Can children think philosophically?

Here's a bit from my book The War For Children's Minds. I include it as opening the case for saying critical thinking is something children can do, even at a fairly young age, and it's good for them. It's offered as an opening response to comments by Ibrahim Lawson and sr that children cannot think critically below 14, and also Ibrahim's comment that in any good Islamic school "Islam is a given and never challenged" - so I guess he thinks children should not be thinking critically about Islam in school at all (and also, of course, his turning down of my offer to come to his school and argue for atheism).

One way of being Liberal-with-a-capital-L would of course be to ignore morality altogether, to abandon each child to invent his or her own morality from scratch, within a moral vacuum. That’s not the method advocated here. This book recommends a much more specific sort of approach, an approach that involves a training in and the fostering of what might broadly be termed “thinking skills and virtues”. Children should be encouraged to scrutinize their own beliefs and explore other points of view. While not wanting to be overly prescriptive, I would suggest that skills to be cultivated should at least include the ability to:

• reveal and questioning underlying assumptions
• figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
• spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
• weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
• make a point clearly and concisely
• take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting
• argue without personalizing a dispute
• look at issues from the point of view of others
• question the appropriateness, or the appropriateness of acting on, ones own feelings

Acquiring these skills involves developing, not just a level of intellectual maturity, but a fair degree of emotional maturity too. For example, turn-taking requires patience and self-control. Judging impartially involves identifying and taking account of your own emotional biases. By thinking critically and carefully about your own beliefs and attitudes, you may develop insights into your own character. By stepping outside of your own viewpoint and looking at issues from the standpoint of another, you can develop a greater empathy with and understanding of others. So by engaging in this kind of philosophical, critical activity, you are likely to develop, not only the ability to reason cogently, but also what now tends to be called “emotional intelligence” (which is why the Director of Antidote – a British organization that works with schools to help develop emotional literacy –recently endorsed this kind of philosophical activity as an effective tool in aiding emotional development). Although I have emphasized the importance of reason, I don’t wish top downplay the importance of emotional development too. They are deeply intertwined.

Notice that many of these skills can only be developed, or at least are most effectively developed, by engaging in group activities, by getting children collectively to discuss and debate issues together. These are skills and virtues that are best taught and mastered, not in isolation, but through interaction within a “community of inquiry”. For that reason, many philosophy for children programmes are based around structured, open-ended group discussion. So the kind of Liberal approach recommended here certainly acknowledges the importance of a shared, social dimension to moral education. It’s not about severing all social ties and abandoning each individual child to “think up” their own morality within their own hermetically sealed-off universe. Quite the reverse. Exploring issues together may help foster interpersonal skills and a sense of community and belonging.

The approach described above might loosely be termed “philosophical”, though I should stress that doesn’t mean children should be given an academic course on the history of philosophy. What it means is that they should be trained and encouraged to approach questions in a particular kind of way. We should get them into the habit of thinking in an open, reflective, critical way, so that these intellectual, emotional and social skills and virtues are developed.

Clearly, the sort of philosophical approach to moral education recommended here is anti-Authoritarian. Those who favour Authority-based moral and religious education will reject it. Encouraging pupils to think for themselves, to debate freely and openly different moral and religious points of view, and so on, is precisely what those who think children should be taught to defer more or less uncritically to Authority on moral and religious matters are against.

Can children be philosophical?

Of course, all this presupposes that thinking philosophically is something children can do. But can they?

There’s growing empirical evidence that they can. 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 along much the lines outlined above. 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 good 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.


Joe Otten said…
So why doesn't it happen? When I think of the near hysteria that one experiment with synthetic phonics can generate, how does this manage to be such a secret?
Anonymous said…
Sounds promising, and I hope more research is done, and if it continues to show this kind of result, that it spreads. A question, though: in Piaget's theory, the relevant stages are (this is taken from Wikipedia):

3. Concrete operational stage: from ages 7 to 11 (children begin to think logically about concrete events)
4. Formal operational stage: after age 11 (development of abstract reasoning).

So the question is, is the "philosophical" teaching to ages 7 thru 11 showing this to be wrong, i.e., that abstract reasoning is apparent in that stage? (The problems that "New Math" had might indicate otherwise.)

