Why Children Make the Best Philosophers

Children are inherently philosophers. They want to understand the world, and constantly ask the question of "Why?" So perhaps if we can ask questions in the way first-graders do, we can break down so many of the barriers and false dichotomies in the world today.

As part of Sinai and Synapses' series "More Light, Less Heat," Sinai and and Synapses Fellow Megan Powell discusses how a six-year-old's question changed her perspective. Megan is a doctoral student studying human development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Her research focuses on how children and adults develop epistemological understandings of science and its relationship to religion and other ways of knowing, as well as the implications of these understandings for formal and informal science education.

Here, she shares one of her favorites stories -- how a discussion about states of matter led to deep existential questions in her first-grade classroom:


Hi, my name is Megan Powell. I'm a doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and in my research, I'm exploring the ways that children think about the relationship between science and religion.

In my own life, this is something I've thought about quite a lot. For one thing, I grew up in a largely secular household, as the daughter of a scientist. But I also went to a Christian school for ten years, and in that time, I noticed the ways that the information I was hearing in one context complemented or conflicted with the information that was being delivered in the other.

I also spent time working at the National Science Foundation, where we talked about way to effectively communicate information to various stakeholders who might be resistant to certain findings. But the thing that brought me back to grad school to think about this issue full time was as my experience as an elementary and middle school science teacher.

A few years ago, the next generation science standards were released, and among those standards was a simple statement aimed at the kindergarten to grade two level: "Science investigations begin with a question." Sure enough, that's how most of the investigations began in my classroom. Some questions were more notable than others, but none were as memorable as the line of inquiry that began one morning as I sat on the carpet with a group of first graders, when our conversation about states of matter turned to a sudden existential turn.

In the middle of my review of solids, liquids, and gasses, one student shot up her hand to ask a burning question about why matter existed in the first place. Her classmates perked up, and soon others were chiming in with questions about when the first matter came into being, or whether something or Someone was responsible for creating it. Before my eyes, this carpet full of six-year-olds had erupted into a full-scale debate about the purpose and nature of the universe.

Those same standards also state that "science is a unique way of knowing and there are other ways of knowing." This standard is intended for high school students, but in that moment of organic curiosity, it felt like I needed to share the sentiment with my first-graders.

From the origins of matter and the evolution of life, the exploration of deep space and the risks of global climate change, I'd argue it's no exaggeration to say that some of humanity's most pressing problems sit at the intersection of science, philosophy, ethics and faith. I wanted my students to know that the questions they were asking were enormous, complex and important, and that it would likely to take more than science alone to answer them.

As I sat there with my first graders, I did the best I could. I let them hash it out on their own for a few minutes, and then I stepped into deliver a brief extemporaneous lecture of the epistemological underpinnings of science, using as many six-year-old-appropriate words as I could think of, and then class was over, that was it, we had to move on.

But I think I could have done better, and I want to help other teachers do better when these types of questions come up in their classrooms. That's what brought me back to grad school. I'm wondering a lot about the way we can leverage these types of student questions as opportunities for deeper learning -- not just for the intended scientific content goals, but also about disciplinarity, perspective-taking, and critical thinking.

I'm not very far into this line of research, so I don't have many answers yet, but I'm excited to begin with the questions.