Can An Online Program Help Students Think Like Philosophers?

In Massachusetts, schools are using a new free online program to teach middle school students how to think like philosophers. The online program is developed by Tom Wartenberg and Julie Akeret.

The online program, What’s the Big Idea?, uses film clips to teach middle schoolers how to think like philosophers. The program trains teachers how to use films to spark active discussions where middle school students can “express their philosophical selves,” writes Barbara Solow of Gazettenet.

At JFK Middle School, a recent sixth-grade class watched a short movie about bullying, but the underlying lesson was about philosophy. Also, students in John Crescitelli’s technology class watched a short film clip about cyber-bullying, then tackled questions about the onscreen story of a British schoolboy whose classmates were bombarding him with mean texts.

Students in Crescitelli’s class debated ethical issues raised by the film clip they viewed, Still Fighting It, with music by Ben Folds. What’s the Big Idea? program aims to teach students a kill of thinking before speaking. The program, launched last month, offers an introduction to students that emphasizes listening to others and viewing philosophy as an active discussion rather than a set of static texts.

The online program offers teachers film clips, discussion questions and classroom handouts covering five topics — bullying, lying, peer pressure, friendship and environmental ethics. Clickable media choices for each subject range from the TV comedy series Freaks and Geeks to clips from feature films such as Bend it Like Beckham, Smoke Signals and Thirteen.

What’s the Big Idea? grew out of a collaboration between Julie Akeret, a filmmaker and former JFK parent, and Thomas Wartenberg, a philosophy professor at Mount Holyoke College since 1984. Three years ago, Akeret was filming Wartenberg’s work using storybooks to introduce philosophy to elementary school children, ”when she had this idea that we could use film clips to teach philosophy,” Wartenberg said. “That immediately resonated with me.”

Akeret and Wartenberg received $20,000 in grants from the Northampton Education Foundation, the state Foundation for the Humanities and the American Philosophical Association. They designed the website and produced teaching materials. Film clips were obtained for free through fair use copyright rules.

They decided to design a program for middle schools because early adolescence is a time when students begin to test their own ethical beliefs, Wartenberg said. “What’s the Big Idea?” is also a way to teach all types of students critical thinking and discussion skills that are now required learning in public schools, said Akeret, who lives in Leeds and whose two sons attended JFK.

Elyse Langer-Smith teaches science and English at JFK Middle School. She has used What’s the Big Idea? in small group advisory sessions known as Forum. According to Langer-Smith, the program’s philosophical approach helps students feel more comfortable voicing opinions about difficult issues.

“The kids in my group loved the idea that there are no right or wrong answers” to the discussion questions, Langer-Smith said. “It’s a good way to get kids talking about issues they face every day and to share ideas in a safe place, to build community.”