But it is important in this context, because with religion, the difference between intellectually respectable religion and more or less mindless religion has to do with a very high level of abstraction. For example, while most atheists and Christians (and I would guess Muslims) think of God as a being (Supreme, to be sure), a theologian is more likely to deny that, instead thinking of God as Being itself, or as beyond the distinction between being and non-being. Appreciating this is an exercise that goes well beyond the logic of concrete events. So if in a classroom the discussion of God's reality arises, I suspect it will take place at a level where the atheist holds the stronger cards (e.g., "where's the evidence?", "how is the God/heaven relation different from the Santa Claus/getting-presents relation?", "how can an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God coexist with evil?").

Actually, I personally don't think it is a bad thing for people to reject God based on arguments like these, since the God concept being rejected deserves to be. I did, after all, and I think my current religious perspective is all the better for having spent 20 years as an atheist/agnostic. But I doubt that many religious parents will think so. I suspect that though education in good argumentation is possible, and has benefits, applying it to religious topics at an early age is another matter, unless the parents are educated first. And that is the churches' and mosques' responsibility, one that I think they are failing on.
Anonymous said…
To Ibrahim,

You insist that we should indoctrinate children with Islam because they dont have the minds to judge islam yet. Ok. Now will you go further and say that you will ALLOW THEM TO LEAVE ISLAM when they become adults and judge islam to be wrong. No you just will not and will want to kill them as per the said koran.

Then how is Islam different from slavery?

1) A child of a slave can be a slave only. A child of a muslim can only be a muslim.
2) A slave cannot become free. Punishment for slaves trying to escape is lashes and/or death. A muslim cannot become a non-muslim. Punishment for an apostate is lashes to repent and/or death.
Post-Islamist said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
I think it must be clear from my previous posts that I have no objection to teaching children to think critically. It must also be clear that I think that analytical philosophy has its limits. The point at which it becomes possible to think about those limits is after long preparation and practice. In the meantime, the practice of Islam as a spiritual process enables one to understand how those limits may be recognised for what they are – a curiosity that results from some kind of ‘knots in our thinking’ to use Wittgenstein’s expression. Many other western thinkers have detected the same kind of problem, as have the mystics of various traditions. This is where interesting possibilities begin to open up as far as I am concerned. Trading insults, even when thinly disguised as intellectual arguments, may be entertaining, but I don’t need to come to this blog for that.
Great discussion that is helping me clarify a number of issues.
To slightly over simplify,the possibilities on offer to Ibrahim as an identity for him and the children in his care are:
b)Critical thinker/freethinker (with the slim possibility of a position as a philosophy lecturer or full-time blogger) OR
c)A postmodern/multi-cultural Briton who must choose from equally valid cultural identities - taking you back to (a) or (b).

What he (and the children he is responsible for) really needs is a none-of the-above option. Luckily there has arisen recently the option of coming out as a 'bright'. A bright is someone who has the humility not to make any 'supernatural' claims of legitimacy in the name of a God, Reason or Culture but tries to live by a naturalistic worldview. Perhaps with this 'meme' children and adults can have the space to assert their freedom from adult indoctrination.
Post-Islamist said…
Douglas, I sense that there is a way for Ibrahim to agree perhaps. As I understand it, Islam does not hold children responsible for their thoughts and actions – they are indeed able to be ‘bright’ without fear of reproach. It sounds like that is what Ibrahim is actually doing in his school. At around puberty, they then can make a choice, and it can be an informed and critical one, whether or not to accept Islam for themselves (you will assume perhaps that at this point no sane person would chose to believe in the theists’ god, but that is another story). Islam even teaches that God Himself does not force people to believe, that it is entirely their choice, as an adult capable of, or at least accountable for, making that choice. And for that to be a real choice, some knowledge of other positions/options is necessary.
Anonymous said…
It seems to me that few people contributing to this blog believe that teaching children some degree of critical thinking, that much is very positive. The next step appears to be to ask “how much?”. My concern is that any religious or otherwise ideologically driven school will place certain topics off-limits for criticism and discussion. Surely this sends out the wrong message; go ahead - think, discuss and criticise anything, just not THIS! My feeling is anything should be up for discussion without fear of reprisal but it may be that adults have to intervene to lay down some ground rules (irrational or rational) at some point. As long as this interference is limited and there is a culture of openness to debate I don’t think we should get too hung up on which type of school we are talking about. However, I suspect that my description above is far from the culture at a large number of religious schools. I’d be very happy to be proven wrong on this.
Unknown said…
Red and Skippyx - I agree that it appears from some of Mr Lawson's posts that he does support the teaching of some form of critical thinking. However, he also claims, as given in this blog but originally from an interview, that he very clearly does support indoctrination, and that overrides the use of critical thinking with regard to religion.

