Wisdom of the sage can boost citizenship

27th January 2012 at 00:00
Lessons in practical philosophy foster greater sense of responsibility among children, researchers find

Just as the ancient Greeks advocated the teaching of philosophy, rhetoric and sophistry to form the minds of young men, so lessons in practical philosophy can help turn Scottish children into responsible citizens, according to new research.

A study of more than 130 primary and secondary pupils by the University of Strathclyde found that philosophical dialogue improved children's listening skills, gave them greater respect for other people, encouraged them to consider other perspectives and ideas, and helped them analyse problems.

The sessions, which followed an approach known as "Community of Philosophical Inquiry" (CoPI), presented pupils with a series of scenarios in which people faced moral choices, including what to do with money they had found and which charity to give funds to that they had raised.

The children were asked what course of action other people might take, what they would have done themselves and the reasons for their choices. After taking part in CoPI sessions over eight to 10 weeks, the pupils were presented with similar scenarios - and this time they answered in considerably more detail and offered more justification for their responses.

Claire Cassidy, who led the research, commented: "Doing practical philosophy in this way provides children with tools to enable them to participate as active citizens. Teachers in Scotland are being encouraged, through Curriculum for Excellence, to foster responsible citizenship in pupils - although discussions are continuing on what `citizenship' actually means."

Dr Cassidy set out to assess how effective the CoPI approach was in supporting children to become responsible citizens.

"While doing philosophy doesn't necessarily guarantee citizenship, it goes some way towards providing the necessary tools that a citizen requires," she said.

When pupils were asked what they thought citizenship meant, their replies focused on representing the views of others, being environmentally aware, being law-abiding and sitting on committees, as well as having good manners and being respectful to others and their views, she reported.

"They found they were able to debate and discuss reasoned argument without conflict and often continued their discussions after their sessions had finished. They felt CoPI got them thinking deeply - as one pupil put it, `thinking like they had never thought before'."

She concluded that although participation in CoPI helped children develop their cognitive skills, schools needed to go further if they were to promote "responsible" citizenship.

"Children live in a society and as present citizens their emotional skills must also be nurtured," she added.


What is a responsible citizen?

All schools display signs entitled "responsible citizens" or children wear stickers saying "I am a responsible citizen", so the research team felt it was "appropriate to gauge children's understanding of the phrase that is repeated as a mantra". They found that:

many of those interviewed, regardless of age, were unclear what the term meant;

some very young children said quite specifically that they did not know;

when the classroom signage was pointed out to them, children referred to good behaviour or "doing the right thing";

a P3 pupil said it meant one was important - because a responsible citizen in his school was someone who represented the views of others, for instance on the eco-committee;

children talked more about environmental protection than their teachers did;

many talked about social responsibility, for example community work and volunteering;

consideration of others was a strong theme.

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