ARTICLE

By: Luke Ambrose

ILLUSTRATIONS: Rasmus Juul

The case for teaching kids philosophy

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A child’s sense of curiosity is a wonderful thing – but not one that is always encouraged. It’s time to harness children’s fascination with the big questions of life, through structured teaching of philosophy from a young age.

Takeaways

  • Children are naturally curious, but their curiosity is not always welcomed.
  • Teaching kids philosophy helps them harness their curiosity and develop useful skills.
  • Research shows they get better at reasoning, communicating and managing emotions.
  • Teachers can introduce philosophical ideas through storytelling, debates and ‘safe spaces’.
  • Philosophical concepts can be applied to issues like the climate, poverty and healthcare.

Children are endlessly curious. Parents and teachers often run out of answers to the constant why, why, why, and end up replying “because I said so” or “that’s just how it is”. As the Australian philosopher Peter Singer puts it: “Sometimes those constant ‘why’ questions we get from children are squashed out of them a little too vigorously.”

But… why?

It’s a timely question. Today’s younger generations will join a workforce where the ability to consider those big ‘why’ questions will be more important than ever. Every industry is feeling the implications of technological innovation, as automation and artificial intelligence take on more and more tasks. Piece by piece our economy is replacing brawn with brains. How can we refocus our education system so that young minds don’t stop asking ‘why’? Luckily, a big part of one of the answers lies in a subject that has been with us for millennia: philosophy.

Argue, think, reason, repeat

As Singer puts it, philosophy “is about stopping and reflecting”. It’s the discipline that gives us permission to take a step back from the world and ask those questions that our teachers used to struggle to answer.

“Research shows benefits in cognitive ability, critical reasoning and emotional and social development”

Philosophy lessons for children isn’t a new idea. Back in 1972, Columbia University professor Matthew Lipman had the idea of bringing the subject to children at a younger age, because he felt his students lacked reasoning skills. Lipman’s idea snowballed into the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy in Children and the teaching programme Philosophy for Children (P4C). Lipman died in 2010 but the institute and the teaching programme are still around, and perhaps their moment has come.

Teaching kids philosophy reaps big rewards. A review of years of research conducted in 2004 showed clear benefits in cognitive ability, critical reasoning skills and emotional and social development.

Professor Stephen Gorard of Durham University, who led a 2015 study on the impact of philosophy teaching on nine-to-ten-year-olds, told the BBC that the sessions “seem to work especially well for the children who are most disadvantaged”.

Stories like the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper and Judith Thomson’s “trolley problem” introduce philosophical ideas in an accessible way.

Children who are taught philosophy start to have more sophisticated discussions, giving reasons for what they say. They communicate more effectively, and learn to manage their feelings better – skills that are ever more important in the workplace.

Another study conducted in Hawaii by Dr Lu Leng showed philosophy helped pupils to feel more engaged with their education. One schoolchild who took part in the study said: “It’s a feeling like being with someone you trust or like being with your family who listen to you and hold you up. I see this class as a family and I know I can express myself freely.”

“Philosophy is jumping jacks for the brain”

Even if we put these concrete benefits aside, philosophising with children is a good thing in itself, proponents argue. It’s an opportunity to imagine freely, to question assumptions, and to consider concepts like justice, truth and beauty. And it teaches the importance of understanding others – something that often seems lacking in today’s world.

Jumping jacks for the brain

What is it that makes philosophy so beneficial for kids? Think of it this way: if life were one big Crossfit event, wouldn’t we want our children to be exercising as much as possible? In reality, many of life’s challenges involve using not our muscles but our frontal lobes – the part of our brain responsible for decision making and reasoning. Philosophy is jumping jacks for the brain.

So what does a school philosophy lesson look like? Organisations like the P4C Co-operative provide materials for teachers, to be used with kids as young as three. In one typical lesson plan, pupils act out the fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper, with four different endings that give four different morals, exploring responsibility, reward, compassion and kindness. They then discuss and debate which moral they agree with, and why. Other lesson guides give teachers a loose structure for a philosophical discussion based on any book or film of their choice.

In the context of Covid-19 and the heated debate and misinformation found online, the P4C Co-operative has begun providing special materials looking at the nature of truth, how people form opinions, and how people argue. One lesson encourages children to consider how a person’s views may be influenced by the social group they belong to, while another invites them to argue both for and against the same proposition, to consider how beliefs and opinions are developed, rationalised and reinforced.

Many teachers hold ‘safe space’ classes, where students and teachers discuss topics on equal terms and there are no ‘wrong’ questions. And of course, teachers can introduce students to the field of philosophy itself, its key figures and its history.

Life lessons

Philosophy is full of hypothetical scenarios that can help us consider important real-life questions. Let’s try a few.

Exercise one: identity. A new ship – let’s call her the Athena – sets sail on a round-the-world trip, waved off by a huge crowd. As time goes by, each part of the ship is replaced: every nut, bolt and plank. Even the crew. When the Athena pulls back into port, the crowd cheer as vigorously as before. To them, she looks much the same. But are they cheering on the same ship? What makes the Athena the Athena?

Exercise two: reality. Three prisoners have been tied up facing a cave wall since birth. Behind them is a fire that casts shadows on the back wall as people pass by. This is the only reference point the three men have for the world. Eventually, one of the prisoners escapes, runs outside and sees the world for the first time. He’s stunned that there is more than just shadows. But when he tells the others, they don’t understand, and call him crazy. What if the world we know is no more real than shadows on a cave wall?

“Philosophy is often about contemporary problems”

Peter Singer

Exercise three: morality. You are walking along a city street in San Francisco, when you see a tram racing down the tracks, out of control. If it continues it will crash into five workers who are fixing the line. In front of you is a lever that will send the tram on to a side track – but on that track there is another worker. You have a split second to choose: stand by and do nothing, or pull the lever and sacrifice the one to save the five. But what if the worker looks up and you see it’s a friend or a loved one?

These classic philosophical conundrums come courtesy of Heraclitus, Plato, and contemporary American philosopher Judith Thomson. Sure, they’re far-fetched, but they force us to think. As Peter Singer says: “Philosophy is about arguing, thinking, reasoning, debating, and often it is about contemporary problems. Should we eat meat? What should we be doing about climate change? Is it good that people have choices about when to die as they do in some countries so they can ask a doctor to help them die? What should we be doing about global poverty? All of these are philosophical questions, and learning to think about these questions and to argue about them is important.”

From a teacher’s point of view, philosophy lessons come with their challenges. Kids can find it challenging, and some teachers are less comfortable than others with the idea of using open dialogue to explore philosophical ideas. But the benefits are considerable.

The hope is that widespread dialogue-based philosophy teaching could empower today’s children to build a wiser, better functioning and more just world. Would a transition to a more philosophy-heavy curriculum be easy? No. It would take time, and the real benefits might not become apparent until today’s children have children of their own. But that’s no reason not to do it, right?

Now there’s a philosophical question worth pondering.