Students to explore ‘life’s big questions’ in new Philosophy course

Junior Cycle course seeks to promote the benefits of ‘changing one’s mind’

Plans are advanced for a new course at secondary level that provides students with no definite answers and may lead to a “higher state of confusion”.

As an official outline of the new Junior Cycle short course points out, Philosophy will come as a something of a culture shock for secondary schools.

“It requires teachers and students becoming more fallible as ‘not knowing’ and changing one’s mind is appreciated as part of the learning and nature of philosophical enquiry,” the document states.

“The quality of the answer is located in the process of searching for solutions rather than in the answer itself.”


The draft specification for the new course is to be published shortly for consultation, having been commissioned from the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) by Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan.

The document says Philosophy aims to give students a chance to reflect on “life’s big questions” and to develop “critical, creative, collaborative, caring thinkers”.

“Through the exploration of the questions in this course, students will encounter the main areas of philosophy, such as metaphysics (what is the meaning of life?), epistemology (what is truth?), aesthetics (what is beauty?), social and political philosophy (what is the best form of government?), ethics (what is justice?), etc. They will also encounter some of the people, past and present, who have grappled with these questions.”

As with other short courses, such as Coding, Chinese and Digital Media Literacy, which are being rolled out under the Junior Cycle reforms, Philosophy will be taught over 100 hours – the equivalent of half the time for subjects such as History or Geography.

For the Philosophy course, it is proposed students will do a foundational module and then take four out of eight possible strands that include the philosophy of sport, of art, and of education.

Students will complete two classroom-based assessments – an individual philosophical enquiry and a group activity.

“The aim is to develop deeper understanding of and clarity about the question, not showmanship or winning the debate,” the document states.

“In fact, arriving at definitive answers is unlikely: instead the student may find him/herself in a ‘higher state of confusion’ and may even learn to value the intellectual discomfort that the ‘grey area’ may bring.”

Thinkers ranging from Plato to Simone De Beauvoir will be covered, with an emphasis on applying wisdom to students' own lives. The module on sport explores questions such as "Can a loser be a winner at the same time?", drawing on examples like drug cheat Lance Armstrong, and the rights and wrongs of the 1984 Olympic trip by Zola Budd of Mary Decker.

Among the variety of other questions explored in other strands are “can animals reason?” and “are science and religion compatible?”

It will be up to schools themselves to decide what short courses to offer, if any, under the new Junior Cycle, the roll-out of which has been delayed by the continuing teachers’ dispute.

While the Teachers Union of Ireland has voted to accept the new programme, the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland narrowly rejected it in a ballot last September on a turnout of just 38 per cent.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column