Study Shows That Teaching Young Kids Philosophy Improves Their Academic Performance, Making Them Better at Reading & Math

in Education, Philosophy | February 28th, 2017

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 or should 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.

via Quartz/Big Think

Related Content:

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Why We Need to Teach Kids Philosophy & Safeguard Society from Authoritarian Control

The Epistemology of Dr. Seuss & More Philosophy Lessons from Great Children’s Stories

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)

  1. kzen64 says . . .
    February 28, 2017 / 7:03 am

    Yes, it teaches one how to use reason to think through a problem, not just mindless rote answers to standardized tests.

    One needs to learn not just what a philosopher thought, but how they got there.

  2. gabriel says . . .
    February 28, 2017 / 9:41 am
  3. Brent Silby says . . .
    February 28, 2017 / 10:03 pm

    Based on my anecdotal evidence (I have not formally gathered data) I agree that teaching young people Philosophy improves their reasoning ability. I teach high school level Philosophy and have recently taken on board a year 7 and 8 class (11 and 12 year olds).

    For those interested, here is a Socratic dialog about teaching Philosophy in school:

  4. @timvangelder says . . .
    March 1, 2017 / 3:04 am

    Reading the study, effect sizes range from 0.03 to 0.29. Is this good? In his review of hundreds of meta-analyses of educational interventions, John Hattie found that the *average* effect size is about 0.4. As he puts it, “everything works” – at least to some degree. If an intervention gets less than 0.4, you should probably think about doing something else that’s more effective. In this case if you want to improve reading or writing or maths skills, you should probably look at the kinds of interventions which have most impact on those skills. Put another way, the interesting comparison to make is not treatment versus control (though you need to do that) but treatment versus alternative treatment options. You may love P4C for other reasons, but based on this data, impact on reading/writing/math is a pretty weak reason to recommend it.

  5. Bob House says . . .
    March 1, 2017 / 10:14 am

    As development director of SAPERE, the UK charity which ran the trial mentioned in this article, I am delighted that Open Culture has covered it. A very recently published piece of research in the UK has found that the same programme also boosts non cognitive skills such as peer relationships, confidence and self esteem ( Please feel free to contact me for more information about the programme and its impact

  6. Waheed id Deen says . . .
    March 10, 2017 / 9:43 am

    So it proves Atistitl’s way of teaching of 2500 years Aristotle was right.

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