Philosophy in schools: Creating individual thinkers

Written by: Sal McKeown | Published:
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Teachers of philosophy are passionate about the benefits that this subject can bring to young people. Sal McKeown considers the place of philosophy in schools

Introducing philosophy in a large secondary school is no mean task. It requires commitment, planning and it takes time. Yet the schools which have chosen to adopt this subject in different forms report many benefits for pupils such as better communication skills, independent thinking and an improvement in behaviour.

Perhaps one of the most striking examples of this is at Park Campus, a key stage three pupil referral unit with about 80 students in Lambeth. Almost all of them are permanently excluded from school and many have difficult home lives too.

Staff believe that engaging in philosophical debate in groups of two or three gives students a framework. Perhaps for the first time in their lives they are focusing on thinking and reasoning.

They learn that the first response is not always the best and, most importantly, that they can disagree without resorting to violence.

It acts as an interesting alternative to anger management as they analyse and discuss the issues that they face and the mistakes that they have made. The local police liaison unit has also noticed a difference in the way in which they can reason with Park Campus students.

These students have been using techniques from an approach called Philosophy for Children, Colleges, Communities (P4C).

P4C consists of four main phases: initial stimulus, question formation, enquiry and reflection. Teachers encourage students to agree, disagree and build on each other’s views, provided always that comments are supported by sound reasons. The approach lends itself to a wide range of topics, to different curriculum areas such as citizenship and, of course, philosophy itself.

Liz Briggs teaches at Bay House School and Sixth From in Gosport, Hampshire. She describes herself as passionate about philosophy: “I think the skills of debate, analysis, logical arguments as well as the time to ask deeper questions about the purpose of existence are the very point of education and I wish we placed philosophy more in the centre of our curriculum in the UK.”

She sees philosophy as a natural bedfellow for RE. In her sessions students look at concepts such as worship, identity struggle and sacrifice and then go on to apply it to any religion. It is much more analytical than the traditional approach to religion.

She told SecEd: “I think the real learning comes when the lesson supports students in going through a journey of discovery themselves, rather than just providing them with information and answers.”

While Park Campus and Bay House School see philosophy as a touchstone for students to reflect on their lives and to guide their future actions, others see it as a set of skills to improve achievement, to enable students to argue their point more rigorously and to raise attainment.

Lizzi Matthews is deputy headteacher (achievement and standards, English) at Broadwater School in Surrey. Like many schools, they decided to dip a toe in P4C before introducing it more widely. They started with English, humanities and also engaged the SEN team.

She explained: “Our learners are not the most self-confident children. A significant number of students are coming in at Level 3 and philosophy has had an amazing and positive effect.”

The school is small with just 40 teaching staff and 500 students. Before philosophy education, only eight children chose geography as one of the options; now they have over 70 opting for humanities.

Ms Matthews has embraced the training offered by Sapere, an organisation that supports a national community of teachers, trainers and schools and delivers courses.

Every three or four weeks, the school does a “Drop Down Day”, where all the children in school time are involved in a philosophical enquiry. It changes children’s attitudes. The latest enquiry was migration which the whole school engaged in. One year 10 student said: “I had no idea why people came to our country. Now I feel a bit selfish.”

The target is to create individual thinkers who are resilient learners. New staff are amazed partly because they see a different side to the students, but also they realise that if they can engage in such a rigorous thinking in philosophy sessions then they can apply the same skills in other lessons.

Ofsted seems to be in favour of philosophy. Often they identify that questioning is not strong in a school and doesn’t stretch children as much as it could. Philosophy for children is about the teachers standing on the sidelines and just using prompt questions to probe thinking and to make children argue and reason, to think more broadly and more deeply, and to find evidence to support their views.

It has paid rich dividends for some schools as shown by this extract from the Ofsted report on Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy in Runcorn: “The academy has some exceptionally good teachers who enable students to make excellent progress. For example, in a year 11 English class, P4C was used in a highly skilful way to develop the ability of students to talk about complex ideas before beginning to write about them.

“The teacher asked challenging and probing questions in ways that ensured all students thought hard about their response. She was often not happy with the first response and encouraged students to extend and enlarge upon their first response.

“As a result of this and the excellent student-teacher relationships, the students were utterly absorbed in the lesson.”

However there are challenges for those looking to adopt philosophy in schools. As well as lacking a space in the timetable, in many schools it also lacks a proper teaching space.

A recent report from the Education Endowment Foundation shows that teachers have used assembly halls and libraries as the venue for conducting P4C sessions. Crowded out of the timetable, subject to accommodation constraints and often not closely monitored, there is a danger that the impact of philosophy will be diluted.

However, once engaged in philosophical enquiry, schools seem determined to make it a success. Kingsford is a large secondary school in Beckton, east London and at first it seemed as if P4C was not going to succeed.

The staff had received their training and tried some class enquiries but it did not really take off. Review meetings were not prioritised and some of the staff who had received training had moved on before they had the chance to build P4C properly into their teaching. It lacked leadership.

Things changed when Chantelle Kentwell, head of year 7, was made the P4C co-ordinator. The school decided to focus on year 7, training more staff and allocating one hour a week of timetable for P4C. This made all the difference.

Daniel Steel, the deputy head, began to see the power of philosophy. Since beginning the project, pupil achievement has improved, with more than 50 per cent of pupils in year 7 now achieving a Level 5 and above in both English and maths.

Mr Steel said: “Philosophy will enable our children to become higher order independent thinkers in their academic subjects.”

  • Sal McKeown is a freelance education writer specialising in SEN and technology.

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