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Can children think philosophically?

Juliana suggests children won't be able to think critically about morality, religion or other "Big Questions" until post age 11. Well, let's have them doing it then, at least. But actually, there's growing evidence that it's beneficial before then.

There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. The results are impressive.

One notable example is the Buranda State School, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane, which in 1997 introduced into all its classes a philosophy program. Children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with, following a Philosophy in Schools programme using materials developed by the philosopher Philip Cam and others. The effects were dramatic. The school showed marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report on the success of the program says,

[f]or the last four years, students at Buranda have achieved outstanding academic results. This had not been the case prior to the teaching of Philosophy. In the systemic Year 3/5/7 tests (previously Yr 6 Test), our students performed below the state mean in most areas in 1996. Following the introduction of Philosophy in 1997, the results of our students improved significantly and have been maintained or improved upon since that time.

There were substantial payoffs in terms of behaviour too. The report indicates “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:

The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated in the community of inquiry have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.

Of course this is a single example – hardly conclusive evidence by itself. But it’s not the only example. In 2001-2, Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, in conjunction with the University of Dundee studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of philosophy (using a Thinking Through Philosophy programme developed by Paul Cleghorn) at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire, including schools in deprived areas. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools with no philosophy programme. The children involved were aged 11-12. This study found that after one year,

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

These benefits were retained. When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (that’s to say, the improvements that had previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down during those two years. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school. Again, this is only one study. No doubt such results should treated with caution. But, they do lend considerable weight to the claim that not only can children of this age think philosophically, it’s also highly beneficial. A recent study strongly supports the view that philosophy for children provides measurable educational benefits for children even in their first year of school.

To sum up: there’s growing evidence that children, even fairly young children, can think philosophically. And, while more research needs to be done, there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s good for them academically, socially and emotionally.

The kinds of skills such philosophy programmes foster are, surely, just the sort of skills we need new citizens to develop.

(nb this is from The War For Children's Minds)


Timmo said…

Gary Matthews has worked on teaching schoolchildren philosophy. He has had some positive results. Matthews has a web page here, in case you're interested.

I would be very happy to see philosophy become a part of school curricula.
Anonymous said…
Maybe Chesterton was right. I’m very agnostic about reports and studies much as I would like to believe them. What are they going to say; we took all this time and wasted all this money and for what. There is also the factor well demonstrated already that children respond positively to being taken seriously, being talked to and being allowed to express themselves. Mental hospital patients responded dramatically to insulin treatments because it demonstrated care and concern. We now know that insulin has no beneficial effects of itself. Art and Drama teachers would say that their subjects if properly done would give massive advantages to schools. This has probably been demonstrated in other studies.

Some of this may already be being done in ‘faith’ schools in R.E. which tends to be doctrine lite. Stories with morals may be discussed etc. Could this be why parents are so keen on getting a place in ‘faith’ schools?
Stephen Law said…

Yes of course its wise to be cautious about such studies. Mind you, there have been recent ofsted inspections of schools with philosophy programmes and the ofsted inspectors have been very positive indeed about philosophy in the classroom. And they have no axe to grind at all.

I wheeled this evidence out in response to Juliana's assertion that "studies show" children cannot do philosophy below 11. I think we can safely draw the conclusion that, as yet, studies show no such thing...
Anonymous said…
My suggestion was only the average child's ability to think abstractly and hypothetically was not fully realised until after age 11. Like any type of development, this happens gradually and could occur earlier or later in any given child. I would certainly not categorically state that children could not or should not attempt to think critically about ‘Big Questions’ prior to this age or that they 'cannot do philosophy', only that their ability to do so would, on average, be greater after age 11. I do not think it is necessary for success to be assured prior to any endeavour and a failed or even partially successful attempt may still have value.

Prior to a child developing the ability to reason - whatever age that may occur at - we still want them to learn things. If we accept that at this stage we cannot use reasoning as the method of inducing such knowledge then we have to turn to other causal mechanisms to do so. At an early age, religious teachings would be taught and accepted on the basis of the teacher or parent’s authority but probably so too would any other kind of subject material. At this stage at least then, it seems unfair to single out religious studies as an instance of brainwashing if every subject is employing similar causal mechanisms to impart knowledge.

