Should we teach philosophy to children? You’d have a hard time, I imagine, convincing many readers of this site that we shouldn’t. But why? It’s not self-evident that Kant’s ethics will help Johnny or Susie better navigate playground politics or lunchroom disputes, nor is Plato’s theory of forms likely to show up on an elementary school exam. Maybe it’s never too early for kids to learn intellectual history. But it’s less clear that they can wrestle with Hegel.
Perhaps the question should be put another way: should we teach children to think philosophically? As we noted in an earlier post, English educators and entrepreneurs Emma and Peter Worley have answered affirmatively with their Philosophy Foundation, which trains children in methods of argumentation, problem-solving, and generally “thinking well.” They claim that practicing philosophical inquiry “has an impact on affective skills and… cognitive skills.”
Peter Worley also argues that it makes kids less prone to propaganda and the fear-mongering of totalitarians. While one reader astutely pointed out that several philosophers have had “authoritarian tendencies,” we should note that even some of the most anti-democratic—Socrates for example—have used philosophical methods to hold power to account and question means of social control.
But while this noble civic motivation may be a hard sell to a school board, or whatever the British equivalent, the idea that philosophical thinking promotes many kinds of literacy necessary for children’s success has found wide support for decades in England and the U.S. as part of a movement aptly named “Philosophy for children” (P4C), which “began with the work of Professor Matthew Lipman, who founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University, USA in 1974.”
Inspired by an earlier American pedagogical thinker, John Dewey, Lipman and co-authors published Philosophy in the Classroom, under “the assumption,” writes Temple University Press, “that what is taught in schools is not (and should not be) subject matter but rather ways of thinking.” Lipman and his colleagues have had significant influence on educators in the UK, prompting a huge study by the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF) that tracked nine and ten year old students in England from January to December of 2013.
As Jenny Anderson writes at Quartz, “More than 3,000 kids in 48 schools across England participated in weekly discussions about concepts such as truth, justice, friendship, and knowledge, with time carved out for silent reflection, question making, question airing, and building on one another’s thoughts and ideas.” The results were pretty astounding. “Overall,” the study concludes, “pupils using the approach made approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and maths.” This despite the fact, notes Anderson, that “the course was not designed to improve literacy or numeracy.”
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds saw an even bigger leap in performance: reading skills increased by four months, math by three months, and writing by two months. Teachers also reported a beneficial impact on students’ confidence and ability to listen to others.
The rigorous study not only found immediate improvement but also longitudinally tracked the students’ development for two additional years and found that the beneficial effects continued through that time; “the intervention group continu[ed] to outperform the control group” from 22 of the schools “long after the classes had finished.” You can read the study for yourself here, and learn more about the Philosophy for Children movement—“inspired by a dialogical tradition of doing philosophy begun by Socrates in Athens 2,500 years ago”—at the Philosophy Foundation, the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, and the Center for Philosophy for Children at the University of Washington.