Call to cultivate wisdom in the early years

16th November 2012 at 00:00
Philosophy lessons for under-5s could bring major benefits, claim researchers

A teddy bears' picnic may sound like a straightforward bit of childish fun - but beneath the surface of this childhood game lie important philosophical conundrums waiting to be teased out, according to research.

Teaching philosophy in the early years of formal education could have significant benefits, according to two experts in the field who have shown how the simplest of scenarios are brimful with ethical dilemmas.

A joint presentation by Berys Gaut, professor of philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and Morag Gaut, a teacher in Fife at Anstruther Primary and St Andrews Nursery Centre, explained that three-year-olds were not too young to begin philosophical inquiry.

Delegates at last weekend's Philosophy in Schools conference at the University of St Andrews were given the teddy bears' picnic as an exemplar of political philosophy from the husband-and-wife team's book, Philosophy for Young Children: a practical guide: two small teddies and a large teddy are sharing a cake, and the children are asked to explore the fairest way to divide it.

Philosophy was about exploring questions with no settled answers, Professor Gaut said; it gave children tools for clear, self-motivated thinking and demanded that they not only have opinions, but also reasons and arguments for them.

The use of 10 philosophical scenarios, or "enquiries", with children taught by Mrs Gaut had, over the course of a number of weeks, led to impressive results. Children were around four times more likely to state reasons for their thinking unprompted; and they were about two-and-a-half times more likely to give relevant reasons.

One four-your-old boy, Jack, came up with what Professor Gaut described as a "quite stunning" analogy, when faced with the puzzle of Theseus' boat - a concept better known as Trigger's broom, thanks to a famous scene in Only Fools and Horses - which asks whether it is the same boat once every piece of wood in it has rotted away and been replaced by a new one. Jack suggested that it was, since if he had a new prosthetic hand he would still be the same person.

Professor Gaut highlighted research around Clackmannanshire primaries, which taught philosophy to four-year-olds from 2001.

Researchers found that IQ increases of six points on average still present two years later, as well as increased self-esteem, participation levels and reasoned responses.


Other presenters included: Peter Worley, co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, Joanna Haynes, author of Children as Philosophers; Lisa Jones, founder of St Andrews Philosophy Outreach Programme: Schools (POPS); and Scott Duncan, RMPS and philosophy teacher at Waid Academy, Anstruther, and Education Scotland development officer.

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