Philosophy and Critical Literacy

With all the discussion of teaching Critical Literacy skills to children, I thought it would be timely to draw attention to this recent item from The Philosophers’ Magazine. The article – Get ’em while they’re young – goes into some depth, and I have provided lengthy extracts below. One of the main points is that there are multiple advantages to doing philosophy with children, including the ‘incidental’ development of critical thinking skills, i.e. these skills are acquired implicitly as part of the process, rather than explicitly taught.

It is important to note, however, that philosophy is not merely the acquisition of thinking skills. As noted in one of the comments after the article, there is a connection between ‘mental skills and self (critical) monitoring of thinking processes, together with the social aspect of thinking together’. I would add that philosophy also has its own history and subject matter, and children can be introduced to these things as opportunities present themselves.

This naturally leads to a point of debate in the article: whether philosophy should be taught by specialists. My own answer to this is: ideally, yes, but it would be difficult in the primary school, and we expect primary teachers to teach a whole range of subjects, without necessarily being a specialist in any of them (though it is a bonus if they have some particular expertise). Some teachers will find they have an aptitude for philosophical thinking, just as others have an aptitude for art, music, maths or literature.

A related blog that touches on these issues can be found here.

There has been anecdotal and scientific evidence that exposing children to philosophy at a young age can have lasting academic and social benefits but, although there does appear to have been a steady growth in the subject’s popularity over the past 20 years, philosophy is far from being a mainstream subject in primary schools.

“There are many reasons why thinking hasn’t been at the forefront of the way teachers teach,” says Lizzy Lewis, Development Manager at the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), an educational charity dedicated to promoting the use of philosophy for children and communities throughout the UK. “A huge emphasis has been on assessment, on SATs (Standard Assessment Tests), and on literally memorising information and knowledge for tests. So there hasn’t been much time or thought given to how children learn and enabling them to really deal with problems or issues or to really work things out for themselves.” But Lewis says there is a growing backlash to this content-based approach. “Particularly in the last five years there has been more awareness of thinking skills approaches. And this is why we’ve had more and more demand in terms of training in schools: this is what teachers want, it’s what children want and, to some extent, it is what the government is saying is needed.”

Research by East Renfrewshire Psychological Services in 2006 found that under-achieving 11-year-olds exposed to GSD [Guided Socratic Discussion] significantly increased scores in areas including problem solving, generating alternative solutions and decision-making. Another 2007 study from Dundee University suggested an average rise in IQ levels of 6.5 points in students who had been exposed to philosophy at a young age. Another report, also from Dundee University, also showed that an hour of philosophical enquiry each week in primary schools very effectively promotes emotional and social developments as well as increasing cognitive ability, critical reasoning and dialogue skills. The study stressed that although such developments can take place in mainstream classes of 30 pupils lead by teachers with little previous philosophy experience, the role of the teacher would have to move away from being an “expert instructor” to instead being a “curious facilitator”.

[Peter Worley of The Philosophy Shop] argues that for children to do philosophy properly, it is important for the facilitator to have specialist knowledge. “It’s not just subject knowledge – philosophy is a kind of tricky thing to identify, it’s not easy to know when philosophy is actually being done and what kind of thing philosophy is, it’s quite subtle,” he says. “So if you want to be able to get a group of children moving towards more philosophical kinds of discussion as opposed to just sharing ideas and discussing what they think about stuff, you need to have someone there who is able to identify when that starts to occur or who is able to ask the right kind of questions to bring it about.”

Worley says that attendants of The Philosophy Shop training course are required to have a philosophy degree but not necessarily any teaching experience. The two-day intensive training course focuses mainly on the pedagogical aspects of delivering a philosophy session to children and this is followed by a period of observation and assessment in classrooms. “We don’t hide the fact that our prospective consultants have a good deal to do before they can feel confident in front of kids, but our training does include working with real children in real schools while being observed, and other philosophy with children programmes don’t do that. In short, the lack of teacher training can be an obstacle but it can also be very liberating as they don’t have lots of habits to un-learn.”

Lewis argues that demanding that teachers have an in-depth knowledge of philosophy would vastly restrict the number of teachers who could get involved, and that a good knowledge of pedagogy is equally important if facilitators are to engage children in the subject. SAPERE offers a two-day Level One course that is designed to introduce philosophy to teachers who may never have come across the subject before, and to provide class materials so teachers can begin to facilitate philosophy sessions in their schools. The content of SAPERE’s Level Two and Level Three courses is increasingly philosophical, but Lewis says many teachers become very interested in the subject and also go on to complete further academic philosophy studies elsewhere. “I think if we did it the other way around and required that everybody had some philosophical training, we’d get far, far fewer numbers of people coming. I think we make it less intimidating and much more accessible doing it that way and it does seem to work.”

This approach also enables teachers to apply P4C-style approaches in classes beyond philosophy sessions. “Teachers in schools talk about it transforming how they teach, transforming how the children question and transforming the kind of dialogue that happens. We don’t promote it as a subject, we promote it as a way of learning and teaching,” Lewis says. “So if a teacher is using P4C in one session a week, it changes the teacher’s approach and you start to see philosophical questions and philosophical inquiry throughout the curriculum, and that’s one reason it is so effective because it’s transferable. So the skills the children use – if they’re increasing their reasoning or they’re challenging assumptions and they’re practicing that on a weekly basis – then that’s going to come out in their science lesson, that’s going to come out in their geography,” Lewis says.

