Prove philosophy boosts thinking

18th February 2000 at 00:00
TEACHERS suffering from initiativitus may not welcome Education Secretary David Blunkett's recent announcement of a pilot "professional development programme" to help them teach thinking skills. This is not, however, just another onerous burden. Much more significantly, it heralds formal acceptance of what consultant philosopher Karin Murris has called "the fourth R - reasoning" as a core curriculum skill. "Thinking skills", or "critical thinking" as it is sometimes called, has gone from obscurity to the mainstream in one fell swoop.

This is a back-to-basics programme with a difference, in that it radically revises the list of basics. That makes it a supreme example of Third Way thinking, marrying a traditionalist's concern for basic skills training with the progressivist's concern to revise the standard curriculum.

It is also symptomatic of the rehabilitation of educational experts into the Department for Education and Employment's policy-making. Evidence accumulated over the past 17 years by professors Michael Shayer and Philip Adey at the Centre for the Advancement of Thinking at King's College, London, indicates that the use of their methods can improve examination results significantly across all subject areas. In this instance at least, New Labour is staying true to its policy of adopting "what works", free from ideological restraint and the old suspicion of experts.

This becomes even more apparent once one realises just what the cognitive acceleration programme is based upon. The press has tended to talk of it in terms of a "training in the mental skills of the philosopher". But this is extremely misleading, for this programme is the work of psychologists, not philosophers. It's Piaget, not Plato.

Piaget is an unlikely New Labour icon. His interest in the biological basis of learning smacks too much of scientific reductionism for a government that seems keener to promote "spiritual values" than rational debate over subjects such as genetically modified organisms. Piaget also gave a central role to play and discovery in learning, while the Government talks up whole-class, teacher-centred learning. No wonder the DFEE press releases and Blunkett's speeches fail to mention the role of the Swiss psychologist in the programme.

But this is a case of nevermind the theoretical basis, measure the results. If Adey and Shayer's methods work, it wouldn't matter if they were based on the teachings of Fidel Castro. Similarly, the move does not illustrate an intrinsic respect for the importance of thinking skills. If a daily bingo hour raised exam performance as well as cognitive acceleration does, you can be sure David Blunkett would be calling eyes down for a full house.

This explains why philosophy has been left out in the cold in the new thinking skills revolution. Many philosophers have been arguing that their subject deserves a place in the secondary school curriculum, precisely because it is the supreme teacher of transferable thinking skills.

The reason for this is simple - evidence. New Labour is not going to embrace any innovation in teaching, unless it believes it will raise standards. This puts the psychologists at an advantage. As social scientists, collecting evidence through trials is their stock in trade. Philosophers pitch their tents with the humanities. Testing claims by means of widespread controlled trials is thoroughly alien. Philosophers deal with arguments, not experiments.

Yet the moment philosophers claim that their subject improves thinking skills they have jumped outside the realm of pure philosophy into the realm of empirical, testable claims. If philosophy does make you think better, then one ought to be able to demonstrate the fact. What needs to be discovered is whether pupils who study philosophy consistently perform better. It seems the evidence that this is the case just isn't there, isn't sufficient or has not been disseminated properly. This has enabled psychology to steal a march on what philosophers consider to be their natural territory. If philosophers are to reclaim it, they need to produce evidence, not arguments, empirical proofs not assertions. For the Society for Consultant Philosophers, it's a challenge that can't be fudged.

For what it's worth, I think the evidence, if collected, will vindicate the philosophers. But what these recent developments have shown is that at the moment, that belief amounts to mere opinion, not knowledge. That's a distinction even sixth-from students of Plato can understand.

Julian Baggini is editor of the Philosopher's Magazine.

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