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Durham University News

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Should primary schools teach philosophy?

(12 April 2017)

Schools are places where children can learn behaviour, skills and attitudes that have lifelong relevance, in addition to subjects on the formal curriculum. Dr Nadia Siddiqui from the School of Education has looked at the contribution philosophy discussions can make to children’s ‘soft’ skills.

What was the focus of the research?

We looked at a programme called Philosophy for Children (P4C) for primary schools in the UK which is aimed at development of children’s critical thinking abilities and other non-cognitive skills such as communication skills, self-confidence, sense of fairness and empathy. These skills are deemed to have a strong association with outcomes such as attainment and success in later life.

What did you find out?

We found that Philosophy for Children has some promising effects in improving children’s social and communication skills, team work, resilience and ability to empathise with others. Interestingly, these positive effects are more profound in children from disadvantaged groups.

In a previous study, we looked specifically at the impact of Philosophy for Children on children’s maths and reading results which showed that the programme can lead to progress of two extra months on average.

How does Philosophy for Children work?

Philosophy for Children, which is operated by a charity called SAPERE, is designed to help children become more willing and able to question, reason, construct arguments and collaborate. Dialogues are based around concepts such as ‘truth’, ‘fairness’ or ‘bullying’.

In a typical lesson, pupils and teachers sit together in a circle and the teacher begins by presenting a stimulus such as a video clip, image or newspaper article to provoke pupils’ interest. This is generally followed by some silent thinking time before the class splits into groups to think of questions that interest them. A certain question with philosophical potential is then selected by the group to stimulate a whole-class discussion. These discussions are supported by activities to develop children’s skills in reasoning and their understanding of concepts.

Example questions might be ‘What is kindness?’, ‘Is it OK to deprive someone of their freedom?’, and ‘Are people’s physical looks more important than their actions?’.

How did you carry out the study?

We used a number of UK schools from our previous large randomised controlled trial and extended the study as a quasi-experiment involving 42 schools, nearly 3,000 students, in which half were used for comparison with P4C schools but without random allocation.

The non-cognitive outcomes were assessed before and after the intervention for both groups using a specific survey instrument developed for the purpose and used across a number of previous studies. It was designed to assess changes in self-reported ‘social and communication skills’, ‘team work and resilience’ and ‘empathy’ and a number of similar concepts.

What do the findings mean for schools and policymakers?

This research suggests that there is value in developing space in the school curriculum for developing pupils’ character and values but through example and process rather than traditional pedagogy.

However, P4C has to be a whole-class approach to be effective, so that all individuals concerned are aware of the objective of cultivating empathy, respect and appropriate or acceptable behaviour. For example, to teach children fairness, teachers themselves have to be seen to be fair. To teach children to be polite, teachers and other (older) pupils have to practise it. And so on.

If interventions aimed at improving non-cognitive skills can also yield better academic outcomes, then there is scope for integrating such interventions in the national curriculum and, most importantly, using the pupil premium funds in implementing them. However, there is still a gap in the research evidence to establish a causal link between non-cognitive skills and academic outcomes.

But in their own right, these types of programmes may improve behaviour, co-operation, self-confidence, empathy and tolerance for others. And they may be feasible for practitioners facing the demand that they tackle extremism and radicalisation, and enhance so-called ‘British values’.

Who was involved in this study?

The study was funded by The Nuffield Foundation and the project is an extension of previous work supported by the Education Endowment Foundation. The team at Durham is made up of Dr Beng Huat See, Dr Nadia Siddiqui and Professor Stephen Gorard from the School of Education.

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