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?

Collectable philosophers: cards for the thinking classroom. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Irish Times Premedia

If philosophy had been on the curriculum 30 years ago, would we be in the same mess we’re in today? It’s a tantalising thought and the very sort of “what if?” question philosophers love to debate. But it’s being asked with deadly seriousness by an increasing number of educationalists.

"To help children think about what's important to them, and why, is surely important to their education," says Prof Joe Dunne who was, until recently, a principal lecturer at St Patrick's College, Dublin City University. Citing US philosopher Michael Sandel's idea that "statecraft involves soulcraft", Dunne says philosophy can help students reflect on the sort of hidden values or "external goods" operating in society.

In a post-primary system where there’s a “fragmentation of subjects”, philosophy also “could get students to think more about knowledge in the round”.

Collectable philosophers: cards for the thinking classroom. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Irish Times Premedia
Collectable philosophers: cards for the thinking classroom. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly/Irish Times Premedia

Dunne was responsible for introducing Irish primary schools to Philosophy for Children (P4C), an internationally recognised teaching model, in the 1980s. A decade ago he took part in an initial attempt by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) to make philosophy a Leaving Cert subject.


The academy's philosophy and ethics committee, of which Dunne is a member, published a follow-up proposal for the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) two years ago. This was recently endorsed by President Higgins, and has also been backed by an online petition which has gained 1,100 signatures to date.

Further momentum has come from calls by global industries for greater focus on critical thinking in education; this, people like Dunne believe, can be achieved only by tackling the points-oriented curriculum as a whole.

Noting that evangelical academic John Henry Newman looked at philosophy “as an adverb” rather than a noun, Dunne says: “Any subject can be done in a way that makes people think philosophically. If other subjects were taught well, then you might not need philosophy.”

Of its benefits as a standalone subject, fellow RIA member Dr Catherine Kavanagh of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, names three: "Firstly, the history of philosophy gives you a certain conceptual richness. It provides ways of thinking that helps in the reflective process. Secondly, philosophy encourages critical thinking. This from an Irish perspective can sometimes sound like extended whingeing but, of course, it's not. It's about knowing whether or not to accept an argument. Thirdly, having an ability to reflect on things is socially viable."

What gets Kavanagh worked up is the idea that Irish people, whether because of their colonial past, or the intellectual grip of the church, just don’t do philosophy. “That attitude drives me crazy. We do do philosophy but we don’t pay attention to people who do it.”

One genuine characteristic of the Irish, she says, is that "we are enormously concerned about what other people think about us." She recalls that as a student she used to hear politicians saying "We're making ourselves the laughing stock of Europe", and "Then I went to Italy and they are the laughing stock of Europe, and they don't care."

“If we had a society with a strong philosophical tradition we would be less concerned about what other people thought about us.”

Aside from such late greats as John Scottus Eriugena and George Berkeley, Ireland has produced some world-renowned philosophers in academia but "one of the things we have been told is that we produce incredible literature so we put all our eggs in that basket," Kavanagh says. "There is a tourist element and I don't want to be too cynical but it's hard to sell Eriugena's 'four divisions of nature' as a tourist attraction."

Dr Vittorio Bufacchi, head of philosophy at UCC, has also made approaches to the NCCA and the Department of Education, arguing that Ireland is falling behind not just Europe but places like Australia where there's increased take-up of P4C. Last year, he sought funding for a pilot philosophy programme in primary schools in Cork, which could lead to curriculum changes at secondary level. But, rejecting the proposal, Minister Ruairí Quinn said the immediate priority was on language and maths. "There are no plans at present to introduce philosophy in the primary-school curriculum or across the post-primary syllabuses," Quinn said.

Natural-born philosophers
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.”

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