We think, therefore we learn
Philosophy in the classroom is helping to raise children’s IQ levels and improve their concentration, writes JOE HUMPHREYS
ONCE A week, primary teacher Ciara Williams sits down with her class of five to six year olds and poses questions: How do you know the tooth fairy is real? Is everyone beautiful? What is fairness?
These may seem like challenging topics for senior infants, but Williams (24) says the children, “have really interesting things to say, you’d be amazed”.
For the past 12 months, she has been piloting a model of philosophy in the classroom, known by the less intimidating title of “thinking time”, at her school, St Benedict’s in Ongar, Dublin 15.
“Their higher order thinking skills are a lot better since I started it,” she says. “Thinking time gives the children the space to have different opinions and for that to be okay among their peers. You see it especially with kids who have strong personalities; it calms them as they learn to accept other people’s opinions.”
The concept is not new. Child development specialist Matthew Lipman started Philosophy for Children (P4C) in the US in the 1970s.
However, there has been a resurgence of interest in Britain and Ireland, in part due to the recent economic and social upheaval.
At a conference at Mary Immaculate College in Limerick late last year, the audience heard that “the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has given rise to severe doubts as to the quality of our education system”, particularly students’ ethical values and “reflective” abilities.
A 2007 study by Dundee University suggests learning philosophy raises children’s IQ by up to 6.5 points and improves their emotional intelligence and concentration.
The study tracked the progress of a group of Scottish secondary school pupils who received philosophy lessons in primary school.
After only one hour a week of philosophy over 16 months, there were identifiable gains in pupils’ verbal and even numerical skills.
“People who do well at school are good abstract thinkers,” says Dr Philomena Donnelly, lecturer in early childhood education at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. Kids, though, don’t engage automatically in critical thinking, she says, “we have to help them do it”.
Under the “thinking time” model, which Donnelly helped to develop with Prof Joe Dunne for pre-school and upwards, children sit in a circle and engage in “Socratic dialogue” on a topic usually chosen in advance.
By agreement, one child opens the discussion and then passes a “tip” (or, in the case of Williams’s class, a teddy bear) to the next child, who can choose to speak or pass it on.
The teacher may guide the discussion, but he or she provides no answers – something of a culture shock for students at any age but particularly the very young.
“I found it very difficult at the beginning,” says Williams.
“They weren’t listening; they were lying back and rolling around. I had started with abstract concepts – what is a rainbow?, that sort of thing – but now I give them a story to discuss; they can latch on to that much easier.”
The dialogue can get heated at times. Williams recalls one session which was interrupted by a child who “wanted me to give out to a couple of boys who said they didn’t believe in the tooth fairy”.
She defused the situation by asking: “How do you know the tooth fairy is real? Has anyone seen the tooth fairy?”
“After a while,” she says, “they realise we don’t all have to agree with one another.”
The children also learn that changing your mind is not a sign of weakness, contrary to what some grown-ups might tell you.
Donnelly recalls a discussion about the welfare of animals, and one boy who said: “I agree with what Alice is saying, which means I disagree with myself now.”
“I nearly fell off the chair when I heard that. I have since used that example in the adult world where we tend to get caught up in the ego and lose track of the dialogue.”
Socrates, of course, was condemned to death for teaching philosophy to youths; while today’s schooling system is a little less hostile to critical thinking, it remains a challenge.
“It is the same problem with play,” says Donnelly. “People ask, ‘What are they learning?’ This gives you time out from the curriculum to allow the class to go where it wants.”
Another obstacle to P4C is a perceived conflict with the religious ethos of schools.
Dr Charlotte Blease of Queen’s University, Belfast, who has been teaching P4C in a mixture of Protestant and Catholic schools in the city since last November, says she is “very careful” when discussing the subject of God.
She stresses that “the idea is to give people thinking space rather than ammunition for one side or another.”
If P4C has any impact on children’s beliefs, “it encourages them to be more intellectually modest”, she says.
A campaign was recently launched in the UK by a group of philosophers and authors, including AC Grayling and Terry Jones, to make philosophy a core subject in schools.
Similar calls are also being made here. The Royal Irish Academy’s committee for philosophy and ethics last June completed a draft report on making philosophy a Leaving Certificate subject.
Dr Catherine Kavanagh, who helped to organise the Mary Immaculate conference, says philosophy is already taught in a number of European countries and there is “plenty” of evidence to show its benefits.
However, she admits, “if someone sets it [P4C] up as a panacea for the problems of the Celtic Tiger, they would be setting themselves up for a serious fall.
“Philosophy in schools can be part of the solution; that’s as far as I would go. It’s teaching people something valuable.”
Donnelly is less enthusiastic about making philosophy an examination subject and is more concerned about integrating it into daily class.
“Every lesson you teach should have some level of teaching in the abstract.” As for when exactly you should start philosophy, she advises: “As soon as you can talk.”
For more information on P4C see sapere.org.ukand thephilosophyshop.co.uk/