Philosophy is as old as the ancient Greeks and has a reputation as a higher-order academic activity for people who like to think in a factual vacuum. So there is little wonder 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. 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 cannot agree on what they do. Dr Hand says it can loosely 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? 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 College in Berkshire.
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."
A research study carried out in 2007 reported 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.
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. "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 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 from the 1930s may go some way towards explaining why philosophy has taken a back seat to psychology in theories of teaching and learning. 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". His 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.
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 under-estimated 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 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 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 sometimes vitriolic debate about what constitutes philosophy and how it can be taught. Dr Hand favours the 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 (see right).
This 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. 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 his 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. But although we understand them, they can't understand us. So thinking must be something 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 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," says Dr Hand. "But at the 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."
For philosophy research and resources to download, go to www.tes.co.uktess-nov04
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?
PUZZLES TO PONDER
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?
If a prisoner is taken against his will, locked in a room and beaten unconscious, and then wakes up and wants to remain, is this prison stay voluntary? Are you only free when you can do what you want?