Michael Burroughs is Associate Director of the Rock Ethics Institute, Senior Lecturer of Philosophy, and an Affiliate Faculty Member of the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University. He is also Vice President of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO) and is primary investigator and co-founder of the Philosophical Ethics in Early Childhood (PEECh) project, devoted to philosophy and ethics education work with preschool-age children. Michael is also a beekeeper and founder of Keepin’ It Sweet Honey.
What civically engaged project(s) or work do you do with students?
Over the past decade I’ve worked on several civically engaged projects with students, in a variety of locations, ranging from introducing philosophy discussion groups in retirement communities and a juvenile detention center to philosophy classes and workshops in K-12 classrooms. For the past three years I’ve been devoting significant time to developing a combined outreach and mixed methods research project called “Philosophical Ethics in Early Childhood” (PEECh), which is sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute and the Penn State Social Science Research Institute.
What is your role? Why did you choose to become involved?
I am primary investigator and co-founder of the PEECh project, along with my colleague Tugce B. Arda Tuncdemir. PEECh is a project that seeks to understand the impact of philosophical dialogue on moral development in 3-5 year olds in preschool classrooms. I have facilitated partnerships with several schools, developed a 9-week philosophical ethics curriculum for preschool teachers and children, led teacher workshops and classroom sessions in several schools, and worked with my colleagues (including Tugce B. Arda Tuncdemir, Desiree Valentine, Dr. Tina Thompson, and Dr. Ginger Moore) to design and implement the empirical research portion of this project.
Give an example of a successful project completed by students you work with.
The PEECh project has been successful, I feel, in several ways. For one, it is the product of collaborative, community engaged research. In the early stages of PEECh we collaborated with a school principal, kindergarten teachers, and children to better understand forms of dialogue, activities, and prompts such as children’s literature, artwork, and role play that would open up avenues for productive philosophical engagement with very young, preschool and kindergarten philosophers. The results of that collaboration are now evident in a fully formed curriculum, grant funding, and ongoing education and research collaborations with additional schools, teachers, and children. My aim is to continue to develop this project and provide a research-based philosophical ethics curriculum that can be used widely in early childhood classrooms.
What do you think students gain from doing this civic engagement?
For PEECh, my student collaborators and colleagues have come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, such as philosophy; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and early childhood education. I feel that this project has offered an opportunity to put theoretical ideas from these disciplines into practice—that is, to develop a fruitful praxis and cross pollination of theory and practice. It lets students take on responsibilities that are formative and not regularly on offer to students in the traditional classroom, and lets them learn from children through the productive challenge of understanding the philosophical and ethical insights that children can offer us adults.
What does the civic engagement project offer to wider communities?
In the short term, PEECh offers the benefits of dialogue-based education for children in local schools, professional development for teachers, and, I’d humbly claim, contributes to the ongoing ethical development of young children. Long term, and after the completion of additional research (we completed a pilot study on this education project in 2015 and are conducting a second study and significantly expanded education project this semester, fall 2016), we plan to offer a research-based early childhood philosophy and ethics curriculum for schools across the country. To my knowledge, no such curriculum currently exists and, so, I feel we will be making a useful contribution to early childhood education.
If someone wanted to do these projects at their own institution, what steps or resources would you recommend?
This is a challenging question as steps or resources needed are always, to some degree, context and project specific. But, here are a few tips: first, reach out to and learn from others working in this field. You are not alone. For example, if you are interested in philosophical work with children, you can engage with a significant community through the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization. Second, I think it is helpful to think about developing a project and success in that development in incremental terms. So, you might start with developing a vision, initial plan, and steps/collaborators; start small and build out as you get a good foundation for your project. This is also important for sustaining a project long term, which can be one of the primary challenges for these kinds of projects. Third, have fun with it and follow your passion, even if your discipline doesn’t currently provide an abundance of supportive avenues for and formal recognition of this work. This will change, and is in the process of changing now.
How does this work connect to your own civically engaged philosophy?
I discussed my approach to civically/community engaged philosophy and ethics in a recent TEDxPSU talk that might be of interest, and captures more than I can state here. But, in short, I believe that philosophy, or asking and considering philosophical questions in life, is part of the human condition. So, I’m interested in, and my research centers on, engaging in philosophical work and related questioning with a wide range of people, especially children, as I feel they (as a population) have and continue to be overlooked as the unique, philosophical, engaged persons they are.