Philosophy in Schools: Continuing the Conversation (guest post by Myfanwy J. Williams)


The following is a guest post* by Myfanwy J. Williams, responding to last week’s post about claims made regarding the benefits of pre-college philosophy instruction. Dr. Williams is  co-director of what she calls “a very small not-for-profit company,” which she is in the process of establishing with two fellow philosophers, John Foster and Faye Tucker (Second Thoughts Philosophical Enquiry Community Interest Company; website currently under construction). The company is a spin-off from many years of philosophy outreach work that they have collectively conducted in UK schools, led by John Foster and working from Lancaster University, UK.

Philosophy in Schools: Continuing the Conversation
by Myfanwy J. Williams

“…I’d like to call for more empirical research on the benefits of pre-college instruction in philosophy […] while we wait for such evidence, I’d like to call for temperance when considering making grand sweeping public pronouncements about how philosophy can save the world.” 

As a practitioner working to deliver philosophical education in UK schools, I agree with Justin’s call for temperance. However, I also think that we philosophers shouldn’t be too shy in putting our collective heads above the parapet and advocating the potential benefits of introducing even quite young children to philosophy, or (and this distinction is important, I return to it below) to undertaking philosophical-type enquiry with them. Such advocacy needn’t wait for cast-iron evidence regarding their benefits.

Many people—including Steven Nadler, to whom Justin is responding—are understandably alarmed by the direction in which global politics is heading, and bewildered by the apparent failure of Western democracies to deal with social, economic and racial divisions. Nadler’s alarm is focussed on what he calls “American Stupidity”, and he hopes that philosophical education might provide the answer. He writes,

“Stupidity is a kind of intellectual stubbornness. A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face but it makes no difference whatsoever. They believe what they want to believe. Not only do they have no good reasons for thinking that what they believe is true—there are often good reasons for thinking that what they believe is false. They are not acting in a rational manner.”

Obviously the world isn’t going to be saved simply by educating tomorrow’s adults in how to be rational, where that consists in education in critical thinking. This kind of “intellectual stubbornness” will take a lot more to shift than that. I hope that Nadler is right when he says that doing philosophy with children can help: but doing philosophy involves a whole lot more than training people to be rational, and we would do well to focus on the richness of its potential benefits.

For instance, rationality tout court isn’t the starting point when it comes to preventing intellectual stubbornness. A willingness to entertain doubt precedes any sincere engagement with reasoning processes. The entertainment of doubt—indeed, the positive encouragement of doubt—is one of the hallmarks of philosophical endeavour. Perhaps, then, doing philosophy before college—while young minds are naturally curious—can foster a willingness to question, and enable children to grow into adults who are at least less uncomfortable than they would otherwise be with complexity and uncertainty.

That is indeed one motivation for doing philosophy with children and young people—and even with quite young children in primary (elementary) schools. There are many more besides, and I will return to those in a moment.

But before addressing the plausibility of this line of thought—or indeed before examining empirical evidence for its soundness—it’s important to unpack what doing pre-university/college philosophy actually involves. Perhaps unsurprisingly (this is philosophy after all, folks) philosophical education and practice in schools takes many forms. Justin’s article mentions a big study that received a lot of publicity in 2015, due to its cautious headline findings that doing philosophy with children can improve their levels of literacy and numeracy, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The study was led by Professor Stephen Gorard from Durham University’s School of Education, and funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (“an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement”. The study sought evidence of how schools should spend the extra money they receive for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds (the ‘pupil premium’). The philosophy that the children ‘did’ was delivered by their class teachers. The teachers were trained by an established UK charity called SAPERE (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education), which delivers teacher-training (1 or 2) day courses in a method known as ‘P4C’. In the spirit of being aware of all the relevant truths before passing judgement—and in response to the sceptical tone of both Justin’s article and the links within it criticising the study—it is important to note that SAPERE is a registered charity—i.e. a not-for-profit enterprise.

My experience of the P4C method that is being tested in the EEF-funded study described above, and the follow-up study currently under way which aims to further test the effectiveness of the approach, is almost completely unlike anything I ever experienced as a student at any of the three universities where I studied (Cambridge, Lancaster, Manchester). I can’t speak for approaches in the US, but this experience is fairly standard in the UK. The P4C method does not involve teaching or studying the philosophical canon, nor is it much like a normal philosophy seminar. (Perhaps some philosophy seminars could learn from SAPERE’s approach, but that’s a topic for another post.)

P4C embodies a specific set of what SAPERE call thinking skills. It aims to nurture a learning environment that is caring, critical, creative and collaborative. We might also call these learning virtues. Again, promoting these virtues might not be what most university/college philosophy students experience. The SAPERE website explains the method:

“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. […] 

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).

P4C is intended to be a regular activity so that the children develop their skills and understanding over time.  The role of the facilitator is crucial to ensuring quality dialogue and progress, as well as integration with the curriculum.

It is well documented that P4C has an impact on children’s cognitive, social and emotional development. P4C is about getting children to think and communicate well; to think better for themselves.”

This is not the only way to do philosophy with school children and young people. For myself, I have taught philosophy in schools using a range of methods. I do not have a single formula, but I also draw on the philosophical canon, as well as my own experience of education—including martial arts as well as formal philosophical training.

Professional philosophers will recognise some aspects of the SAPERE approach from our own experience as thinkers, writers and educators. But a lot will not square with our own experience of teaching or being taught philosophy—‘doing philosophy with children’ is often not much like ‘doing philosophy at university/college’. ‘Doing philosophy with children’ can mean many things, each of which may turn out to be more or less beneficial from different points of view.  So when we ask, does the research tell us that teaching philosophy in schools makes children more numerate, literate, kinder, less aggressive, better verbal communicators, better listeners etc., we need to ask what ‘teaching philosophy’ means in different studies.

Two more issues are also raised by Justin’s original post. What sort of benefits might we aim at or hope for? And what sorts of evidence would be appropriate?

First, what are we looking for evidence of? That children grow into adults who are less intellectually stubborn? Or is it rapid gains in literacy and numeracy, as one might be led to think by the headlines last year? Is it making children better at critical thinking? Is it supporting non-cognitive development? Is it making children more able to and willing to question, and to pursue enquiry in the face of uncertainty? Is it shaping better future citizens? Is it about engaging with open-ended questions or learning the value of the examined life? Obviously there is room for different views; equally, doing philosophy with children might achieve some or even all of these things, at least if we do it well.

Which leads us to the second point: it is bound to be hard—maybe impossible—to generate evidence for some of these aims. We can’t do an RCT to decide whether philosophy turns children into better future citizens, let alone ‘saves the world’ (as Justin put it). Children can’t be contained and tested in laboratory conditions; initiating children into philosophical enquiry is a highly skilled, hard-to-standardise process, and nothing like giving someone a pre-packaged standardised pill. Experts in education research can tell us a lot more about the problems here. But we only need to ask some basic questions about evidence to see that ‘empirical research’ won’t be enough to decide whether doing philosophy with children is worthwhile. Maybe studies can show certain benefits with one approach, at least in one cultural context; maybe another approach can be shown to have other benefits. Maybe some studies will show no measurable outcomes. But not every benefit will be worth the effort involved, and not everything that counts can be counted.

I don’t mean this as an argument against research, let alone rigour and questioning. But we shouldn’t let the scepticism that philosophy encourages turn into an argument against doing philosophy with children. We’ve every reason to think that the Athenians were wrong in holding that philosophical questioning could corrupt the young, and many reasons to hope that encouraging children to explore open-ended questions and differing points of view can help prepare them for an uncertain future.

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