What is bravery? Why do we have to be kind to other people? Is it ever acceptable to deprive someone of freedom?
Asking nine- and 10-year-old pupils to consider these kinds of questions will ensure that they perform better in reading and maths, new research suggests.
The controlled trial involving more than 3,100 primary school children found that classroom discussions covering topics such as truth, fairness and knowledge resulted in pupils making significant additional progress in maths and reading. The effect was particularly pronounced among children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The study, published today by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), examines the effect of philosophy sessions delivered to nine- and 10-year-olds in 48 UK primary schools over the course of a calendar year.
In a typical lesson, pupils and teacher sat together in a circle and studied a video clip, image or newspaper article. A short period of silent thinking time followed, before the class split into pairs or small groups to choose philosophical questions that interested them.
Pupils then discussed these ideas and were expected to state their reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with their classmates. The sessions were supported by activities that developed children's reasoning skills and their understanding of philosophical concepts.
Overall, pupils made an average of two months' additional progress in reading and maths over a year. Among children eligible for free school meals, reading skills improved by four months and maths by three months. The study made no difference to writing skills overall. But pupils receiving free school meals made an extra two months' progress in writing.
The EEF concludes that, at less than pound;30 per pupil, philosophy sessions could be an effective way for schools to spend pupil premium funding.
Bob House (pictured, right), chief executive of the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education, which administered the research programme, was impressed by how quickly the impact of the lessons was felt. But he was unsurprised by the overall findings.
"We offer a chance to have relatively profound conversations that children from disadvantaged backgrounds don't typically get," he said. "More of that sort of conversation will happen in more advantaged homes."
Andrew Fisher, an associate professor at the University of Nottingham, has been teaching philosophy in primary schools for several years. He is regularly told by teachers that his lessons have an impact across the curriculum.
"You're changing the individual," Professor Fisher said. "And the individual goes to different lessons. You carry your outlook wherever you go, whether in the playground, with friends, at home or in a maths lesson.
"Children think, `If people are listening to what I have to say in philosophy lessons, then maybe what I have to say in other lessons is worth listening to as well.' "
Asking the right questions
Isabel Gois of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, who teaches the subject in five schools ranging from preschool to sixth form, has also seen its wider positive effects.
"Teachers say the children think before they speak now," she said. "They're more critical. They ask better questions. And the way they relate to each other - they'll say, `I disagree because.' They're learning to be respectful of each other's points of view."
The teachers involved in the study told researchers that its success depended on incorporating philosophy into the curriculum on a regular basis. Otherwise, they said, there was a risk that it would be crowded out by national curriculum subjects.
Mr House advocated incorporating philosophy techniques throughout the curriculum - in maths and science as well as the humanities. "The process of philosophical questioning and enquiry can be adapted to any subject," he said. "It's important that teachers do it with a passion, not because they have to, so I don't want to see it become mandatory. But I'd like to see it endorsed by the government."
The EEF has published seven other reports today (find them at educationendowmentfoundation.org.ukprojects). They include the results of a trial of the Perry Beeches Coaching Programme, which aims to improve the reading and writing skills of Year 7 pupils with poor English scores through one-on-one or small-group tuition. Overall, pupils in the trial made an additional five months' progress.
Glenn Skelhorn (pictured) teaches philosophy in a number of schools and is resident philosopher at Greenbank High School in Southport. He regularly observes the benefits described in the Education Endowment Foundation research.
"Philosophy is so rooted in thinking in a critical, careful, logical way," he says. "Being careful with your thinking, self-discipline, perseverance - it's so clear that the skills and powers that are nurtured through it have an impact across the board.
"In maths, it gets students questioning the validity of premises leading to a conclusion. In English, you can unpick philosophical issues in poems and short stories. It gets them into the habit of examining arguments in a particular way."