“What’s the Big Idea?” Challenges Kids to Think Critically & Philosophically

Film Project Poses Intellectual Challenges to Energize the Mind

In order to raise children who will grow up to be critical thinkers, it is essential that we not only present them with intellectual challenges while they’re young, but – as the goal of “What’s the Big Idea?” states – we must also teach them the skills that they will need to tackle complex ideas. By exposing children to philosophical ideas and questions early in life, we create opportunities for them to learn how to think critically about major topics. And if we provide the proper support, we allow them to do this big thinking in a context where they’re supported throughout their learning.

A project of Mt. Holyoke College professor Tom Wartenberg and local filmmaker Julie Akeret, “What’s the Big Idea?” introduces middle school students (12-14yr) to philosophy through film. Pairing commentary with pertinent clips relating to the themes addressed by the project, “What’s the Big Idea?” takes common tween-age dilemmas and presents them to students in a way that not only allows them to learn how to handle such situations, but encourages them to think deeply about the larger ideas that lay behind common life experiences and situations. Clips from iconic movies including The Karate Kid, Mean Girls, Liar Liar, and even High School Musical help to teach students to think critically about peer pressure, bullying, lying, and friendship. The project even offers resources for developing discussions and activities after tackling each theme – resources that can easily be used by educators of all kinds.

According to Wartenberg, democratic society relies on the ability of citizens to think critically and independently. In presenting topics to young thinkers in ways that allow them to draw their own conclusions, we empower them by teaching them the power of thinking for themselves. The eventual discovery of powerful knowledge relies on the ability to consider things from multiple perspectives – a skill that requires lots of critical thinking. The more that students are supported in drawing their own meaningful conclusions, the more independently they’ll be able to think as adults – meaning they’ll be well-prepared to take on the world intellectually.

In addition to the powerful thinking skills gained by utilizing “What’s the Big Idea?” resources, families can also use the videos provided simply to learn about the topics that they address. Each topic is, of course, something that’s likely to become a major theme at some point during a child’s tween-age years (if not beforehand). Challenging peer pressure or dealing with bullying can be difficult, but if and when such situations arise, children armed with skills to do so will be well-prepared. In addition to the the benefits to children themselves, such knowledge will benefit all those around them. As students develop skills to help them better navigate their increasingly complex world, they’ll be better equipped to support their peers in doing so as well.

Have elementary school aged children with whom you’d like to explore philosophy? Check out the Wartenberg’s website, teachingchildrenphilosophy.org.

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