking?

Jana: I think the other general rule that I try to pay attention to, although I am not always successful at it... We want to help children which is a laudable aspiration but as a result- Maria Montessori talks about this- about how unhelpful help can be sometimes for children. A child will be trying to articulate something and we'll think we know what the child is trying to say and so, will help by kind of finishing the sentence or saying 'Oh is this what you meant?'. It's a natural thing to do and I do it often but I really try to, I'm trying to be careful about it. Because I think, often, what can happen is we actually don't know what the child was going to say. And then, when we suggest what we think the child was going to say, the child- because the child has absorbed the idea that adults know best, will say 'Oh yeah! You're right. That's what I meant.' when in fact, it's not what the child meant at all. So, I think it's really important to be wary of how much we think we know about the child and what the child thinks and feels and is willing to share with us. We have to try to hold back as much as possible until the child has the space to say what he or she is trying to say.

Something that is true for both individual exchanges and also for teachers is to be comfortable with silence- to develop an ability to let there be pauses and and not need to jump in and fill them. Especially in western culture, that's a very strong tendency. I have it but I really work at it. I mean I will, when there's a pause in a conversation in the classroom. I'll let it sit and then, I'll start to get uncomfortable and so I'll let it sit some more until I get really uncomfortable. And I find that if I do that, then a child who is otherwise unlikely to speak will say something because that child just needed a space to think before being ready to speak.

For the pandemic, we do have on our website a little handbook that we put together with ideas for books and videos and other prompts or resources that parents might use to talk with their children about things like loneliness, isolation, illness, death or boredom and some of the other questions and issues that are coming up for children right now.

Alan: We will link all of these down in the description so if you're interested, please do go and check it out. It'll be on the video as well at the end of the website

So, it also sounds like this is kind of a reciprocal relation for us as adults when we're sitting and we're listening and helps us to investigate and interrogate our own assumptions by the sounds of what you're saying. If we give the child a space to speak, maybe we sort of encounter things we haven't thought about. So, that's also quite an interesting aspect of that.

So, I think that's it professor. I just have one small question. Has there been any question that you've had trouble answering with kids especially?

Jana: I have not been able to answer questions, sure- I mean- all the time. Children will ask questions that stop me or that, you know, maybe, I've thought about but I find equally perplexing. So, yes, I think that happens.

How do you just point to that, to a kid who comes up to you and assumes you have all the answers and they ask you a question? I actually had a great experience this winter, right before the pandemic, where I was in a third grade classroom and we were talking about thinking. What is a thought? How do you know you're thinking? What's the difference between thinking and feeling? and etc. At the end of it, one of the children raised her hand and she said "So, what's the answer?". I said "I don't know" and she said "What do you mean you don't know? You're a professor, you're supposed to have the answers.".

Alan: That's great professor. Thank you so much for talking to us. Thank you for taking out the time. I would encourage everyone to please go ahead and check out the resources that Professor Lone mentioned. We will link all of them in the description, so, do go out and check- they should help you to talk to your kids or anyone else and probably, get not just better relations but also help them answer, help them grow as individuals as well.Thank you doctor!

Jana: Thank you for this opportunity! It was really great!

Alan: Thank you.

For more details about Dr. Lone's work : https://phil.washington.edu/people/jana-mohr-lone

Also, check out her book "Philosophical Child": https://rowman.com/isbn/9781442217348/the-philosophical-child

Link to pandemic-related resources for parents (by Center for Philosophy for Children): https://www.philosophyforchildren.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Resources-for-Parents.pdf