Our Approach:The PHITS Methodology in 6 Steps

First, there has to be an in-depth and ongoing conversation between the PHITS director (Kate), the student facilitators at Oberlin College, and teachers who are interested in building philosophy into their lessons.

Teachers want to know how PHITS can support their school’s core curriculum and values, how it can ease their workload rather than add to it, and how it can appeal to many different kinds of student. The Oberlin School system is small yet highly diverse, both ethnically and socio-economically. Like teachers everywhere, Oberlin teachers are constantly challenged to meet the learning needs of children from very different backgrounds and with very different interests. PHITS begins with a recognition of this fact and, for this reason, has built-in flexibility.

Molly Angney and Rachel Mentzer.


Coming up with a schedule of topics and class visits.

Through their conversations, teachers and PHITS facilitators settle on the best topics to discuss with a certain group of school students. Usually this involves choosing 8-10 topics or questions for once- or twice-a-week lessons. With so many philosophical questions to choose from, it is easy to plan around whatever a school group is already learning as part of the core curriculum. During Black History Month, for example, PHITS facilitators plan discussions on justice, rights, and the connection between what’s morally right and what’s lawful. To take another example, during a unit on art history at the middle school, PHITS facilitators plan discussions on whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder and why art matters in society. Not only this, but the PHITS team organizes field trips to Oberlin College’s wonderful Allen Memorial Art Museum. While exploring the museum, the school students always find works that they love, works that they hate, and works that they just don’t ‘get’. All three kinds of responses are the perfect starting point for a philosophical discussion of what makes something good or bad art.

PHITS participants at Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) in Oberlin, OH.
PHITS participants at Allen Memorial Art Museum (AMAM) in Oberlin, OH.


Once we have a schedule of topics, the Oberlin College students begin their training to be PHITS facilitators. This is an intensive, extended, and multi-faceted process.

Each year, 16 students are enrolled in a college-level seminar course. In this course, the students study, discuss, and write about a number of important philosophical works— for example, Plato’s Republic (c. 375 BCE), Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan (1651), and Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997). The issues raised by these works are going to be the same ones discussed in the schools. The college students have to figure out how to translate the ideas from their seminar into lesson plans that will engage students at a very different stage in their education. In doing this, the college students quickly realize that figuring out how to teach philosophy is often the best way to understand philosophy.

In planning their lessons, the college students get really creative. First, they come up with a scaffolded series of questions that move from the more specific and concrete to the more general and abstract. These questions will serve as discussion prompts at the school. But philosophy is not just sitting at a desk and answering a teacher’s questions. Philosophy can be done through games, storytelling, drawing, movement, and more. Whatever it takes to get the school students to discuss, challenge, and question, the college students will do it!

Kate Thomson-Jones and Oberlin College students wearing PHITS T-shirts.
Two Oberlin College PHITS students in a classroom standing in front of a whiteboard.
Philosophy Wheel of Fortune.
First page of a sample lesson plan.
Oberlin College PHITS students.

Sample Lesson Plan“Friendship”


What happens in a typical PHITS class?

There is no typical PHITS class! 
Here are just three examples of what might be happening on any given day, with different groups of kids: ● Building a tower of rocks in order to decide whether the life of Sisyphus has meaning. ● Moving to different parts of the classroom to show where each student ‘stands' on a certain issue. ● Stretching and moving like trees before starting a discussion on our obligations to the environment. 


During the lockdown of Spring 2020, the PHITS program had to shift quickly to an asynchronous on-line format. The PHITS facilitators showed themselves more than up to the challenge of doing this. Together, they put together a library of philosophy teaching videos that would be an extra resource for teachers in the Oberlin Schools.

Working on a Final Project

The culmination of any series of PHITS lessons is a collaborative final project. This project allows the school students to reflect on everything they have learnt and showcase their work for families and friends.

A PHITS final project can take many forms. Middle-school students often enjoy putting together a ‘Philosophy Magazine’:


The cover page of 'Philosophy Magazine' from Spring 2023, created by Ms. Mentzer's 7th Grade Class at Langston Middle School, Oberlin. It features a purple theme with an illustration of a squirrel and a lightbulb idea icon.
A page titled 'Building our ideal friends!' showcasing children's handwritten notes and drawings on friendship. Quotes by Brandon and Scarlett provide insights on friendship qualities, and a sketch shows two figures conversing.
A magazine spread with the title 'I THINK THAT BEAUTY IS...' against an olive green background. Various quotes from individuals named Natalie, Zahira, Aiden, De'Shyana, and Jayden provide diverse perspectives on beauty.
A cover page for a section titled 'Justice' in a magazine. It features a mustard yellow background with a scale icon symbolizing justice, accompanied by questions about society and fairness, and a photo of a classroom scene.
A page from a magazine entitled 'The Meaning of Life' with a pink background. It includes two photographs—one of two women smiling, the other of a group of students—and quotes from individuals named Molly and Harley on finding personal meaning in life.


PHITS is always evolving on the basis of multiple forms of assessment: 
After each class at the school, the PHITS facilitators discuss with each other what worked well and what to do differently next time; they highlight each other’s, and their own, strengths as teachers; and, they start getting excited for the next school visit. 
Throughout the running of the program, there are regular check-ins with the teachers. How do the teachers think that their students are responding to the PHITS classes? Do the teachers have recommendations for the PHITS facilitators? And, do the teachers want us to do more of one thing and less of something else?
At the end of the semester, the PHITS facilitators ask their groups of school students: What do you think you got out of these classes? What do you recommend that we do in next year’s PHITS classes? The PHITS facilitators understand how much it means to the school students that they get to share their own opinions on how PHITS should work—they get to be the experts on how they learn best.


A page titled 'Building our ideal friends!' showcasing children's handwritten notes and drawings on friendship. Quotes by Brandon and Scarlett provide insights on friendship qualities, and a sketch shows two figures conversing.
Scanned letter from Cayman.

April 19th, 2023
Dear Dr. Kate,
Hello. I enjoyed the PHITS program a lot. You and your students enriched my experience and made me look forward to class every day. I loved when you added to our conversation. I learned so much from this class, and I would love for you to continue to bring your students for the seventh graders next year. Thank you for being my partner at the art museum. I had a great time discussing with you. Thank you for everything.
Sincerely,Natalie Gray

Dear college students, I am thankful for your company and how you guys gave us hands-on activities and took us to the museum. My favorite activity was going on the sides of the room and debating on a scenario. I learned how philosophical questions depend on the situation and the person’s POV, there is more than one answer to the question. I will look at how people view things very differently in the future. I took away from this lesson that philosophical questions have more ending answers and "what ifs".I appreciate your company and hope you guys do well.
Sincerely, Cayman