As I walk up the stairs to our office above the public library in Forest Hill, there is a sign warning climbers to ‘Mind your head’. I like seeing this little reminder each day, but, being the co-CEO and co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, a charity that delivers philosophy sessions into primary and secondary schools and training for teachers, I read this differently to most: an injunction to be an active thinker. My seven-year-old daughter said, as she climbed the stairs last week, ‘Why have I got to mind my head?’ Presumably, she had her own height in mind and the distance between her head and the lintel, but, if we subvert her question’s meaning in line with mine, we can use it to ask, why do children today between the ages of seven and eighteen need to learn philosophy? My short answer is: because they need to learn to think. Now, clearly, this is too broad; philosophy is not the only way children learn to think, so what does philosophy have to offer in the way of teaching children to think?
Space to think
Many teachers and head teachers value philosophy for the reflection time – or ‘space to think’ – it affords in a crowded curriculum and busy school week for the children, who are under increasing pressure to perform. My colleague Miriam Cohen-Christofidis argues that it is great way to invite the children to see themselves and each other as a valid and important resource to which they can turn to approach and attempt to solve problems.
Giving children a reflective space each week also helps to meet another important need. Good thinking should be a habit and habits need to be started young. It’s not good enough that we require than children question, critique and reason, they must be disposed to do so. Provided it is done well and that teachers know how to properly facilitate, philosophy is well- if not best-suited to providing children with a place to practice reflective and critical thinking habits.
Critical thinking skills and ‘room-for-doubt-detectors’
When done properly, central to philosophy is critical thinking skills such as providing counter-examples, drawing distinctions and making and challenging inferences (all skills that children begin using from around ages 5-7). Preliminary quantitative analysis of some research The Philosophy Foundation has conducted with King’s College London this year suggests that children improved in their use of metacognitive strategies through doing philosophy in which the intervention group were explicitly taught three critical thinking skills: counter-examples, distinction-drawing, and inference-making/challenging.
Critical thinking skills are pertinent today because of all the talk of ‘fake news’, ‘fact-checking’ and ‘alt facts’. They do not, by themselves tell you what’s true and what’s false, but what critical thinking skills do is give you the tools to be able to see where you should apply doubt. Given that we do not have the time or resources to be able to check every fact, critical thinking skills instead tell us where we should be concerned about a truth claim; they are a kind of room-for-doubt-detector. Then, when it really matters, when the consequences of a truth claim are sufficiently significant, we go to check the relevant facts. Philosophy, done properly, not only gives us these skills and tools, but puts us into a mode of readiness to use them.
Rights and responsibilities
There is a great deal of talk about pupil voice and oracy these days, bringing out attention to the right of children to speak and be heard. Philosophy is a perfect forum for having the children recognise and exercise this right. But we must also not lose sight of the corresponding duty for the children to use their voice responsibly. For instance, to draw on Dr. Lauren Reznick’s conditions of accountable talk, they must be…
a) Accountable to their community
b) Accountable to good reasoning
c) Accountable to knowledge
Philosophy, done properly in a community of inquiry, insists that the children don’t just voice their opinions but do so with the right checks and balances so that they become responsible, not entitled, democratic citizens.
Finally, there is also an intrinsic argument for introducing philosophy into schools that I will make through a story. We work in a hospital school, and a few years ago, we were running some philosophy sessions with children that included a boy called Mark (not his real name), and he insisted on taking part in philosophy even as his health deteriorated so much that he had to take part through a video link. Mark was in no way going to benefit from any long-term improvements to his curriculum subjects or cognitive development, he was doing philosophy because it mattered to him to think about things. Socrates famously said that ‘philosophy is preparing for death’, but what I understood in Mark’s tenacious engagement with philosophical topics, questions and problems was a defiant will to engage with living, even when there was not much of it left to do. Mark died a few weeks later. Thinking is a distinguishing feature of human beings, so every child should have the opportunity to develop their capacity for thought – reflective, critical, collaborative and creative – to the best of their ability.