Lewis says that SAPERE is more concerned with the skills that children can learn through philosophy than it is with the subject of philosophy itself. “It’s primarily about promoting thinking skills – critical thinking – in children, enabling them to be more aware of how they learn and to foster good questioning and more independent thinking, as well as the philosophical skills of reasoning, making judgements and reflecting on their thinking so they’re much more aware how they think,” she says. “We’ve never really thought that P4C should be another sort of government-packaged initiative in schools. Our aim is to make it as widespread as possible, but I think P4C is much more a way of learning and teaching rather than a particular subject, and that’s where the distinction is between Philosophy for Children and philosophy as a subject.”

Worley agrees that philosophy is the ideal subject for children to learn thinking skills because rather than being taught a set of skills for thinking that must be memorised, philosophy allows children to practice good thinking skills without being taught them. Another bonus is that philosophy allows everyone to participate and practice these thinking skills regardless of any prior exposure to the subject: “Unique to philosophy, certainly in the Socratic tradition, is that one does not need knowledge of the subject in order to do it; one does need a good guide in the form of a facilitator but knowledge of the subject is not necessary to engage with philosophical questions,” Worley says. “Teaching thinking skills would be different; one needs to know how to apply them to be able to do it successfully. In philosophy a more implicit approach can be used to teach thinking skills: it reverses the direction of fit so that a consequence of doing philosophy is that one learns thinking habits (skills) rather than learning thinking skills so that one can think better.”

Worley says that because it is the ideal subject for learning thinking skills, philosophy is a foundational subject in the way that the Three R’s are. “We’re arguing for the Four R’s,” he says, “reading, writing, arithmetic and reasoning. We want to try to argue for the importance of a good thinking program in the national curriculum because of the sense in which the Three R’s depend so much on that which underlies them and that would be concepts. Because concepts are the framework on which the three R’s are built, I argue that a good thinking program is essential as part of a national curriculum program.”

McCall agrees: “Philosophical reasoning and wondering is difficult; it isn’t easy but it’s fundamental almost to being a human being,” says McCall. “These questions are age-old questions and they still have tremendous value to consider, to inquire into, today. I think this kind of thinking supports and even underlies many other disciplines as well. In terms of education we know from the development of children that the ones who have been through sustained Philosophy with Children improve in almost every other academic area. So it’s a fundamental basic really,” she says. “Philosophers are traditionally asked awkward questions and to come up with alternative answers, and it really breeds independent thinking. If we want a generation of people who will begin to tackle and solve the problems we have, we need people who think for themselves and who think differently.”

Catherine McCall’s Blog
COPI at Strathclyde
The Philosophy Shop


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5 Responses to “Philosophy and Critical Literacy”

  1. Sara Says:

    I DID make the effort here but you lost me somewhere in paragraph 59 … I was thinking about your comment on teaching philosophy and critical thinking skills and I do agree with you that these skills are kind of taught implicitly all the time – how we question and make judgements. With regards to critical literacy in particular on the web I do believe it is important to guide students more closely, and even explicitly teach how to question and evaluate information. I suppose that is more to do with information gathering of research than dealing with philosophical dilemmas. Philosophy is far more subtle.

  2. Simon Kidd Says:

    Thanks Sara. I have just updated my original post, because I realised I had something to say about the distinction between philosophy and thinking skills. Philosophy does lead to the development of thinking skills, but there is much more to it than that, as you recognise. Moreover, these skills are developed gradually over many years, just as, for example, research skills are. In fact, there is probably no area where skills are not acquired gradually, and honed through practice, from carpentry to parenting to surgery. Such is life!

    See also this blog for some interesting related discussion.

  3. Mark Pegrum Says:

    With all of these areas – from critical literacy to philosophy – it’s undoubtedly the case that learning is gradual, integrated with ohter kinds of learning, and proceeds in a cyclical fashion. As I’ve commented on a couple of other blogs, I don’t think it’s a process that ever really ends for any of us … I think there will always be more for all of us to learn about these areas. Would you agree?

  4. Julie Says:

    I think that short courses on basics of philosophy and teaching the basics would be excellent Professional Development courses.

    Incidentally, : the Dunning-Kruger effect broadcast led me to wonder:

    if the incompetent overrate their abilities so seriously,
    and if
    the best cure is getting them to learn a little more
    and if
    they think they are doing OK so don’t want to bother learning more,
    and if
    the system is emphasising teaching “What they want to learn”
    we have to find ways to teach them to know their individual, internal signs of lack of understanding.

    Your thoughtful essay in a very Jungian way makes me wonder whether there is a link here.

    Maybe we can go from “the 3 Rs” to “the big R” : deep learning using reasoning upon understanding. That frees people to guide their own learning, by knowng how they can tell they don’t understand.

    I recently heard something like “They are making decisions by gut feelings, not reason, and when one uses an organ for the wrong purpose trouble is bound to follow.”

  5. Simon Kidd Says:

    Julie, thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate the syllogistic layout! The use of the Socratic method by the P4C community is, perhaps, fortuitous. Socrates (according to Plato’s dialogues) tended to lead by example. He would allow his interlocutors to voice their supposed expertise in a given domain, while constantly reiterating his own ignorance of that domain. Just when they thought they had satisfactorily answered Socrates’ question, he would say that he was still puzzled. In the long run, of course, it turns out that the supposed expert doesn’t understand in any deep sense either. Ideally, this leaves the way open to an admission of ignorance and the beginning of wisdom! Of course, it’s a practice. It has to be imbibed through use and refinement, and is not something that can be taught as a lesson. I suppose that it is more in the nature of an apprenticeship in thinking.

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