Part of my own internal dilemma as I seek to evolve toward becoming a 21st century educator is my own passion for ancient civilizations and traditional, liberal arts education.   Sometimes it seems that 21st century learning requires us to replace entirely content with skills, and to substitute forward-looking scientific learning for backward-looking history.  But I revere the accumulated wisdom of our world’s civilization, and I delight in the study of what brought us to where we are today.

But this is another place where I must avoid my tendency to falsely and mistakenly dichotomize; this is where I have to push harder to seek out the reconciling synthesis that lurks beneath superficial thinking like that of the previous paragraph.    Studying philosophy can indeed powerfully train 21st century minds to ask better questions and think deeper.  A good example is an article in this week’s Education Week, called “Philosophy Students Explore Big Questions,” which discusses developments in the teaching of philosophy at the secondary level.

This speaks directly to me; in fact eleven years ago I was the only secondary teacher to participate on a panel of the American Philosophical Association, alongside an array of college professors, on the topic of bringing more philosophical instruction into high school education.   And, now, as I seek to bring my own thinking more into alignment with the best of current best practices, I think there is still a place for good-old-fashioned philosophy learning– because it is an excellent discipline for critical thinking and inquiry.  The EdWeek article makes this case:

“We’re trying to show that kids who take philosophy do better on standardized tests because it improves critical thinking and creative thinking,” she said.

Mr. Gilliam and his classmates in the ethics class appear to have honed those thinking skills. After he expressed his view that philosophy is about finding answers to big questions, for example, some of the students who were listening to his remarks couldn’t resist challenging them.

“You think all of these questions have answers?” retorted Victoria Norman, who will be a 10th grader at the Byrn Mawr School, a private school in Baltimore.  “I think it’s more about the questions,” chimed in Stephen Cho, who is going into the 8th grade at John Ware Jr. High School in Calgary in Canada…

Mr. De Brigard said high school students have a “cognitive flexibility” that is conducive to philosophy that may be lost by the time some of them get to college.

“High school students make connections,” he said. “They try to think, as you American people say, ‘outside the box.’ They are trying to see, ‘How does this relate to my life, or a TV show, or something I studied in biology?’ ”

In a recent meeting of a logic class offered in the program, teacher William McGeehan directed two pairs of students to debate in front of their peers. The first pair considered whether fascination with celebrities is a “dangerous disease,” and the second disputed whether school uniforms are a good idea. Their classmates voted on the winners, and Mr. McGeehan, who has a master’s degree in philosophy, led a discussion to dissect the logic behind the students’ arguments.

He pointed out a “fallacy” in one argument and a “hasty generalization” in another. “Sometimes, less is more,” he noted. “You don’t want to lay down a string that can be shot down.”

Willa Nathan, 14, a student at the United Nations International School in New York City, had taken the side that a fascination with celebrities can be harmful. “Basically, we’re learning how to think,” she said after class. She enrolled in the logic class because “my dad majored in Chinese philosophy, and I wanted to hold up with him in an argument.”

She thinks the lessons will help her in English class, as well, to read for deep meaning in a text.

I have blogged before on philosophy instruction as true 21st century teaching (Learning Philosophy by Doing Philosophy).   Myself, I hope to find an opportunity in coming years to do this good work: to teach philosophy at the secondary level in a way that develop the creative and critical thinking our students need to thrive in the world they confront.   In the meantime, I am going to join a new network of pre-collegiate philosophy teachers that the APA and the Squire Foundation  is forming.