Sowing the seeds of philosophy

(Edmonton) The quintessential philosophy question, of whether a tree makes a noise if it falls in the forest and there’s no one to hear it, can’t be asked early enough for Rob Wilson.

To help expedite exposure to that and other philosophical dilemmas, the professor in the Department of Philosophy is using money received from the University of Alberta’s Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund to set up a Community-Service Learning program that sees philosophy students venture into elementary school classrooms to promote critical thinking.

Entitled Building Collaborative Communities for Critical Inquiry, the TLEF project began with participants from four classes in the Department of Philosophy this year and extends to students in the Faculty of Education next year. It explores the potential of simultaneously integrating collaborative philosophical inquiry into post-secondary and elementary classrooms and that integration’s impact on for university-student engagement.

Wilson says the project will dovetail a push in Alberta schools to teach critical thinking as an integral part of a students’ collaborative learning environment. Capitalizing on foundational partnerships forged over the past three years between Philosophy for Children Alberta, the Department of Philosophy, Community Service-Learning and Alberta school boards and schools, Wilson adds this project is geared to translate into lasting benefits to students at the U of A beyond the term of the project itself.

“We will send philosophy students into classrooms where elementary students are taking the same kinds of subjects,” said Wilson. “Just as education students do practicums in classrooms to learn hands-on experience about being teachers, our idea is to do that with critical thinking. Active participation is the key thing.”

Wilson says this project falls outside a traditional education in philosophy, and is going to sharpen and develop a whole set of skills that his students may not otherwise have.

“It is a way for university students to see how what they’re learning in the classroom has immediate benefits in other contexts and gives students a set of skills that you can carry with them,” said Wilson. “We have a lot of rhetoric around these types of concepts, like collaborative learning and lifelong learning, but actually putting them into play is harder than you might think.

“This is a very concrete, grounded way to have our students feel like they’re members of communities, to see themselves as contributing and therefore to change themselves as learners, and change in a very hands-on way.”

Wilson says the project has the added benefits of supporting school teachers who have concerns about leading open-ended philosophical discussions, and reaching grade-school kids who have been marginalized

“I have never been with someone who is not impressed by what comes out of the mouths of kids in these classrooms,” said Wilson, adding it has been his experience that the children thought to be quieter or more withdrawn by their teachers often shine the most. “They say these things that sound a little weird at first, but you run with it and they come up with the most amazing stuff. Then they’re hooked and they’re not so ostracized, they’re beaming and the teacher is going ‘wow.’”