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Want to improve NAPLAN scores? Teach children philosophy

Children taking part in a philosophical discussion at Buranda State School in Brisbane. Steve Gray/AAP

Latest figures show that student scores in reading, writing, language and numeracy have failed to improve despite schools receiving record funding over the past few years.

The National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) is an annual assessment designed to check whether students are developing the basic skills necessary to progress in school and life.

The most recent report reveals that nationally, these skills have largely stagnated since 2008.

The government response was swift, with the opposition claiming this stagnation provided evidence that more funding is needed, specifically by committing to the full measures proposed by the Gonski report.

The current Australian government instead took this as an indication that rather than providing more money, the focus should be on finding better “evidence-based measures”.

While some have argued these results are not concerning because NAPLAN scores are not comparable across years, our education outcomes have been stagnant or dropping for quite some time across a range of different measures.

So what can be done?

As it turns out, teaching children philosophy can dramatically increase student learning outcomes in literacy and numeracy.

Philosophy for Children (P4C) – a program that sees student-led discussions being facilitated by a trained teacher – started in America in the 1970s and has been implemented in countries including the UK, Austria, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Singapore and Taiwan.

Open, philosophical questions stimulate the students’ imaginations as they engage critically with ideas such as whether a healthy heart should be donated to someone who hasn’t looked after their body; if it is ever acceptable to deprive someone of their freedom; and whether it’s fair that male tennis players receive more sponsorship than female players.

The benefit of philosophical dialogue is that students explore different answers, examining the strengths and weaknesses for each, and critically reflect on assumptions along the way.

This improves their problem-solving abilities, as well as encourages compassionate respect for the perspectives of others.

A randomised controlled trial in 2013 found P4C delivers positive results for very little cost.

The study involved 1500 children across 48 schools in the UK and found that, on average, children who took part in P4C saw two months of progress in their reading and maths outcomes.

Even more impressive was that disadvantaged students’ writing ability improved by two months, their math skills by three months, and their reading abilities by four months.

These gains were achieved with the program being delivered for one hour per week at a total annual cost of £16 (A$27) per pupil.

Such results add to the growing number of studies showing that philosophy programs can improve scientific reasoning and overall learning and cognitive measures, which are sustained years after the original program ends.

Why philosophy?

Philosophy may seem a surprising solution to the NAPLAN problem.

It is often seen as too difficult for children, far too theoretical and abstract, with little relevance to the real world.

Yet the results from P4C programs make sense once people realise what philosophy actually teaches: critical thinking.

Philosophical thinking skills are transferable skills that assist a child to do well on tests as well as in the real world.

Rather than simply delivering information, philosophy helps children to think for themselves.

Critical thinking is a tool we use every day. Students use their critical discernment when deciding which job or career they want.

Distinguishing between important information and political rhetoric in the media requires critical thinking. Understanding complex ideas such as how policies might affect the economy, how certain drugs will affect certain patients, or how to design software all require critical thinking.

This is especially important given the increasing proportion of jobs available in STEM fields in the future.

Students who study philosophy also achieve better results overall.

In the US, philosophy majors score the highest out of all disciplines in the LSAT and GRE, tests used for admissions into law school and graduate programs respectively.

The benefits of philosophical training extend beyond doing well on tests, as philosophy majors then go on to have the highest non-STEM earnings of any major, and even earn more than accountants. Not bad for a degree which may be dismissed as not having an obvious vocational application.

What next?

Philosophy should be included in the national school curriculum. The Federation of the Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) submitted such a recommendation to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in 2009, but this has not been acted on.

In the meantime, philosophy in Australian primary and high schools continues to grow, with FAPSA and state-based associations offering professional development and training workshops to teachers.

Some schools have adopted a whole school approach to teaching philosophy using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) in all subject areas.

Buranda State School in Queensland is one such success story, with student test scores improving from well below average to “above the state mean in everything tested” in only five years.

Many states have philosophy available as an elective in the final years of schooling.

Philosophy events called Philosothons have also become popular. But most programs have been adopted on an individual basis, rather than the product of a sustained systemic change.

In the meantime, individual schools and teachers can incorporate P4C pedagogy into existing classes. To improve students’ reading, writing and arithmetic, we should teach them the fourth R: reasoning.

Any measure which delivers an extra two months of progress in only an hour per week sounds like a good idea to us.

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