PHITS Director, Kate Thomson-Jones.

Meet the Director

Kate Thomson-Jones is Professor of Philosophy at Oberlin College, Ohio where she has been teaching for 20 years. In 2016, Kate developed the PHITS program in collaboration with teachers at Eastwood Elementary School in Oberlin. To do this Kate received support from the Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research at Oberlin College. She also received mentorship from Thomas Wartenberg, Professor Emeritus at Mount Holyoke College and a leading figure in the international Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement. Most recently, Oberlin College has recognized Kate’s work with PHITS by awarding her the Andrew ’42 and Pauline Delaney Endowed Pedagogy Professorship.

What inspired Kate to start PHITS? 

When Kate’s daughter, V, was in elementary school, she started asking some pretty “deep” questions: Why are we here? How do we know what’s real? What makes something good or bad? “Those are some great questions,” Kate would say in response; “What do you think?” The result was both surprising and exciting. It turned out that V already had plenty of philosophical ideas of her own. All she needed was some help articulating and evaluating those ideas. Then Kate could suggest further ideas and help V build her own arguments. Interestingly, Kate found that V wasn’t too worried when definite answers to her questions couldn’t be found. What mattered to V was that she was getting to think for herself and that her questions were being taken seriously.
In talking to other parents and teachers, Kate then realized that all kids are natural philosophers. Just in virtue of being kids, they are ready to question anything and everything and, what’s more, they love to do so. By directing and fostering kids’ natural philosophical inclinations, Kate predicted that she could help them develop skills that are essential to academic success and engaged citizenship. By thinking about their own thinking and the thinking of their friends, kids could build their skills in critical and analytical thinking, practice engaged listening, and understand how arguments work.

From Inspiration to Implementation

Since its inception in 2016, the PHITS program has been offered five times, both in the Oberlin Elementary School, grades 1 through 5, and in the Oberlin Middle School, grades 7 and 8. Over the course of a semester, students from Oberlin College facilitate discussions and lead activities in the schools. Each semester, PHITS has worked with between 20 and 75 school students. 
The PHITS program is always evolving in order to best support different teachers’ and different students’ needs. PHITS also takes different forms for different age groups. When working with first- and second-grade students, for example, PHITS facilitators find that reading picture books aloud is a great way to introduce philosophical questions at the right level. When working with eighth-grade students, on the other hand, PHITS facilitators find that their students enjoy drawing on their own life experiences to decide, for example, what friendship really is and whether justice is the same for everyone. 
The PHITS program is now well established in the Oberlin community. But there is always more work to be done! PHITS is reaching out to other local communities and school systems, it is hoping to offer a High School Ethics Bowl, and it is connecting to both national and local organizations that promote children’s literacy and critical thinking. In this way, PHITS joins a global movement to prepare children for engaged, informed, open-minded, and, most importantly of all, thinking citizenship.