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The 13th biannual conference of the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children, which opens on Monday in Jerusalem, will shine a spotlight on some of the unique traits of philosophy education for children in Israel.
Children's philosophy education, in which young children sit in a circle and discuss philosophical questions taken from everyday stories, is about facilitating a dialogue of "active listening and the ability to talk across differences," according to Dr. Jen Glaser, co-director of the Israeli Center for Philosophy in Education and a co-chair of the ICPIC conference.
For young children, it "offers a way to listen to what people say rather than imposing their thoughts on another, to puzzle things out together in the public domain, to bring their own particular experience and talk about the substantive issues that matter to them," Glaser said.
Glaser is one of the heads of a pilot program, now completing its first year, that brings philosophy education to over 300 third- and fourth-graders in four schools in Jerusalem, including an Arab school, a state-religious school and two state schools.
Israel offers particularly fertile ground for examining how such a program can contribute to dialogue. "When we put in a bid to host this year's conference," related Glaser, "we said other countries can learn from how we're building tolerance and active listening and the ability to talk across differences in a conflicted society. It's not as crucial in countries that are more coherent in themselves, but [in Israel,] what you say can't be divorced from who you are."
The program was intentionally spread across religious, ethnic and socioeconomic divides - "to show it can be done," said Glaser - and Arab kids from a school in the east Jerusalem village of Isawiya and religious children from a religious-Zionist school in Efrat will meet for the first time at the conference.
The unique laboratory offered by the Israeli education system has attracted a larger-than-normal group of delegates from over 20 countries, who will come to learn from Israel's experiences.
What actually constitutes "philosophy education for children?" According to Dr. Howard Deitcher, director of Hebrew University's Melton Center for Jewish Education and co-chair of the ICPIC conference, philosophical topics are brought home to the children through stories of everyday life.
"We're convinced children of all ages are very curious and open and thoughtful," said Deitcher, "and we believe - in contrast with certain schools of thought - that they can understand abstract ideas, and they thrive on it; it feeds their growth and development."
To that end, the curriculum is entirely topical, not historical. "We're not dealing with particular philosophers - Plato said this or Aristotle said that - but with questions philosophers throughout the ages have addressed. It's more important that the kids wrestle with the ideas."
How is this different from simply teaching morality or "values education"? According to Deitcher, moral education discusses "what you would do," while philosophy education deals with "how you understand it and would think about it differently."
The exercise is also important as a tool for teaching social interaction. In the circle, "the kids listen to how other kids respond. They're learning how to listen â€¦ so they can challenge the ideas of others. They become more tolerant of other views because they have to examine whether they make sense. They can't criticize without looking at the logic [of the other's statement]."
The program has its origin in Montclair State University in northern New Jersey. Several experts from Montclair, including Prof. Ann Sharp, one of the founders of the "Philosophy for Children" movement, and Prof. Maughn Gregory, director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair, will be at the conference.
According to Glaser, the attendees are divided into thirds, with professors of philosophy and education, heads of philosophy education centers in various countries, and educators.
Following the end of the conference on June 8, there will be a follow-up conference specializing in philosophy for children in Jewish education.