KOKOMO, Ind. —More than half of the children in Debbie Newby’s class think spiders are beautiful. The rest of the third-graders think spiders most definitely are not beautiful — not in the least.
During a conversation led by students in an Indiana University Kokomo philosophy class, “Team Spider” talked about the colors, patterns, and function of the arachnids, all of which contribute to their beauty. “Team No Spider” shuddered as they brought up the sticky webs, the long legs, the potential to bite, and the general creepiness of spiders.
Could both sides be right?
That was just one of the questions considered during a discussion circle at Elwood Haynes Elementary, facilitated by students in Joshua Mugg’s Philosophy for Children class.
“We’re trying to encourage a passion that’s already there,” said Mugg, lecturer of philosophy. “At some point in education, that light gets snuffed out. Then college teachers spend a lot of time trying to reignite that spark. It’s hard to restart the fire. It’s easier to get to kids who still have it, fan the flames, and encourage wonder.”
They also teach the right way to discuss issues that they don’t agree upon, in a way that is respectful to all participants.
“One of the things we’re teaching is how to disagree constructively,” said IU Kokomo student Riley Gabel. “They’re learning how to talk when they disagree, instead of yelling. They can show why their side is valid.”
The first half of the semester, students studied Philosophy for Children curriculum, reading and discussing it, practicing discussion circles, and planning lessons for third-graders and fifth-graders.
During one session, Baylee Harbaugh led conversation of the question “What is beauty?” The third-graders sat in a circle on the floor, waving their hands to be called on for their contributions.
There is a lot of talk of puppies, a new baby sister, people, and eventually, spiders, which is when two students disagree.
“Could both of them be right, because it’s based on an opinion?” Harbaugh asked, as children nod in agreement.
And it’s possible to change your opinion, Mugg told them.
“I will agree with you. You’ve convinced me,” he said. “Spiders are beautiful, if they keep their distance from me.”
The IU Kokomo students noted they were nervous during their first weekly meeting with the children, worried they wouldn’t participate, or that they would be more interested in talking about their own subjects. They’ve been more engaged each week.
“They’re paying attention to what’s going on,” said Lorena Luna-Santana. “They’ve become more respectful waiting for someone else to finish talking, and they’re sitting still and listening. They seem to want to learn.”
Senior Ethan Dubbels said children think learning means memorizing information and using it to pass a test, which makes education boring, and can lead them to think there is only one right answer.
“We’re trying to awake a passion for learning and discussion among them,” he said. “We’re introducing them to reasoning and logic, and being able to disagree constructively.”
Newby, whose third-graders participated in the program, has noticed a difference in her students.
“They have become much better listeners, especially when listening to other students’ opinions, and they are much better about waiting their turn to speak when working in groups,” she said. “I have also noticed that they are not as quick to argue and/or judge when another student offers an opinion different from what they believe.”
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.