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Why children should study philosophy

The benefits of children being adept at critical thinking have been professed since the 1970s.

Children are natural philosophers. Ask anyone who has encountered a three-year old constantly asking the question “Why?” Yet how often do we encourage the questions children ask and really take the time to further develop the ensuing discussion?

The young mind that queries and demands justification for accepted norms hints at an instinctive search for meaning. That quest can be encouraged and channelled in a constructive direction. This is where the study of philosophy can help.

Studies have demonstrated that children who study philosophy are more likely to achieve better academic results. They also enjoy additional social benefits such as better self-esteem and the demonstration of empathy for others.

There is also said to be less bullying in the schoolyard and less behaviour-management issues. This was particularly evidenced at Buranda State School in Queensland, which adopted the philosophical community of inquiry (CoI) method as an all-school approach.

Teaching critical thinking

The aim of the CoI method is to produce critical, caring, creative and collaborative thinkers. It does this by encouraging student-led discussions facilitated by a teacher who is trained in philosophy.

Is this a recipe for classroom chaos? Should teachers allow students to sit in a circle and raise their own questions, discussing many possible answers to questions that may simply not have a black-and-white factual conclusion? Should children study philosophy? Isn’t it too difficult?

Philosophy for Children (P4C) started in the 1970s in order to encourage critical thinking skills in children from K-12. Supporters of P4C believe philosophy needn’t be confined to the academy.

The term was coined by Matthew Lipman. He wanted to encourage reasonableness in citizens and figured the best way to do so was to teach critical thinking skills from an early age. Lipman defines critical thinking as:

thinking that (1) facilitates judgement because it (2) relies on criteria, (3) is self-correcting, and (4) is sensitive to context.

Alongside critical thinking skills, “caring” and “creative” thinking are equally important skills children should be encouraged to develop. In this way the critical thinker won’t just know the right thing to do, they’ll also know how to go about achieving it, while being sensitive to the context and others involved in the situation.

Young philosophers have fewer behavioural issues.

Such general thinking skills can be taught in the classroom by using narratives. Children respond well to stories, from which questions are generated about philosophical topics such as truth, friendship or morality.

Guidelines are set as a group. These include rules such as “address the topic, not the person” and “do not interrupt”. The teacher then facilitates an open, democratic, student-led discussion, which follows the direction of the inquiry of the group as opposed to having a specific end goal in mind.

In this way, the CoI encourages respect between students and the teacher who discuss ideas together. This creates a safe environment for participants to explore the strengths and weaknesses of different perspectives. Students are encouraged to be autonomous thinkers and this gives them self-confidence.

Further, the CoI encourages empathy. The ideas of others are built upon, not simply argued against. The thinking skills honed in the study of philosophy are transferable, relevant to all other subjects as well as to real-life situations.

Developing values in schooling

For all these reasons, we can see why the Western Australian government’s Curriculum Council identifies critical reflection as an individual value. It should be included at the national level. Critical reflection is defined in the WA school curriculum as the ability to:

reflect critically on both the cultural heritage and the attitudes and values underlying current social trends and institutions.

This is compatible with the nine values listed in the national framework for schools, which include: care and compassion; integrity; doing your best; respect; fair go; responsibility; freedom; understanding, tolerance and inclusion; honesty and trustworthiness. In order to possess these qualities, one would need to develop the skills to think in this way.

Such skills can (and should) be taught in relation to many disciplines, but their original home is the discipline of philosophy. Philosophy is ideally suited to encouraging reasonableness. The study of philosophy teaches students to consider the justification for arguments, the reasons supporting a position and to consider alternatives.

Harvey Siegel notes:

A critical thinker, then, is one who is appropriately moved by reasons: she has the propensity or disposition to believe and act in accordance with reasons; and she has the ability to properly assess the force of reasons in the many contexts in which reasons play a role.

Surely these are precisely the kinds of members of society we would like to have.

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