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Opinion: Philosophy for kids? It’s absolutely essential for the classroom

Let’s teach children how to think – not what to think.

Peter Ferguson

PHILOSOPHY IS A discipline which is often misunderstood and even sometimes derided. There is a perception that philosophy has no practical value in the modern world. As was once quipped in The Simpsons by Kent Brockman, “joblessness is no longer just for philosophy majors, useful people are starting to feel the pinch”.

It is true that the study of philosophy does not gear individuals towards a more specified career path in the manner that scientific, business, legal, and engineering studies do. However, the study of philosophy equips a person with skills which are highly valued, universally applicable, and can complement any educational or professional pursuit.

The benefits of philosophy are widely recognised by academics and educators. There is a growing movement that aims to introduce philosophy at primary school level so children have access to these benefits as early as possible to aid them in their future educational endeavours.

Learning by rote

Rote memorisation is the main educational method in primary schools. Children learn by repetition and are tested by simply being asked to regurgitate information learned in class. Little, if any, time is spent on critical or creative thinking. This is what philosophy can add to the curriculum. Philosphically-driven pedagogy allows the teacher to step back and assume the role of facilitator rather than educator. The class is then encouraged to engage with each other and discuss philosophical principles such as ethics, knowledge, logic, and language. The pupils can then lead the discussion, proffering their own arguments and opinions. This teaches children how to think and not what to think.

SAPERE, a UK based charity which promotes philosophy for children, details a typical philosophical session:

Children are taught how to create their own philosophical questions. They then choose one question that is the focus of a philosophical enquiry, or dialogue. For example the question might be ‘Is it ever OK to steal?’ The teacher, as facilitator, supports the children in their thinking, reasoning and questioning, as well as the way the children speak and listen to each other in the dialogue. After the enquiry the children and facilitator reflect on the quality of the thinking, reasoning and participation, and suggest how they could improve, either as individuals or as a group (community).

Encouraging critical and creative thinking

The process of continually questioning, evaluating and challenging ideas helps develop problem solving and analytical skills and encourages critical and creative thinking – in brief, it promotes the development of reasoning and rationality. Children learn why some arguments falter while others are able to withstand scrutiny, which allows them to not only present better arguments themselves, but also to critique the poor arguments of others in a fair and constructive manner.

Dr Carrie Winstanley of Roehampton University, co-editor of Philosophy in Schools, noted that “better than any other subject, philosophy teaches children how assess reasons, defend positions, define terms, evaluate sources of information and judge the value of arguments and evidence”.

The benefits of philosophy have been empirically evaluated. A 2004 study by Dr Steve Trickey and Professor Keith Topping analysed the effects of a one hour a week philosophy course for primary school children. In the pioneering programme children were encouraged to collectively discuss philosophical topics in a critical and objective manner.

Provoking thought

The programme was trialled with great success and it helped build self-esteem, confidence and improved conceptual skills. By encouraging a respectful dialogue, the programme improved the behaviour of students in the schools and reduced the level of bullying. Just one hour a week of philosophical enquiry promoted social and emotional development, yielded sustainable gains in cognitive ability, and increased critical thinking skills.

In a report on the programme, Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills) found that:

…the thought-provoking and exciting curriculum the school has developed over the last two years is an outstanding component of the school’s success, […] this includes the development of Philosophy for Children, a powerful tool which both excites the pupils and gives them the confidence to explore stimulating and challenging ideas and concepts. It not only strengthens their academic learning, but also encourages their empathy for others and gives them insights into the adult world.

Being able to think independently and critically is a life skill that everyone should possess, yet one that is sorely lacking in our educational system. The most effective way of fixing this anomaly in our education system would be to introduce philosophy into the primary school curriculum. It does not require a great deal of time or resources, and teachers would only require basic training as their role is reduced to facilitation and guidance.

It would be a simple task to integrate philosophy into the curriculum: mostly requiring a willingness to do so. And until that willingness is manifest, children will continue to lack a vital component to their education.

Peter Ferguson is a sceptic and a writer, he is a contributing author in the upcoming book 13 Reasons to Doubt, and he blogs at SkepticInk.com. Twitter @humanisticus

Read: There will be 70,000 more primary school children by 2019

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