Philosophy is as old as the ancient Greeks and has spent most of its existence quarantined in university courses. With its reputation as a higher-order academic activity appealing to people who like to think in a factual vacuum, there is little wonder that it has never really taken off as a mainstream school subject.
In recent years, however, a growing number of schools have started to look seriously at philosophy. It may not amount to a Kuhnian revolution in pedagogy, but there are signs that it is being taken more seriously.
In fact, philosophy in schools has become almost fashionable in some quarters. There has been extended discussion of its benefits for primary children on parenting website Mumsnet. Wellington College, the #163;30,000-a-year independent boarding school in Crowthorne, Berkshire, has appointed a visiting philosopher to act as a muse to its students. Rugby School in Warwickshire has a philosopher in residence.
But what is its value? According to Michael Hand, a reader in philosophy at London University's Institute of Education, the subject is much misunderstood, not least because philosophers themselves cannot agree on what they do. Dr Hand says it can loosely - but fairly - be described as the study of concepts and conceptual schemes. The subject matter is not the world itself, but the concepts we use to make sense of it.
So what, if anything, has philosophy got to offer schools, and primary schools in particular? Are philosophy lessons anything more than a job- creation scheme for philosophy graduates?
Several organisations support philosophy teaching, among them The Philosophy Shop, an organisation run as a charity that provides lesson plans, continuing professional development sessions, and specialists to conduct philosophy sessions in schools. Its chief executive, Peter Worley, is the visiting philosopher at Wellington.
The Philosophy Shop makes impressive claims about the success of its teaching methods - called Philosophical Enquiry, or PhiE - which have been used for the past 10 years at primary schools in the London borough of Lewisham and in a number of other schools across the UK.
"We have had feedback from schools, parents and pupils, gathered case studies and anecdotal evidence and evaluation about the impact on the children we work with," the organisation says.
"The reports include improved concentration, collaboration, confidence, behaviour and improved reasoning and conceptual skills across the curriculum. Sats improvement and Ofsted approval have also been noted. There has even been evidence of raised national curriculum levels," it adds.
A small research study carried out in 2007 reported significant positive outcomes from an hour a week of class-based, collaborative philosophical enquiries in primary schools. The study talked of developments in the children's critical reasoning, speaking, behaviour, listening and concentration.
Thinking about thinking
Perhaps surprisingly, the biggest take-up of philosophy lessons has been in primaries serving disadvantaged or multicultural areas with a high proportion of pupils speaking English as a second language.
Eugene Romain, a teacher at Grinling Gibbons Primary in Lewisham, uses The Philosophy Shop's method. "Even from the very first session, I've seen the children grow in confidence when they realise the primary resource for the group is not regurgitated fact, but rather their own opinions," he says. "Their delight and absorption in coming to use their analytic skills is obvious, and their quick adaptation to the individuality and originality that real thinking requires is impossible to miss."
Considering that clarity of thought is fundamental to success in most curriculum subjects, it is perhaps surprising that it is only in recent years that government ministers and their curriculum advisers have started talking about "thinking skills".
The influence of Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget may go some way towards explaining why philosophy has taken a back seat to psychology in theories of teaching and learning. Piaget argued in the 1930s that children's intelligence develops in a series of age-related stages and that they learn through exploration of their environment.
The role of the adult was to provide them with appropriate experiences. Piaget's theory of cognitive development suggests that before the age of 11 or 12, most children are not capable of philosophical thinking because they are not capable of "thinking about thinking". Piaget's theories of how children learn had influence across the world and were embraced in the UK by the influential Plowden report on primary education, published in 1967.
How arguments work
Subsequent research has challenged Piaget and suggested children are, indeed, capable of thinking in the abstract. In the 1970s, for example, Margaret Donaldson, a psychology professor at Edinburgh University who had worked at Piaget's research institute in Geneva, suggested that Piaget had seriously underestimated young children's capabilities.
Teachers are less likely to be familiar with philosophical enquiry because it is not embedded in teacher training in the same way as psychology, says The Philosophy Shop's Peter Worley. "When I first started running training days I was shocked that teachers, on the whole, did not know what an argument was - in the formal sense of premises and conclusion and the cogency of the two. There should at least be an exploration of how arguments work - logically and not just in terms of 'persuasive language' which is ubiquitous in the curriculum."
Another reason for the failure of philosophy to seize the hearts and minds of teachers could be the ongoing - and sometimes vitriolic - debate about what constitutes philosophy and how it can be taught. Dr Hand identifies three models of using philosophy in schools.
The first, the Great Books model, is the study of a canon of revered philosophical texts. But Dr Hand says: "It is clear that landmark texts do not belong in the reading corners of primary classrooms."
He also dismisses the second, the Circle Time model, in which children generate questions and the teacher is a co-enquirer. The discussion might not be remotely philosophical and usually fails to identify good arguments and questions, he says.
Dr Hand favours the third approach, taken by The Philosophy Shop, where children are introduced to puzzles from Western philosophy and encouraged to adopt a philosophical approach to discussing them. One such puzzle is a version of the Ship of Theseus that explores identity. If a ship is replaced plank by plank by new timber, would it be the same ship or a different one? What if the original timbers were used to construct a new ship? Which would be the Ship of Theseus?
Or if a prisoner is taken against his will, locked in a room and beaten to unconsciousness, and then wakes up and wants to remain, is this prison stay voluntary? "He doesn't want to leave, he is happy there, but if he did want to leave he would be unable to. Is the man free? Are you only free when you can do what you want?" asks Mr Worley.
