Curriculum: Philosophy - I can make kids think

20th March 2009 at 00:00
Introducing primary school children to philosophy can develop reasoning skills and improve behaviour

The Philosophy Shop -

Imagine you're teaching a class of Year 2 pupils and you ask them to do the simple sum of 2 + 2. One child says four, "because it's my lucky number", another proceeds to do the calculation by counting on their fingers, but answers five because of a small error. Which one knows the answer?

When this question is posed to a class of Year 5 pupils at Holy Trinity Primary School, south London, they are so keen to answer that their raised hands are almost elevating them out of their chairs.

"The girl who said five - she tried to work it out the right way and will get corrected by the teacher," says one pupil, while another argues: "I think the boy did know the answer, but was just trying to be smart." One says that if four is his lucky number, he'll have a 1 in 10 chance of being right, which leads into a discussion about whether you need to be able to explain something to know it. Then one child says: "Well I know water evaporates - I don't know how, but I still know it."

Peter Worley, director of The Philosophy Shop, leads philosophical discussions with children from the age of five to 11 in south London primaries each week and is often amazed by the results.

"I was discussing whether something can be true and false at the same time with a group of five and six-year-olds," he says. "After a lot of discussion, one of them said: `No, it's impossible. If I am me, you can't say that I am not me - it wouldn't be true.' They were getting into the territory of Aristotle's principle of contradictions: that contradictory statements cannot be true and false at the same time."

Since Matthew Lipman's series of philosophy books for children published in the 1970s, the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement has become established in many schools. Ofsted inspections where philosophy is an extra-curricular subject have been positive. The 2001 report on Colby Primary School in Norfolk, said: "A strength is the teaching of philosophy and thinking skills. In these lessons, pupils learn to listen, consider, and respond in a mature way to the ideas of others. This work is taken to a high level and clearly has a positive impact on children's work across the curriculum, giving them confidence to speak and discuss ideas."

One of the strongest arguments against teaching philosophy to children, raised by the philosopher Jean Piaget, is that there is no thought without language, so how can young children under 11 philosophise? However, more recent experience has overruled these findings. Supporters of P4C argue that language and reasoning develop in tandem, and speaking develops thought processes as well as expression.

In class, this isn't just "circle time" but it's a case of going through thought processes, asking why and getting pupils to justify their answers. The Philosophy Shop provides training for primary teachers and promotes an academic, guided approach rather than an informal, discussion-based one. Michael Hand is an educationalist and philosopher of education at the Institute of Education, and argues for formal guidance.

"A common criticism (with primary pupils) is that you just get kids to sit in a circle and let them say whatever they want," he says. "The problem is that the discussion might not be remotely philosophical. I would advocate discussion, but much more intervention - identifying where people have made good arguments, questioning."

In the past, philosophy was usually taught in a historical context to over-16s. Artistotle's principle of contradictions would have been learnt first, before attempts were made - if any - to apply it. But this wouldn't have much of an impact on primary pupils. "If you're discussing the nature of good and bad, you might put it in the context of superheroes, for example," says Peter Worley. "Cause and effect might be taught by asking if we can change traffic lights by looking at them - if they say no, ask why, then will they change if we blink at them? It's about the angle of approach."

Getting pupils stuck into abstract concepts also goes against the rigid testing culture so many pupils are used to. "The education system seems to favour the right answer over good reasoning," says Mr Worley. "If education is about teaching our kids to think, then the current model seriously needs to be looked at, if not utterly reformed, when it prefers an unthinking answer to a thinking one."

Michael Hand worked as a primary school teacher before branching into academia and in his experience, "teachers weren't ambitious enough about the level of debate that the kids could do," perhaps because of this focus on the correct answer. "I found (my pupils) really interested, engaged and able to put arguments together."

Parents confronted with their children's unanswerable questions may find it helpful to pass on their dilemmas to an expert.

Truda Spruyt's 10-year-old son has been attending an after-school philosophy class. "He has always been interested in profound questions: when he was two and a half, he asked: `Who made God?'" she says. "The philosophy lessons at school have helped give him a framework for this curiosity and have been a major highlight of his week. He has grown in confidence since taking part . while it may be a coincidence, he has made faster than expected progress in his schoolwork too."

The impact of studying philosophy on literacy skills and critical reasoning are undeniable, but guided philosophical inquiry can also help pupils with low academic achievement or challenging behaviour. A 2007 review by Clackmannanshire Council, Scotland, into philosophy and primary school pupils, found an hour a week "cost-effective", in promoting critical reasoning skills, cognitive ability, and emotional and social skills.

Tracy Clark, Holy Trinity's Year 4 teacher, agrees. "The biggest difference that I've seen is in their reading and writing skills," she says, "but it also has a calming effect and it equips them with skills outside the classroom. Two years ago, I had a severely autistic pupil who responded well in philosophy class. We've got a lot of pupils with English as an additional language and they are as keen as any of the others."

A 2007 Unesco report about philosophy in schools acknowledged that children "in difficult situations, or those who fail at school" are thought to have difficulty with abstract concepts, which could stop them taking part. But these children "are often hyper-sensitive to existential problems", the report adds, so they may be ready to take part in discussions as long as the teacher ensures certain conditions are met.

John Taylor is the director of critical studies at Rugby School in Warwickshire and he has just appointed Emma Williams as a philosopher in residence. He is in no doubt of philosophy's appeal to pupils who don't necessarily thrive under conventional academic teaching.

"Questioning authority and being subversive definitely appeals to the teenage mindset," he says.

Mr Taylor started a Perspectives on Science course that encouraged a philosophical look at ethical questions in science and it is now a national qualification. Rugby is an independent school, but it has close connections to local state schools. While the philosopher has been employed primarily to help pupils with their sixth form dissertations and philosophy A and AS level exams, John Taylor is in no doubt of the wider benefits. "If I was teaching physics to a newcomer, they'd have to have studied for years to understand a lot of it," he says, "but with philosophy, you can have interesting conversations with any pupil, as they don't need to know a lot of background knowledge to get involved."

The Unesco report found that children with behavioural problems are helped by being able to articulate their opinions, and it provides them with a way to mediate between feeling an emotion and acting on it "be it throwing a punch or hurling an insult instead". This is something that the Holy Trinity pupils have noticed. At the start of philosophy sessions, Peter Worley asks them to go to their "happy place". The class comes in from breaktime brimming with energy but pupils close their eyes, breathe deeply and take themselves to where Peter is guiding them.

"You can get distracted by everyone," says Henry Crabb. "Now when I'm annoyed, like when I'm arguing with my sister, I go to my happy place and I don't want to hit her. I try and find the words instead."

The most striking thing that emerges from observing a philosophy session is that there is no hierarchy of right and wrong. Some children are quicker; some are more articulate; but everyone is given time and space to answer. "Young kids have a thirst for this kind of intellectual engagement," says Michael Hand, "they have all sorts of untapped potential."



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