The Philosophy Outreach Program: One Year Later, Many Steps Ahead

The Philosophy Outreach Program:  One Year Later, Many Steps Ahead

It has been a year since The Gazette last checked in with the Philosophy Outreach Program, a trailblazing project designed to engage high school students in philosophical discourse.  Much has transpired in the past twelve months. Fueled by a second Squire Foundation grant, support from the Office of the Provost, the Department of Arts & Humanities, and the GSAS Teaching Center and driven by the passion and dedication of program volunteers, teachers and students, the Philosophy Outreach Program is poised for its next phase.  The success of a first-ever national conference “Philosophy in Schools”, a substitute-teacher certification collaboration with Columbia Secondary, an expanded CSS Fellows project, the push for not-for-profit status and the goal of influence on a broader level are all what is happening now.

First, some background on the program:  While there are about six other universities nationwide with Philosophy Outreach Programs, Columbia’s program (a collaboration between the Philosophy and Education Program at TC and the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University) is unique in one vital regard:  According to Tim Ignaffo, Program Coordinator, “our program is deeply committed to an appreciation of pedagogy and has a foot in both philosophy and education.  We look at how we can help classrooms and teachers and engage teacher education”. The program began in 2009, and was founded by a number of graduate students including Michael Seifried (from the Department of Philosophy) and Guillermo Marini of TC. But it was the initial Squire Foundation grant which allowed Ignaffo to expand the group’s work to more schools, including The Columbia Secondary School (a public magnet school on 123rd Street with a diverse, high-performing student body), which has become something of a laboratory for the program.  It is at CSS that volunteers are co-teaching in the classroom in what is essentially the only multi-year, core Philosophy curriculum in a United States public school.

And the students?  They’re hooked.  Ignaffo recommends that volunteers go in with ideas and timely articles, as well as a flexible curriculum because, “an interesting lesson plan is the best classroom management.  And there is no greater lesson plan than the history of ideas”.  With simple ground rules, the students will engage each other, and, as Ignaffo says, “I’ve been consistently amazed at just how brilliant all these kids are.  And it’s not like you can go in and look at their grades beforehand, and see, ‘this is the smart kid’.  It doesn’t work like that.  These are just ideas…When students are allowed to express their ideas, and engage each other outside the realm of the standard classroom experience, they will consistently impress.”  He recalls a particular class where students were posed with a bioethical dilemma, and how the dialogue wound its way through triage in medical ethics, over to religion, and then on ‘cargo cults’, the phenomena where indigenous South Pacific islanders create intricate rituals to lure back the cargo supply drops they witnessed during World War II. The student brought in the idea of a cargo cult, to make comparisons to faux-science and made a point very similar to one popularized by Richard Feynman. Of course, the student had not read Feynman, but was capable of articulating the idea regardless. “This is sophisticated stuff—and these are eighth graders.”

Why has Philosophy struck such a cord with the kids?  Ignaffo explains that Philosophy presents an organic way to learn through discourse and dialogue, a natural way in which we all engage the world.  And he argues that outside Philosophy, students don’t get much of a chance to dialogue.  Sometimes CSS co-teachers are surprised at the student who speaks up.  Why does Philosophy coax the voice out of a usually quiet student?  High schoolers are at an age ripe for existential questioning, “…and it is a nice moment when you realize the questions that have been bubbling up in me have been bubbling up in people for generations.  You are participating in this greater human dialogue,” Ignaffo explains.  “It is a different way of thinking but one that is unique to humanity and an important to all of us.”

Proving there are many shapes that curriculum can take, Ignaffo and another volunteer (with support from CCNMTL and Professor McClintock) introduced an educational wiki on StudyPlace where CSS students populate an online community and respond to straightforward queries.  The latest, “What educates?” prompted a flurry of responses, all clearly demonstrating that these students were thinking philosophically about education.  From Lukian L.:  “Experience educates. You will never understand what pain feels like until you have felt it. There are some things that can only be taught by experience and first-hand understanding and nothing else. I am open to being corrected and will listen if you have another opinion.” Ignaffo is “blown away” by quantity and quality of StudyPlace participants and further credits Professor Robert McClintock and his donation of an iPad to one lucky student contributor for keeping the program relevant and inclusive.

