Philosophy? For children? When thinking requires thinking about something

22nd July 2015 at 18:05


Philosophy, somewhat incredibly, is in the news right now. If, like me, you spent four years of your life studying the damn thing, this is somewhat of a dog whistle. Mainly because experience has assured me that it remains one of the least requested skills in emergency situations. "Quick, get me a philosopher" is something you will rarely hear, which should at least be some solace to people with degrees in media studies or intersectional feminism. I assure you, there is a deeper hell of indifference; if I peer up, I can see you through a telescope from my abyss. 

Cometh the hour, cometh the neo-Platonist. The EEF recently published this report evaluating P4C, which is:

"Philosophy for Children (P4C) is an approach to teaching in which students participate in group dialogues focused on philosophical issues. Dialogues are prompted by a stimulus (for example, a story or a video) and are based around a concept such as ‘truth’, ‘fairness’ or ‘bullying’. The aim of P4C is to help children become more willing and able to ask questions, construct arguments, and engage in reasoned discussion."

Which is a perfectly good aim. The report triggered some controversy when some commentators felt that its significance had been overcooked, especially when the proxy indicators of success used were:

"There is evidence that P4C had a positive impact on key stage 2 attainment. Overall, pupils using the approach made approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and maths."

That's quite a claim. Debate has raged about the methodology, and the analysis of the findings, some of which can be found here, by Jim Thornton. Needless to say the EEF have defended their approach, and fans of robust research argy-bargy will be pleased to hear that this very subject will be debated live at the researchED national conference in September. 

I'm not a stats man, so (in a rare feat of humility) I'll beg off weighing in, which is sometimes the better part of honour – despite the temptation to pull on your boots of omniscience at every opportunity. But a few things occur to me:

1. The value of philosophy doesn't lie in its contribution to literacy, or indeed indirectly to any other perceived good. I mean, increased literacy is undoubtedly A Good Thing, but that – as Alasdair MacIntyre the virtue ethicist might have said – is an external good; a by-product of the discipline, not the heart of the value of the thing itself. After all, you don't value your mother because she brings you Chupa Chups on your birthday, you don't value love or justice because it makes you rich. You value them because they possess, for you, value, however you locate that. It's a slippery slope, because if we only value something when it helps us obtain something else – in this case an alleged super soaraway two extra months of learning – then the moment it ceases to supply it, the value goes with it. Plus, it indicates that what you truly value is literacy and numeracy, which is fine, but immediately philosophy becomes instrumental to the project. To paraphrase Kant, it denies the intrinsic dignity of the activity. 

2. I have a bit of previous in P4C. A few years ago, I went on a few training courses to learn more about it, as I was eager to see how my thankless Masters degree could be bent into some use. So I've spent some time seeing how it works. And on the surface of it, it is quite appealing. Students sit in a horsehoe around the facilitator, and a prompt is used to generate a question that the class can discuss. The teacher acts as a catalyst and a conductor; they lead, rather than dominate the discussion. Socratic dialogues are used to explore and probe ideas and points of discussion. Students are challenged to expand their points, to think about opposite points of view, to give examples, to explain what they mean, and the baton of conversation is passed from girl to boy (often represented physically by some totem: a boiled pig skull, perhaps, or the janitor's wand, or a phoenix feather tied to an IWB remote).

What's wrong with that? On the surface, nothing: I've used it many times. In fact, it was one of my Soda Stream, instant Ofsted pleasers when I thought there was a chance they would bother my door. Teacher says little, kids say a lot: what automaton who last taught in 1994 could fail to be pleased with that?

And yet, I've always been troubled by this: it's a good group activity when students have a strong, solid core of knowledge at the heart of the conversation. But it stumbles when students don't have a lot to say on the topic. The usual impish pitfalls of group work appear, of course: unequal loading; invisible participants; the unready, the unwilling; the workhorses; the usual suspects at the front etc.

In addition to that, it's a thin exercise to do when children are asked to talk about a subject that might be new or alien to them. It might seem an obvious thing to say, but it is impossible to think about nothing, just as it is impossible to talk about nothing (unless you're Philip Schofield). You have to have something to talk about. This is why philosophy is a particularly hard thing to do with a group of very young children, or those with little knowledge about philoosphy. Can you imagine a discussion about Shakespeare if nobody had ever heard of the man? Or a debate about Danish modal verbs populated only by Yoruba speakers? But that's what P4C seems to ask of children. 

What you might be doing with children might be good practice for debating, or general discussion, and I certainly wouldn't strike it off the curriculum. But what it isn't is philosophy, except in the most basic of senses, and I'd challenge the view that it actually makes you any better at philosophy as a discipline when you're old enough to understand it.  I recently taught – don't judge me – a lesson with my year 7s on the ontological proof of God's existence, more as an experiment than anything else. If you're familiar with it, you'll be aware of its brain-melting complexity the closer you get to it. As Einstein didn't say, philosophy is "saying things as simply as possible. But no simpler." That last bit is vital. Some concepts are irreducibly complex. Some ideas you can't chew up and feed to a child. Some things require an extraordinary knowledge base before you can approach them. Anything but the most basic topics are off the chart as far as philosophical comprehension goes for most children.

So, bin it? Not a bit of it. Integrate it. There's not a thing in P4C that can't be brought usefully into every other academic subject as part of robust and challenging questioning skills. Every teacher should be familiar with the processes of Socratic dialogue because it forces pupils to justify, to reason, to reconsider, every answer they give. But that needs to be under the auspices of a body of knowledge. Let the maths teachers prod and provoke about Fermat and Pythagoras, and the science teachers challenge their children to show all workings, and specualte, and falsify. But you can't make something out of nothing.

Or, if you can, see me in theology.