The PhiE approach follows in the tradition of Philosophy for Children (P4C), the American movement started in the 1970s by Matthew Lipman, a professor at Montclair State College, New Jersey. Professor Lipman, who died last December, said he was prompted by his dismay at the poverty of argument and muddled thinking among educated people discussing the Vietnam War. His method is based on the reading of stimulating material - usually his own philosophical children's novels - as a basis for enquiry and discussion by children sitting in a circle.
In Professor Lipman's most famous novel - Harry Stottlemeier's Discovery - children are asked to write an essay on "the most interesting thing in the world". Harry's essay begins: "To me, the most interesting thing in the whole world is thinking. I know that lots of other things are also very important and wonderful, like electricity, and magnetism and gravitation. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something very special."
Later he adds: "If we think about electricity we can understand it better, but when we think about thinking, we seem to understand ourselves better."
Philosophy for Children has become an international movement, promoted in the UK by SAPERE, a charity based in Oxford that supports trainers and teachers working in schools and communities. Children are encouraged to develop their own questions in response to stimuli and choose questions to explore, guided by a facilitator.
"There are lots of groups and fine discussions about what philosophy is and how it should be done in schools. There is competition and hostility. It is quite a hornet's nest," says Dr Hand.
"But at the very least, it must be a good thing to enable young children to be clear about the way they speak and think. It is of benefit to the children and to the public at large, because a lot of public debate is befuddled by woolly thinking and imprecise use of language."
Where you see this icon, visit www.tes.co.ukpro003 for links to resources and research in the article
- Alien Adventures in Philosophy, a free lesson plan by outspark aimed at introducing philosophy for children to a KS2 class, uses an interactive narrative to link enquiries: "Convince the aliens not to eat you ..."
- Philosophical Thinking Posters, a set of free posters featuring images and quotes from philosophers, is designed to be used for classroom displays.
- Post-16 Open Evening Philosophy PPT is a PowerPoint presentation that explains to Year 11 pupils why they should study philosophy at AS and A-level.
Download these resources at www.tes.co.ukpro003
Kant's Box (metaphysics)
A puzzle from The Philosophy Shop that explores absolute and relative values, science, space, and a priori concepts:
Imagine a box.
Now imagine emptying the box.
The aim is to have nothing in it.
Do you think this would be possible?
Is there something that we can never remove?
If everything is removed, what do you think you would be left with?
If you remove all the things you have mentioned - germs, atoms, sides of the box - so we have an empty space, can we remove the space?
Would it be space or would it be nothing?
Is space the same as nothing?
Does space exist?
Can you touch space?
The Ring of Gyges (ethics)
This puzzle explores doing good, power and moral responsibility:
Imagine finding a ring that makes you invisible when you wear it.
Make a list of all the things you could do with your new-found power.
Make a list of all the things you should do.
Is there a difference between the lists? Why?
Should you do the right thing?
Should you do just what you want?
If you were not going to get caught, would it be OK to do naughty things?
Socrates believed you should always do good because it is the right thing to do. He believed doing good would make you a happier person.
He thought you should do good even if you suffered greatly for it. What do you think?
How do we know what the right thing to do is?
The charity SAPERE offers Philosophy for Children courses at three levels, featuring practical and theoretical development at each stage. The organisation's website provides materials and resources to download, as well as details of courses.
ON THE SPOT
The Philosophy Shop's chief executive Peter Worley on reasoning, recklessness and riots.
Is philosophy a posh term for critical thinking?
PW: Philosophy includes critical thinking, but it is not the same. Critical thinking is a necessary but not sufficient condition for philosophy. If you are doing philosophy, you will be doing critical thinking. But if you are doing critical thinking, you may not be doing philosophy.
Surely good teachers get children to think and formulate questions in their lessons. Why do they need philosophy?
PW: Philosophy is a specific kind of thinking: structured, rigorous and disciplined. Reasoning is a foundation of good learning and philosophy is the subject dedicated to reasoning. It will impact on fact-based subjects because they depend on the same structures of thought.
Children want to feel secure. Do we really want to suggest the table is not there when they leave the room?
PW: We don't go into a classroom and tell them the table isn't really there - that would be reckless. We have procedures to make sure topics are appropriate.
Is there a hornet's nest of hostility and competition among philosophers and organisations promoting the subject?
PW: It has been perceived as such in the past, but while we are engaged in a healthy dialogue about the intricacies of how it should be done, we are all in agreement about the fact that it should be done. SAPERE and The Philosophy Shop are working closely together to move education policy forward in terms of bringing philosophy to all children.
Teachers are supposed to be creating a moral environment in which children know how to behave and right from wrong. Is it sensible to get them wondering if there is ever an acceptable time to steal property or kill people?
PW: A very apposite question in the light of the recent rioting on the streets. Telling children how to behave doesn't stop them from acting counter to what they are told. There is a difference between "received" and "operational" beliefs. A received belief may be that it is wrong to hit people. An operational belief is the one that children act upon - such as it is OK to hit people if they hit you first.
How does that relate to the riots?
PW: Philosophical enquiry provides the tools for the sort of reflection that was clearly not going on when young people acted on what they may have believed to be justification for looting and rioting.
Joining The Philosophy Shop costs #163;35 and gives access to philosophy lesson plans, teaching strategies and games for thinking. Specialist philosophy teachers are available to work in schools in Bath, Cardiff, London, Manchester, Reading, Stoke-on-Trent, Essex, Hampshire, Berkshire and Birmingham. Prices range from #163;35 to #163;52 per session.
There are also Inset days in enquiry, questioning and thinking skills. Costs vary but start from #163;300 for a whole-school Inset half-day.
The If Machine: philosophical enquiry in the classroom by Peter Worley contains 25 philosophy enquiry sessions. #163;14.99 from The Philosophy Shop.