Answering the graduate students’ desire for classroom experience, plus the need for an income stream, Ignaffo recently created a Fellows Program at CSS.   With Squire Foundation funds, fellows receive $400 each to co-teach in the Philosophy Outreach Program.  After one semester, teachers may get nominated for a student teacher license.  Then, they can get substitute teacher certification. CSS can then hire them as subs, which bolsters their income.  Everyone wins: fellows get all the benefits of volunteering and a unique opportunity to teach, plus they walk away with something tangible that they can put on their resume—the certification.  The school benefits from having a steady stream of graduate students. Even though the CSS collaboration is less than a year old, it already has had considerable success: Of the volunteers who have participated so far, one is now a teacher in Baltimore, one is anticipated to get permanent certification this May, four have been nominated for the substitute-teaching license by CSS, and one – Vicki Weafer – has been hired by CSS as a full-time Teacher/Philosophy Instructor. Beyond the intense work the Philosophy Outreach program is doing at CSS, they have a foothold, via after-school programs, at about a half-dozen other New York City public schools, so the opportunities for fellows are broad.

One thing that we must remember is that this—teaching philosophy a public school classroom—is a very big deal.  Ignaffo urges us to look to UNESCO figures to see where the U.S. ranks in teaching philosophy in schools.  And there we are:  essentially tied with Iraq.  And leagues behind nations in Europe, South America and Australia; places where the teaching of Philosophy is embraced as a chance for students to express themselves and a way to contribute to understanding and peace.

The Philosophy Outreach Program is passionate about addressing the need for Philosophy in classrooms and has taken big steps in the past year:

October of 2010 saw the success of the national conference, “Philosophy in Schools”, hosted by Ignaffo’s group.  The mission was straightforward:  to bring together educators who are interested in Philosophy, graduate students who have a background in Philosophy and want to integrate it in their teaching, plus other outreach programs, all under one roof to share ideas.

Keynote speaker Robert Paul Wolff, Professor Emeritus at University of Massachusetts Amherst and a field favorite, presented an original paper and a lively Q&A session where he presented the case for a more humanistic conception of education and the importance of a truly liberal education.  He shared his own experiences, including opening the first post-secondary school in South Africa and how he pursued grants for those with lower and middle incomes—not just the very top or the very bottom.  Ignaffo offers, “It was brilliant.”

A major learning from the conference was the need for training workshops.  Many teachers and graduate students from non-Philosophy programs attended because they recognize the value that Philosophical texts and curriculum can bring to a classroom. Ignaffo recalls the most frequent response as, “If I’m not in a Philosophy program or I don’t have a Philosophy background, how do I bring these kinds of things into a classroom?”  Ignaffo sees a clear need for training and the positive impact that Philosophy workshops would have. Michael Seifried, one of the volunteers, has developed and implemented such a workshop, which Ignaffo hopes to promote and expand.

The next goal for the Philosophy Outreach Program? Not-for-profit status.  Ignaffo maintains that there should always be a portion of the program that would remain a student group (both because it makes good sense and because of the incredible support the College provides), but that an alignment of the outreach portion with a not-for-profit organization would have many benefits.  As he explains:  “It would potentially help us go after bigger grants to expand the CSS collaboration, and our workshop offerings. Also, it would make it easier to get into Department of Education schools.  Next, you have a more effective allocation of resources when you are a not-for-profit.  Also, it would pave the way to go after bigger grants, since 501(c)(3) status becomes a tax write-off for foundations.  Finally, it just looks more serious.  It becomes the difference between, ‘Oh, this is just a group of students doing something…who knows where it is going to go’, to, ‘this is an organization’”.

With bigger grant money, the Philosophy Outreach Program could initiate a well-needed workshop division, maintain its substitute teacher certification program, plus continue to host essential conferences like the one last October. It is these three elements, along with the work at CSS, that Ignaffo feels will lead to the visibility and influence that is needed to form curriculum on a city-wide level.  A manageable goal, and one that is the first step to really changing the way the nation views Philosophy in the classrooms.


To see highlights from the conference “Philosophy in Schools”, including a video of keynote address by Robert Paul Wolff, click here:

To read CSS student’s StudyPlace postings on “What educates?”, click here: