Say no to groupthink: how philosophy can transform learning
Around the world, children who learn philosophy also learn how to solve problems and think critically. Why is there such resistance to teaching it in Ireland?
Bufacchi believes this is short-term thinking, citing studies in the US that show how children “get a boost in literacy and numerical skills” when they do philosophy and become “empowered to use their own judgments”. Bufacchi, who grew up in England and has been living here for 15 years, says “From what I can see, the Leaving Cert is deadly. Children are natural-born philosophers but the education system beats it out of them and then they come to us in university and we have to try to teach it back into them.”
Dr Anne Looney, chief executive of the NCCA, is sympathetic to such arguments, noting that there is a greater emphasis today on the “process” of education rather than just the content. However, reforms to the curriculum have been impeded by the recession. A planned Leaving Cert course in politics and society, which would contain a large dose of political philosophy, is “in limbo” because of insufficient resources.
She notes the NCCA was surprised at the take-up of religious education when it was made a Leaving Cert course, which indicates “there is an appetite for those kinds of subjects. By no means is the door closed to philosophy” as a subject at this level. Nonetheless, Looney feels the natural evolution would be for it to be made a short course in the Junior Cert syllabus first.
Eight of these short courses, including physical education and programming and coding, have been put out for consultation by the council, while others, on topics such as drama, development education and tourism, have been drafted by outside organisations. “We would encourage anyone with an interest in philosophy to design a short course using that format.”
As for primary level, Dr Looney says “there is no specific intention to have philosophy” on the curriculum but “there is a move towards ‘less is more’, slowing things down to give people the time and space to think, creating a more reflective child. There is almost a countermovement into which philosophy would fit very well.”
Unesco, which produces the Pisa student assessment studies about which countries such as Ireland constantly fret, has been part of this countermovement. In a 2011 policy document, it called for more philosophy in schools, saying the goal of education was “not to instil exclusively measurable and expectable competences”.
The agency has recommended member states develop policies “that accord a full, complete and autonomous place to philosophy in curricula at secondary”, while also promoting philosophy in preschool and primary “and, when possible, institutionalise this approach in the education system”.
Resistance here to the initiative is “more pragmatic” than principled, says Dunne, citing concerns with “curriculum overload”, and an “obsession about rankings”. Teachers who have trialled P4C in schools have encountered some institutional-resistance with one describing how a colleague “feared it could lead to all sorts of anarchy in the classroom”.
There is some suspicion too that philosophy would undermine religious education, but Kavanagh says this is misguided. “In countries that have pure philosophy in schools it’s not placed in direct opposition with religion”. It would be a mistake, she adds, to make philosophy “the subject you do if you don’t do religious education; that would devalue it”.
Fr David Tuohy SJ, author and former director of the Le Chéile schools trust, agrees that religion and philosophy can sit harmoniously on the curriculum. “A religious ethos properly understood is open to that kind of questioning. Critical thinking is something that should enrich your religious experience.”
Philosophy in the classroom, he says, might act as a counterbalance to “the cultural influences coming from the Government that the economic model is the only model”. But he fears in a congested curriculum, it could also have the effect of pushing other subjects, such as history, further to the sidelines. “I get a bit frustrated when people say we will introduce philosophy but what we are doing is squeezing the humanities out of the system. Developing a reflective approach to life and explaining this in an honest way is a part of literature, history and the humanities. I don’t think you can teach critical thinking abstractly,” he adds. “You have to think critically about something, whether it’s a piece of literature or a chapter of history.”