As the headmaster of a British school I don't think there is any doubt of what Mr Lawson understands by, and means by, 'indoctrination'. And, in particular the categorical point made by (from the interview):
ER: Does that mean that Islam is a given and is never challenged?
IL: That’s right…
Of course, Mr Lawson might have a different interpretation of that interview.
Unknown said…
Mr Lawson - In your post of 8/12/07 11:16am you think there limits of analytical philosphy, and the fact that training is required to consider these limits. In other posts you have said how training is required to be able to discuss critically deeper aspects of Islam. Even if that both these are so, this is not a reason to avoid the teaching of basic critical thinking. You might need a PhD to critically discuss deep aspects of partical physics, but basic science is tought to children.
From my own personal experience in British muslim schools, ( private as well as Voluntary Aided ones), it is quite apparent that critical approaches or the questioning of views, even at primary school level is understood to be one way of encouraging learning. However, it is the 'what' more than the 'how' that may differ from Stephen Law's views.

I taught for many years in muslim schools and was eventually the Head of one such school for several years. The 'philosophy for children' methods proposed by the likes of Matthew Lipman and Robert Fisher featured largely in the teaching methods of the school. There is no doubt that children - (yes, muslim children too) can arrive at profound meanings and articulate sophisticated ideas in their own manner.

Nevertheless, what is frequently and now consciously aimed at in many such schools is to couch these enquiries in 'critical questioning' mode rather than 'critical thinking'. Phronesis as opposed to episteme. At this point it is enough to explain this in saying that the ground of enquiry was not always based within Cartesian doubt - i.e.' Is it true and what is the proof?' but rather 'What does this mean to others and what does it mean to me?'

At the end of the day we were very aware that the children in our school were inevitably exposed to alternatives to their own cultures and beliefs simply by being a minority within the host community.

Obviously, teaching staff contend with and are aware of the dominance of the secular view but clamping down on such views are just not part of the muslim teacher's repertoire for the simple reason that it just wouldn't work. While muslim teacher teach within the Quranic world view it is not by necessity carried out in 'dictate and instruct' mode but can be equally discursive. These are British muslims after all is said and done.

In any manner, there will be very few children who will not eventually choose their own way as they grow older. A good example is myself - (and probably Mr Lawson as well) - raised and educated within a liberal education' system and yet prepared to think differently !
Larry Hamelin said…
Abdullah... With all due respect, you give us a lot of words but few facts.

"Profound" and "sophisticated" are very subjective. The question is: are muslim children taught to arrive at ideas that are objectively true?

What does it mean specifically to differentiate "critical questioning" from "critical thinking"; i.e. to distinguish phronesis from episteme? I see no methodological difference, merely a difference in the kind of facts that apply: phronesis employs experiences such as desire; episteme applies experiences such as perception.

What does it mean to "teach within the Quranic world view"? It seems imprecise to claim simply that your methods are "discursive". Discourse subsumes both the recitation of facts as well as applying critical methodologies.

The Quranic world view would appear to entail that there are some specific actual brute facts about reality: There is a God, it's Allah, Muhammad is his (final) prophet, and Arabic is a privileged language. Most importantly, from these brute facts, we must conclude Allah has no small few specifically declarable real properties, especially about what He wants us to do.

The only way to teach a brute fact is to assert it. It's one thing to teach brute facts that are (at least in principle) epistemically available to everyone: those brute facts which can be established by scientific means.

There is no way, however, to teach an epistemic method which can support even in principle the brute facts of the Quranic world view: The Quranic world view relies on a fundamentally private epistemic method: Muhammad's privileged communication with Allah. There are only two ways of forcing these epistemically unavailable facts in children's minds: force and fraud.

