Learning to be reasonable
PHILOSOPHY FOR CHILDREN is often taken up because of its ‘effects’. It is thought worthwhile in so far as it improves scores in literacy, speaking and listening and maths tests. It is praised for its effects on emotional awareness and thinking skills. But we argue that philosophising with children and young people is a good thing in itself. Philosophy calls on imagination and reasoning and puts these capacities to work exploring values, assumptions and vital concepts like justice, truth, knowledge and beauty. A philosophical community of enquiry provides a forum where adults and children can search for meaning together. Children become reasonable in both senses of the word — they are adept at reasoning and they are open to the reasoning of others.
It is so important for adults and children to talk together in situations where differences can be welcomed and explored. Normally, they don’t talk together in this way enough. It’s now recognised that children are influenced by their peers to a far greater extent than we had previously thought. Not surprisingly, young people talk to each other and the talk means something. It’s important and memorable. Adults can make classroom talk memorable too, through philosophy.
Philosophy for Children promotes a forum for open dialogue in which participants are not content to exchange ideas and opinions as if they were bits of information. Instead they ask questions, sift arguments and explore alternatives. Above all, they try to understand each other. It is possible to find a philosophical dimension, and so an opportunity for philosophical thinking, in any subject in the curriculum. If we had the will, we could even give it a curriculum slot all to itself.
But what does educational research reveal about the benefits of p4c?
There should be a health warning on all ‘headline’ reports of educational research because one really has to study the conditions of the research, the research methods, the precise teaching materials used in the study and so on. Philosophy for Children has been researched many times but, as with most initiatives, the nature of the research is mixed. However, two British psychologists (2006) carried out a systematic review of research on P4C and only included studies that met stringent research criteria (1). One of those studies was by p4c.com co-director Steve Williams. All the selected studies showed some positive outcomes in the following areas:
- Developments in cognitive ability
- Developments in critical reasoning skills and dialogue in the classroom
- Emotional and social developments
The researchers then conducted their own research in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, to find out if previous positive findings could be replicable in large classes (30 pupils) facing the ‘normal’ constraints of funding and professional development time? (2) Their conclusions can be summarised as follows using extracts from the report:
- Developments in cognitive ability. ‘The results suggest that even one hour’s use of an enquiry-based teaching methodology each week can have a significant impact on children’s reasoning ability. There was anecdotal evidence from both teachers and pupils that the use of enquiry-based methods extended well beyond the ‘Philosophy hour’. Also, those pupils who had been involved in the Philosophy programme improved their self-esteem (as learners) scores over this period. There was no significant difference between the pre- and post-test results of the control pupils. These results suggest that enquiry-based approaches are conducive to promoting self-esteem in learning situations.’
- Developments in critical reasoning skills and dialogue in the classroom. ‘The rate of pupils supporting their views with reasons doubled in the experimental group over a six-month period. Teachers doubled their use of an open-ended follow-up question in response to pupil comments. The percentage of time that pupils were speaking (compared to the percentage of time that the teacher was speaking) increased from 41% to 66%. The length of pupil utterances in the experimental classes increased on average by 58%. There were no significant changes in the discussions taking place in the control classes.’
- Emotional and social developments. ‘The study provided evidence of improvements in pupil’s communication skills, confidence and concentration. It also suggested that the process of community of enquiry helped pupils learn to self-manage their feelings/impulsivity more appropriately.’
Sustainability of cognitive gains
The researchers tested the pupils again after the second year of secondary school. Though neither the control group of the philosophy had done philosophy in secondary school, ‘the philosophy group that had achieved significant cognitive gains at primary school demonstrated that these gains were fully sustained following two years of secondary education. Similarly the control group who had showed no cognitive gains in primary school also showed no gains in secondary school. The main conclusion arising from this additional study was that cognitive gains achieved through regular participation in collaborative classroom communities of enquiry proved sustainable despite the absence of further experience of classroom enquiry in secondary school’.
The researchers concluded that: ‘challenging pupils to think independently in collaborative classroom communities may not be easy. However, as the current study demonstrated, there are potential gains for pupils. The nature of these educational gains seem increasingly important as the purposes of education are redefined in a rapidly changing world of information technology and global economy. Evolving curricula now placing increasing emphasis on thinking and interpersonal skills.’
Other studies and reports
These results and conclusions reflect other, less rigorous, accounts from teachers and pupils. The reported gains are also consistent with positive Ofsted reports on schools and lessons that include philosophical enquiry. Much of the research has been in primary schools because, at these key stages, Philosophical Enquiry is easier to implement across the curriculum. I carried out some research into Philosophy with Year 7 pupils in a secondary school and the results were similar to those quoted above, with the addition that pupils who experienced philosophical enquiry did better in comprehension tests than those who did not. My study was one of those that was included in the ‘systematic review’ by Trickey and Topping.
A more recent project (2012-14), funded by the Education Endowment Foundation, aimed to find out whether P4C could improve attainment for pupils in English primary schools. Researchers from Durham University concluded that P4C had a modest positive impact on Key Stage 2 attainment.
(1) S. Trickey & K. J. Topping (2004) ‘Philosophy for Children’: A Systematic review. Research Papers in Education 19, 3, 363-378.
(2) S Trickey (2007) Promoting social and cognitive development in schools: An evaluation of Thinking through Philosophy in The 13th International Conference on Thinking, Norrkoping, Sweden, June 17-21, 2007. Linkopings University Electronic Conference Proceedings.
- A compendium of P4C research (rather out of date) is at: Montclair University here.
- Research by Steve Williams from Village Community School is available here. (https://p4c.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/villagep4c-1.pdf)
- The Trickey (2007) research quoted in the report above is available here.
- The Philosophy for Children Evaluation report and Executive summary from the Education Endowment Foundation is here.