A wise move

30th September 2011 at 01:00

The idea of teaching philosophy to primary pupils can strike traditionalists as absurd. Surely children should be learning to hold a pencil, not debating whether or not the pencil actually exists?

The Campaign for Real Education is, predictably, against it. "Schools have enough to do teaching the basic three Rs without worrying about philosophy for children," a spokesman said.

Yet, as our report in this issue shows, more and more schools in Britain are recognising the benefits it can have for learning (pages 4-7). This shouldn't be surprising: the very word "philosophy" comes from the Greek for "love of wisdom".

The subject is seen as less of a novelty in many other European countries. In France, it has been compulsory in secondary schools since 1808, and the "philo" exam is the first, and longest, one that French teenagers sit when taking their Baccalaureate.

However, its growing popularity in Britain may be precisely because it is not a subject with mandatory national testing. Instead, it provides pupils with an opportunity to think for themselves, often in a very playful way.

Those who dismiss it as a luxury or an irrelevance have not been listening properly to the mutterings from businesses and university admissions tutors. Their greatest concern about school-leavers is not their skills at writing and adding up; it is the ability of young people to think critically and independently after years of being spoon-fed for exams. Evidence for this can be found in employers' organisation the CBI's education and skills survey this year, which found that businesses were more worried about school-leavers' problem-solving abilities than their literacy or numeracy.

Of course, a risk exists that philosophy may be taught in such a vague way that it just ends up as circle time with a grand title. But in the examples we explore it isn't. Done well, it can also affect how teachers themselves think. Take the American philosopher John Rawls's "veil of ignorance". This is the idea that if you took citizens out of a society and got them to set the rules together they would create the fairest system - but only if they did not know what role they would be given on their return.

Imagine applying that to education. What would schools look like if teachers could suddenly find themselves sat at the back of the class? Perhaps the next step is philosophy for teachers.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro

michael.shaw@tes.co.uk @mrmichaelshaw

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