‘Is it OK to deprive someone of their freedom?’
‘Is it acceptable for people to wear their religious symbols at work places?’
‘DO we have to be sad sometimes to be happy at other times?’
These are just some of the intriguing philosophical questions raised in the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) programme that has been the subject of an Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) report – see the full report here. It has made a news splash and it gets me thinking. How and why would philosophy benefit reading attainment? Why was this curriculum approach successful for young children?
The EEF report unpicks the 48 school (1500 children) randomized controlled trial, which came in cheaply at a mere thirty pounds per student. It had a positive impact on reading attainment of 2 months and mathematics attainment of 2 months.
Is it the mystical power of philosophy, some hidden esoteric art hiding in Plato’s cave, that has helped children read better? Well, no – not really. The programme is a great example of well-structured thinking, helping model such thinking for our children – particularly those younger children who need to harness their curiosity within a useful, disciplined framework. The ten stages of the SAPERE P4C programme proves clear and patently effective based on the evidence.
The mention of ‘thinking skills’ can send some educationalists apoplectic with rage, but really it is just giving some labels to strategies for how our students can better build their knowledge and understanding when faced with challenging subjects and problems. Perhaps thinking skills and subject knowledge aren’t in binary opposition?
Of course, we all want our students to reason, question, construct arguments and elaborate upon such arguments. It turns out that P4C can help develop this rigorous thinking and it can have wide benefits (not to mention the potential gains of understanding what it is to be a thinking citizen – such is the emphasis of many of the philosophical questions posed). Secondary school subject teachers could likely learn interesting lessons from the P4C programmes, whilst retaining their subject specific focus.
This positive report made me consider parallels with the International Baccalaureate ‘Theory of Knowledge’ (TOK) course. When I taught TOK I noted that my English students found it deeply challenging (especially when not raised with a European curriculum that integrated philosophy deeply into what is taught), but that it helped make their English Literature reading sharper, more analytical and critical.
Fundamentally, it comes back to my old friend – metacognition. Put simply, get ‘em thinking hard about their own thinking and give them a language and a guided structure to help organise their thinking. The P4C programme clearly gives students a meta-language to guide their questioning and their arguments. The report certainly got me thinking!