Newswise — What are human rights? Why is education important? What is the good life?

These are the kinds of rich questions that students in schools on the South Side of Chicago are probed to answer through the Winning Words program. Winning Words, a program of the University of Chicago’s Civic Knowledge Project, introduces students to key concepts in philosophy and encourages critical thinking and collaborative inquiry through small group discussion, debate, writing and performance.

On Saturday, Nov. 2, leading philosophers and educators from around the country will come together for talks, panel discussions and demonstrations highlighting the importance of fostering philosophy at the K–12 level. Participants will learn about the state of pre-collegiate philosophy in the United States, with representatives from various pre-collegiate philosophy programs discussing their work. They will also learn how their schools or school systems can easily implement philosophy programs.

Presenters will include C. D. C. Reeve, Delta Kappa Epsilon Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Jana Mohr Lone, director of the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children; Dave Magill, director of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools; Sara Stoelinga, senior director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute; and Bart Schultz, executive director of the Civic Knowledge Project and senior lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Chicago.

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“We’ve seen that when students are given the opportunity to explore philosophy’s foundational questions, they gain new skills in critical thinking, imagination, literacy, perseverance, concentration, civility, and the ability to converse with others in mature and meaningful ways,” said Bart Schultz, who developed Winning Words.

“Yet far too few students—especially those on the South Side of Chicago—have the opportunity to experience the joys of philosophy. I hope that by bringing educators and philosophers together, we can find new ways to seed more programs like Winning Words and introduce more young people to the joys of the examined life,” Schultz said.

Through the Winning Words program, local schools are paired with a University of Chicago student “coach.” Coaches meet with small groups of students after school to examine the history of philosophy, analyze philosophical texts and methods, and discuss major issues in philosophy.

The first eight to ten weeks of the program culminate in a student production and performance of an original philosophical dialogue, grounded in one or more fundamental Socratic questions, such as “What is justice?” These philosophical presentations draw on the knowledge of Socrates and the Socratic methods that students gain during class readings and discussions.

Juanita Stem, assistant principal of Carnegie Elementary School, said her students have grown to love Winning Words. Many students sign up without any prompting from Stem or their teachers after hearing about their friends’ experiences.

“The children have just been so pleased with the program,” she said. “It gives them a chance to open up. There’s no right or wrong answer. They’re encouraged to dig further into their thought process.”

Stem also noted that coaches play an important role in the success of the program. “The coaches build really good relationships with the kids, so the kids are able to open up and talk to them.”

Shayan Karbassi is a fourth-year International Studies and Public Policy major who has been a Winning Words coach since his first year at UChicago and is now the program’s student coordinator.

“The beauty of Winning Words is that it wants to encourage discussion. It’s an environment where students know they’re going to be heard,” Karbassi said. “Asking the students questions they’ve never been asked before yields some interesting answers.”

Teaching students to think critically “helps academically and in life,” Karbassi said. “You learn to be an agent of your own will, and do what you think is best.”

“The Winning Words Initiative: A Midwest Regional Resource Network for Pre-Collegiate Philosophy” will take place from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 2, in Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus. For more information, contact Bart Schultz, the Director of the University of Chicago Civic Knowledge Project, at [email protected] or 773-571-0580.

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