My understanding of Australia’s year 3 is that the children would be around 8-9 years old. Obviously some children of this age will be able to partly, perhaps even fully, use the process of reasoning and thus a group of them may derive overall benefits from attempts at its use. A good outcome has resulted. Nothing in admitting that however, is inconsistent with also believing that engaging an older group of children in the same activity would yield better results still. Finally, I fail to see the relevance of including the Dundee study as an argument for engaging children younger than 11 in attempts to reason if all the participants were aged 11 years or older.
Anonymous said…
I can't find on the web either the original source of the data you quote about Buranda (was it an academic paper?) or any detail about the teaching materials. It's not that I doubt the story (although as a good scientist of course I like to see the evidence) - I mostly wondered what they meant in detail by "philosophy" in this context.
Stephen Law said…
We are talking "philosophy for children" type programmes. They are not academic, and are primarily based on open-ended communal discussion structured by a few rules re. turn-taking, listening to others quietly, etc. Some programmes are better than others.

re Buranda, see Buranda State School Showcase 2003 Submission Form. I have a copy if you want it emailed as attachment?

For further evidence see S. Trickey & K. J. Topping, “‘Philosophy for children’: a systematic review”, Research Papers in Education Vol. 19, No. 3, September 2004.

Also see e.g. Ofsted reports for schools participating in philosophy for children projects summarized in the document Extracts from Ofsted Inspection Reports Highlighting the use of Philosophy, available from SAPERE.

Data re very young children and philosophy is from Northumberland Raising Aspirations In Society (NRAIS) project, for which a study was recently completed. The results are documented in Summary of Research Evidence Supporting Philosophy for Children by Will Ord, Chair of SAPERE, shortly available from SAPERE. Also see
Anonymous said…
I can't resist from leaving this comment, because it means so much to me, the restraint would be too hard!!! : P

When I was around 11, I read The Philosophy Files... And it changed my life! I already liked to think about these kinds of "big questions"- I had for example, decided to be vegetarian. However, there was not a lot done (in school at least) to encourage this. After reading the Philosophy Files, I thought about a lot of things, and soon became an atheist. Since then, philosophy has become a massive part of my life. The point that I am making, is not that I didn't attempt to consider the "big questions" before reading the book (because I certainly did!), but that at that age, there was not a lot of evidence given to allow me decide on my opinions on things... which given different arguments and opinions, I enjoyed doing a lot! So basically, GIVE KIDS LOTS OF PHILOSOPHY!!! It's importance is surely so high, that it goes without saying, that it needs encouraging from as young an age as possible, regardless of 'results', but to help children to challenge the world! And thank you, very very much, Stephen Law, for writing "The Philosophy Files"!!!!!!!!!!!!! : D
And, by the way, I've just finished reading the God delusion, and agree with your point about Dawkin's Improbability Argument... But I have to say, that was a BRILLIANT book, which I have already blabbed on about for hours, and which I possibly may never have had the pleasure of reading unless I had, one day, happened to pick up The Philosophy Files... So thank you, again!!! : )
Anonymous said…
Also (this is me again) Stephen Law, if you ever happen to read this, can you recommend any good philosophical books to read?!? I am at the moment, on a hunt for The Philosophy Gym... but BECAUSE OF THE LACK OF PHILOSOPHY IN SCHOOLS (I'm 15), it is quite hard to decide what books to look for in general!!!
Stephen Law said…
Hi anonymous. Well thanks for the very kind words. It's always good to hear that someone has actually read one of my books, let alone liked it.

Other books? well, there aren't any exactly like the philosophy Files, except for The Philosophy Files 2.

I would recommend Nigel Warburton's Philosophy: The Basics, John Hospers' An Introduction to Philosophical Analysis, and Podjman's enormous collection which I think is called Introduction to Philosophy.

Also, my book for Quercus which comes out next year, called Greatest Philosophers (I think!).
Anonymous said…
thank you very much! =D
Anonymous said…
One small correction - the author of the Introduction to Philosophy book you recommended is Louis P Pojman (though that surname seems scarcely less likely than Podjman), and you can buy his book from Amazon here:
Anonymous said…
just for the record, i am the original anonymous, not the one who impolitely corrected you, and i have bought pojman's book and am reading it and it's brilliant!

but i cnt get on with descartes. :S

anyway, i just wanted to say thank youuuuuuuuuu!!!
Anonymous said…
"There were substantial payoffs in terms of behaviour too. The report indicates “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:"
It appears that the government push for RE in schools might be driven by a desire to inculcate a control mechanism. While this could appear desirable, it also comes complete with companion problem. Once the “do not question” inhibitor has been successfully implanted, what happens if some sociopath starts perverting and preaching that gospel? That said, politicians could find themselves between a pulpit and a hard place anyway. As teaching the young to proof-test philosophises, could mean these juvenile citizens “tear them a new one”.

"the sort of skills we need new citizens to develop"
include problem solving. To fix or improve something you first need to know what is being attempted. Secondly, how whatever is attempting that task works.

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