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?
As for teaching philosophical concepts to primary students, “It’s off the wall in terms of people’s ability to enter into these questions”.
Advocates of P4C tend to agree. “You wouldn’t dream of landing Kant or Nietzsche on them”, says Dunne, who stresses pre-teens have the capacity to engage in deep reflections. Josephine Russell, a former lecturer who conducted research on philosophy’s impact on children’s moral development, says she was often taken aback by the originality and insightfulness of participants.
In her book, How Children Become Moral Selves (Sussex Academic), Russell documents how P4C improves listening skills and self-esteem. “For ‘moral’ read a broader field of democratic principles,” she says. Significantly, she adds, “when they did talk about values they rarely reflected back on the teachings from religion. You’d never hear: ‘Well Christ says this’ or ‘the gospel says that’.” Distinguishing indoctrination from dialogue, she says P4C gives children an opportunity to “internalise or question” the values they have been taught. “It gives them a chance to process their values. They were somewhat critical of what they had been told.”
A small number of primary schools around the country have incorporated P4C into their curriculum but it depends on having a teacher with a specific interest.
Fionnuala Ward, education officer at Educate Together, says it has seen increased demand for the programme, offered as “thinking time” in a format designed by Dunne and fellow teacher-trainer, Dr Philomena Donnelly.
Atheism for primary schools
In a move that has grabbed international media attention, Educate Together is also planning to introduce a course on atheism on a pilot basis with the aim of encouraging, among other things “an awareness of the variety of world views”.
The course is being designed by Atheist Ireland (AI), and will present atheism as an alternative belief system to the world religions. Ward says that if AI secures sufficient funding, the course could be introduced in a number of schools on a pilot basis from next September.
As for what age to start philosophising, “thinking time” has long been practised from preschool upwards, and Bufacchi argues the earlier the better. As well as promoting independence of mind, he says it can be used to address issues such as bullying, sexuality and “even questions of life and death”. Everyone likes a simple answer but, he says, “Philosophy can and should be circular and there should not be an appeal to authority. The idea is we should work out the answers for ourselves.”
Echoing this point, Dunne says: “Children have a metaphorical way, or poetic way, of thinking and you have to be careful not to try to replace that with what you might think is a more sophisticated way of thinking. Reason can have presumptions; that’s reason with a capital ‘r’.”
The solution, then, is not entirely straightforward. The role of philosophy at primary level should be seen as quite distinct from post-primary, says Dunne. While the latter is “crying out” for philosophy on the curriculum, he fears that if you insert the subject into a seriously flawed Leaving Cert system “it could be death knell to any kind of philosophy”.
In a similar vein, P4C needs to be introduced “very gently”, with proper in-school training and mentoring, says Mary Roche, who lectures on philosophy and ethics at St Patrick’s College in Thurles, Co Tipperary. “Make haste slowly,” she adds.
Although it will require some investment, “the benefits are huge at both the cognitive and affective domains,” Roche says. “Children develop skills of dialogue, of agreeing and disagreeing with care and civility.” And there are the other, less measurable benefits. “Children are being constantly bombarded with images and messages, and teachers and parents are concerned that children have no way of distinguishing between what is right and what is not. So critical thinking, critical literacy and visual literacy are hugely important.”
The petition for making philosophy a Leaving Cert subject is online at