Yarmel and kindergarteners

Aaron Yarmel works with a kindergarten class as part of the Madison Philosophy Project's collaboration with the Madison Metropolitan School District. 

Our schools are microcosms of the challenges faced by our society as a whole. Nowhere was this clearer than in the recent competition between Ali Muldrow and David Blaska for a seat on the Madison Metropolitan School District School Board.

Blaska centered his failed campaign around the threat of violent and disruptive student behaviors in our schools, for which he prescribed the following remedy: “discipline, discipline, discipline.” Muldrow’s recommendation could not have been more different: “Young people who dance at school and play at school and have greater artistic and creative freedom at school like being at school more, and behave better at school.”

While the election is over, the question remains: Does the path of more freedom or of more structure lead to a well-functioning community?

Unfortunately, it’s complicated.

Any teacher can tell you that creating frustration, boredom, and disengagement in your classroom is as simple as coercing young people into completing a task that does not speak to them. It is as simple as arranging them in a circle with the instruction to take one turn each — with no back-and-forth — answering a question they do not find meaningful.

The solution in this case is not for teachers to re-center themselves through “discipline, discipline, discipline” — to achieve compliance through force — but to give the students more freedom: to democratize the question-selection process in the search for personally meaningful questions, to allow students to discuss with one another, and to celebrate the assets that all students bring with them into the classroom: competencies, experiences, values, and perspectives shaped by unique backgrounds.

Nevertheless, good teachers do not let go completely. A recipe for chaos is giving students new to discussion complete freedom to pursue whatever task, and in whichever manner, they choose: The loudest and silliest voices predominate as cell phones emerge from pockets, creative insults fly through the air, fights break out, and those who try to pursue civil discussion are ignored.

Successful teachers find the right balance between freedom and structure in the classroom, but what does this actually look like?

This year, Madison Public Philosophy has used a dialogue-based, Philosophy for Children approach in regular collaborations with a high school social studies classroom, a fifth-grade classroom, and a kindergarten classroom in the MMSD. These collaborations are funded through a grant from the Graduate Public Humanities Exchange program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In these dialogue sessions, students work together to formulate and answer questions that they find meaningful in response to a stimulus that fits into the goals of the classroom.

An exploration of the 13th Amendment and its impacts on slavery and mass incarceration inspired the question, “How do you deem something a success or failure?”; a discussion of an actual physical altercation during recess led students to ask, “Is it ethical to be a bystander to wrongdoing?”; and a story about a pretty doll prompted, “What makes something beautiful?” After brainstorming in small groups, the students used personal examples, historical evidence, and arguments to work collaboratively toward more reasonable answers to their selected questions.

But what do Madison Public Philosophy’s teachers do when the discussion veers toward extraneous topics, students talk over one another, or there is unproductive (rather than productive) silence or confusion?

It depends.

When the goal is to help the students learn the discipline to persist in a difficult task, the answer is often more structure. Teachers may ask students to reflect on how their community is doing, identify the progress that has been made so far, or break the students up into smaller groups to discuss and report back to the whole.

But when the goal is to help the students exercise their autonomy and take ownership of their learning, the answer is often more freedom. Instead of the pre-selected inquiry stimulus, the students are invited to share stories from their lives based on a prompt (e.g., “What is a time when you felt proud?”) and to pursue a question inspired by those stories.

The reason why the answer is not “always structure” or “always freedom” is that we need a mix of both. The challenge for teachers, our schools, and society at large is to find the proper balance.

Aaron Yarmel is the director of Madison Public Philosophy and a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

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