The Evidence Supporting Pre-College Instruction in Philosophy

“A growing body of controlled and randomized research suggests that philosophical instruction in primary and secondary education positively impacts students’ subsequent cognitive development, sometimes for years after that instruction ceases.”

So writes Preston Stovall, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Hradec Králové in the Czech Republic (as well as adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada and education researcher with Studium Consulting).

In an essay at Quillette, he surveys some of the research on the effects of pre-college instruction in philosophy (some of which has been discussed previously at DN; see the links at the bottom of this post), and suggests that such instruction is a growth area for the profession.

For example, a study of 4th and 5th grade students who had one period per week of philosophical instruction in a Philosophy for Children (“P4C”) program found that:

  1. There is evidence that P4C had a positive impact on Key Stage 2 attainment. Overall, pupils using the approach made approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and maths.
  2. Results suggest that P4C had the biggest positive impact on Key Stage 2 results among disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for free school meals).
  3. Analyses of the Cognitive Abilities Test (a different outcome measure not explicitly focused on attainment) found a smaller positive impact. Moreover, in terms of this outcome it appears that disadvantaged students reaped fewer benefits from P4C than other pupils. It is unclear from the evaluation why there are these differences between the two outcomes.
  4. Teachers reported that the overall success of the intervention depended on incorporating P4C into the timetable on a regular basis. Otherwise there was a risk that the programme would be crowded out.
  5. Teachers and pupils generally reported that P4C had a positive influence on the wider outcomes such as pupils’ confidence to speak, listening skills, and self-esteem. These and other broader outcomes are the focus of a separate evaluation by the University of Durham.

Stovall adds: “Similar results were reported for the impact of P4C on non-cognitive abilities (e.g. social and communication skills, teamwork and resilience, and empathy), again with the largest results shown for economically disadvantaged pupils.” He also discusses other studies which suggest that learning philosophy leads to “cognitive ability gains” in children.

Stovall frames his discussion as a response to skepticism about the value of college-level instruction in philosophy (discussed here) and the implications of such skepticism for the profession. He says that “even if the link between university instruction [in philosophy] and increased cognitive ability is severed, it does not follow that the health of the discipline (measured in student enrollments and the funding this brings with it) needs to suffer.” This is because

While it may be true that the evidence for those benefits among university students is lacking, that does not seem to be the case for the impact of philosophical instruction in primary and secondary schooling…. One might imagine a future in which academic philosophers work more closely with schools of education, first to establish whether these apparent benefits are real, and then to teach philosophy in primary and secondary schooling.

The whole article is here.

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  • [Barnett Newman, selections from “18 Cantos”]

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Preston Stovall
Preston Stovall
6 years ago

Thanks Justin–I just want to flag that critique of the Education Endowment Foundation study you mentioned via email:

and note another critique here:

If these criticisms hold water, it does look like that study suffers from an insufficiently randomized pre-trial distribution of students in terms of ability. From what I can gather, that defect does not pertain to the studies run in Scotland or Texas, however–and it’s in those studies that the initial gains were reported 2 years and 3 years after instruction had ceased. Still, as I say in the essay, these are early days. I hope more members in the profession take the time to investigate whether there is merit to this kind of instruction.