The dangers of fraud are manifest. My wife was a devout Muslim precisely because she was instructed that the Koran was scientifically provable. When she found that scientific proof was an egregious fraud, her apostasy was immediate.

You cannot teach a universally available epistemic method that justifies the Koran: The notion that Muhammad was the final prophet of Allah specifically and directly contradicts any sort of universal method. You must either teach that universal methods, which provide results contrary to the Koran, are inferior — in which case why use them at all? — or you must lie and say that universal methods support the Koran when they do not.
Anonymous said…
Aha, the Unshod Bum raises the lie of ‘objectivity’. What a dualist he is. And no particular phronimos either. The brute facts of Islam are epistemically available to everyone using the private epistemic method we call ‘spiritual insight’. Only an egregious fool would think the Qur’an scientifically proveable or base their devotion on such a claim; Muslims were never tempted to such stupidity until their minds were colonised by the west (Fact. Do some research before claiming to know how Muslims believe).
Larry Hamelin said…

In what sense is objectivity a lie? Is physical science not objectively true, i.e. we can make true statements about the existence and properties of objects?

Is there any research I need to do before writing declarative sentences about my wife's personal experience besides asking her?

I certainly agree that only an egregious fool would think the Qur'an scientifically provable; it seems the case, however, that there is no shortage of such egregious fools who self-describe as "Muslim" (cough Harun Yahya).

What are these brute facts of Islam available using "spiritual insight"? Examining my own spiritual insight, I find nothing at all to suggest that there is no God but Allah, that Muhammad is his (final) prophet, or that I should seek the text of the Qur'an or the Hadith for guidance (much less authority) about ethical truth.

If you want to hold ordinary humanist values and call them "Islam", we have no disagreement. So long as your values are compatible with mine, you can call them "Shirley" for all I care.
Anonymous said…

I use the word ‘lie’ in the same way as you – to disparage the use of concepts I don’t understand. By all means refer to your understanding of your wife’s understanding of her own personal and limited experience of Islam, but why draw any conclusions from that other than about her? Harun ‘straw man’ Yahya? Please. Your own spiritual insight…..?
Larry Hamelin said…
I use the word ‘lie’ in the same way as you – to disparage the use of concepts I don’t understand.

If you don't understand objective truth, i.e. truths about objects and their properties, you must have a very difficult time finding your car keys in the morning.

By all means refer to your understanding of your wife’s understanding of her own personal and limited experience of Islam, but why draw any conclusions from that other than about her?

What conclusions, pray tell, did I draw from her experience other than to use her experience to illustrate the danger of perpetrating a fraud?

There is nothing other than individual, personal understanding of Islam, i.e. the understanding each person has. Why should I consider anyone's personal understanding better than anyone else's. Especially when they fail — as you fail — to actually explain (much less justify) it, preferring instead to condemn any disagreement as stemming from lack of understanding.

Harun ‘straw man’ Yahya?

If Harun Yahya is a straw man, that's some pretty substantial straw you Muslims have.

Your own spiritual insight…..?

What about my own spiritual insight? You say yourself: "The brute facts of Islam are epistemically available to everyone using the private epistemic method we call ‘spiritual insight’."

Unless I am very much mistaken, I am a member of the set of "everyone"; You therefore assert that I do indeed have spiritual insight. Or is spiritual insight limited only to people who agree with your (unspecified) beliefs?
Podblack said…

I'm from Western Australia, where the same system that you write about in Burandah is now going to be implemented state wide as a subject for the final years of school. I'll be blogging about our last APIS meeting today - I hope you check out our overarching site (involving not only the course writers like myself but other professors, teachers and lecturers in the P4C method) on and the initiative of 'Philosothon' at
Kylie Sturgess -
Anonymous said…
BB - I don't think your wife is representative of the way the majority of Muslims think and beleve and is not therefore admissible as an example of the dangers of the 'fraudulence' of Islam except in an unrepresentative minority of cases where there are surely more pertinent factors contributing to their apostasy (e.g. problems within their own culture).

And I didn't think you believed in spiritual insight. If you actually do, then we have something to talk about.