Building a philosophy curriculum for elementary students



Role Self-directed project


Timeline 2 Years

Location New York & New Jersey


Teaching big ideas to little kids through Lincoln-Douglas (LD) debate.

People may question an eight-year-old’s ability to contemplate abstract concepts, such as morality, fate, or free will. And—perhaps—for good reason. After all, throughout history, psychological researchers have commonly stated that young children lack the cognitive capacity to do so. However, I began to wonder whether this were really true. Inspired by my experiences in my high school’s Lincoln-Douglas debate team and volunteering at the local daycare, I decided to spend two years conducting independent research on the following questions:

  • To what extent do children struggle with comprehending abstract concepts?

  • Can I design an intervention that can help children become more philosophical individuals?


Inspired by my involvement in LD debate, I was able to develop a curriculum that modified debate for tiny hands and implemented it at ISOAPPLE to test out its effectiveness. After recording notes and videos, I gained a better sense of how my students could transform into better critical thinkers, writers, and speakers. The workbooks are available for purchase online. I even had the chance to present my work at the Long Island Philosophy Conference for High School Students in November 2016.



To understand the role of philosophical thinking in children’s lives, I reviewed the literature on existing programs and discovered the Philosophy for Children (P4C) program, which has been developed for over 35 years and practiced in about 60 countries. In this program, children read works of fiction and discuss relevant abstract questions together. However, some educators have reported that one recurring challenge of P4C is that it often fails to push students out of their comfort zones.

Due to this crucial finding, I found it helpful to draw a distinction between dialogue and debate before going further down the research process.


Free discussion with peers and exploring philosophical issues with open-ended answers



Requires strong knowledge of topic as well as clear understanding of beliefs behind two opposing sides

No doubt, students enrolled in a P4C program have the special opportunity to freely talk about philosophy with friends. But what’s appealing and potentially more intellectually stimulating about debate is that there is healthy disagreement. In fact, previous scholars have suggested that high school students may benefit from a curriculum that utilizes LD debate, in particular, as a way to foster argumentative skills and philosophical thinking.

In your typical LD round, two debaters give speeches either supporting or denying the truth of a topic and provides a framework for their respective side, which refers to a moral theory through which the debater interprets the resolution. With their individual frameworks, debaters select a value that is grounded upon ethics or political philosophy and can only win if they are able to successfully defend their case. Then, they state a doable moral action to go under their value, which is also known as the value criterion, such as “respecting human rights” or “saving lives.”

Visual explanation of LD debate framework

Visual explanation of LD debate framework

Accordingly, for my case study, I conducted action-based research and investigate the effectiveness of a program that I had designed to teach philosophy to elementary school students using an LD debate-inspired approach.

As I devised the curriculum, I was extremely mindful of LD debate’s competitive and challenging nature. Because there are rewards for winning, students often feel nervous about “losing” and may hastily misinterpret a theory or spit out an incomprehensible list of “arguments.” With this problem in mind, I constantly reminded myself of two key objectives throughout the process: 

  • Remove the competitive aspect of LD but also maintain its structure of actively comparing and contrasting diverse values

  • Redefine “teaching philosophy” as the act of expanding philosophy inquiry and drawing children’s attention to abstract values using Vygotsky’s scaffolding methods


In terms of instructional scaffolding, I decided to format each workbook with a four-step process that gradually introduces elementary students to LD debate. I wrote and published my workbooks using ISOAPPLE’s publishing services, each on an adapted debate topic from the National Speech & Debate Association. For example, the LD debate topic from November/December 2013 for high school students was, “Resolved: In the United States criminal justice system, truth-seeking ought to take precedence over attorney-client privilege.”

However, this resolution was reformatted for The Little Debate Scout series to say, “Finding the truth is more important than protecting a person’s constitutional rights.” That way, the basic concepts behind the topics remain, but presentation of such concepts becomes more understandable for younger readers.

Book cover design of my workbook series

Book cover design of my workbook series


During my summer debate program, students were in class twice a week for eight weeks, and each session was one hour and thirty minutes. Students were to participate in collaborative conversations and to respond and listen to their peers during classroom discussions. By the end of the program, students were to consider and evaluate different perspectives by comparing and contrasting their ideas with others. Furthermore, students were to use evidence from the workbook and credible sources from the Internet to support their arguments when writing cases and speeches.

My qualitative research consisted of two summer debate classes in which a total of nine elementary school students (six girls and three boys) explored two books from my workbook series called The Little Debate Scout. I recorded videos of my students in action and transcribed their conversations for future analysis.

Additionally, I wanted to hear the opinions and views of practicing educators in the field for their professional opinion on teaching philosophy to children. I wrote a list of interview questions and personally contacted five individuals who have experience in teaching subjects relevant to The Little Debate Scout series (e.g., debate, philosophy). When asked about the feasibility of teaching philosophy to elementary students, responses were mixed. For example, one of the interviewed debate instructors argued:

We all have some idea of philosophy. When something happens, we can say that it is not ‘fair.’ We have so many theories of justice. Kids don’t know any of those theories. They wouldn’t be able to apply this theory to any place of life. I think grade school kids should be learning basic stuff.

Meanwhile, a director of an organized dedicated to advancing philosophy education remarked:

The truth also is that children think about the big questions even if they don’t talk about it. Kids are perplexed by time, death, and all of these things. When I was a child in elementary school, I had a grandfather who died before I was born. I was obsessed with death, but I couldn’t bring it up in conversations. I think it’s about giving them the opportunity to talk about what's already on their minds.

Furthermore, when asked about potential problems, one elementary school teacher touched on the danger of miscommunication:

Well, if they don’t one hundred percent get it, then they take it and define them differently. In their mindset, they may get the wrong message. It is a very delicate topic and the curriculum would have to be very defined.

However, the director of a running P4C program refocused on the big picture of such a program:

Would it be difficult for you to teach Kant to elementary school students? Yes, but that isn’t at all what anyone is thinking about for this type of program. This is about recognizing that students are ready to collaborate and think critically.

When I initially set out to assess the learning effects of my program, it’s important to note that I had limited resources, knowledge, and time. If I were to pursue educational research again in the future, I'd like to evaluate student growth using more diverse forms of evidence, such as pre-/post-test surveys, interviews with parents, and student performance on critical thinking tasks.

Special thanks to ISOAPPLE and to Mr. Matthew Vogt for supporting my independent study project.