How to Design a Philosophy course for High School Students

Philosophy courses are sometimes offered by high school social studies departments, usually to top-performing students. Often those courses count as elective credit, though they might be allowed to suffice for upper-level social studies credit, such as replacing a sociology or psychology course. So, how to create a worthwile philosophy course for high-performing high school juniors and seniors?

First, make sure that the course contains a strong level of academic rigor. There may be a tendency for a teacher to treat his or her philosophy class as a seminar in socializing, navel-gazing, or mindless musings, allowing high-performing and Advanced Placement students to have a “blow-off” period. From the outset, students must know that high standards are expected and will be graded upon.

As an elective course, Philosopy at the high school level is unlikely to be nearly as constricted by state-level guidelines as required courses. Nevertheless, a philosophy class must have a syllabus, complete with listed texts and a roadmap of concepts. Without a syllabus, students will quickly brand Philosophy as their “blow-off” class of the semester. Many students, for better or worse, likely apply to take Philosophy in order to have an easy class.

Philosophy involves a study of history, so ensure that historical ground gets covered. Begin with ancient philosophers and work up to modern philosophers. Force students to look at philosophers and their concepts as products of their respective time periods. Post questions as to how the events and cultures of ancient Greece, Rome, Medieval Europe, Medieval China, the Rennaissance, and the 19th and 20th centuries affected philosophers.

Debate will be a big part of studying philosophy, so ensure that formal debates are scheduled and included in the syllabus. Students will hone their knowledge by being forced to compete against each other to convince the instructor or their classmates of the superior merits of a school of thought. Placing students into research teams may help involve the entire class and compel students to exercise their own creativity and innate skill in performing independent research. At the very least, fostering a competitive spirit will help Philosophy class from devolving into a glorified free period.

Finally, make sure philosophies are linked to current events and contemporary culture. Students might think age-old concepts like Utilitarianism are left to history, but debates and required essays will force them to explain what these concepts mean in today’s world. Instructors can use popular literature and film to explore how philosophies compete today and can be used to explain the motivations of popular characters. Pop culture often has a hefty dose of classical philosophy, and students will become more engaged when they begin learning how to link the two.