The positive side to Liberal education
Let’s now look in more detail at the Liberal alternative to Authority-based moral and religious education.
One way of being Liberal-with-a-capital-L would of course be to ignore morality altogether, to abandon each child to invent his or her own morality from scratch, within a moral vacuum. That’s not the method advocated here. This book recommends a much more specific sort of approach, an approach that involves a training in and the fostering of what might broadly be termed “thinking skills and virtues”. Children should be encouraged to scrutinize their own beliefs and explore other points of view. While not wanting to be overly prescriptive, I would suggest that skills to be cultivated should at least include the ability to:
• reveal and questioning underlying assumptions
• figure out the perhaps unforeseen consequences of a moral decision or point of view
• spot and diagnose faulty reasoning
• weigh up evidence fairly and impartially
• make a point clearly and concisely
• take turns in a debate, and listen attentively without interrupting
• argue without personalizing a dispute
• look at issues from the point of view of others
• question the appropriateness, or the appropriateness of acting on, ones own feelings
Acquiring these skills involves developing, not just a level of intellectual maturity, but a fair degree of emotional maturity too. For example, turn-taking requires patience and self-control. Judging impartially involves identifying and taking account of your own emotional biases. By thinking critically and carefully about your own beliefs and attitudes, you may develop insights into your own character. By stepping outside of your own viewpoint and looking at issues from the standpoint of another, you can develop a greater empathy with and understanding of others. So by engaging in this kind of philosophical, critical activity, you are likely to develop, not only the ability to reason cogently, but also what now tends to be called “emotional intelligence” (which is why the Director of Antidote – a British organization that works with schools to help develop emotional literacy –recently endorsed this kind of philosophical activity as an effective tool in aiding emotional development). Although I have emphasized the importance of reason, I don’t wish top downplay the importance of emotional development too. They are deeply intertwined.
Notice that many of these skills can only be developed, or at least are most effectively developed, by engaging in group activities, by getting children collectively to discuss and debate issues together. These are skills and virtues that are best taught and mastered, not in isolation, but through interaction within a “community of inquiry”. For that reason, many philosophy for children programmes are based around structured, open-ended group discussion. So the kind of Liberal approach recommended here certainly acknowledges the importance of a shared, social dimension to moral education. It’s not about severing all social ties and abandoning each individual child to “think up” their own morality within their own hermetically sealed-off universe. Quite the reverse. Exploring issues together may help foster interpersonal skills and a sense of community and belonging.
The approach described above might loosely be termed “philosophical”, though I should stress that doesn’t mean children should be given an academic course on the history of philosophy. What it means is that they should be trained and encouraged to approach questions in a particular kind of way. We should get them into the habit of thinking in an open, reflective, critical way, so that these intellectual, emotional and social skills and virtues are developed.
Clearly, the sort of philosophical approach to moral education recommended here is anti-Authoritarian. Those who favour Authority-based moral and religious education will reject it. Encouraging pupils to think for themselves, to debate freely and openly different moral and religious points of view, and so on, is precisely what those who think children should be taught to defer more or less uncritically to Authority on moral and religious matters are against.
Can children be philosophical?
Of course, all this presupposes that thinking philosophically is something children can do. But can they?
There’s good empirical evidence that they can. There have been a number of studies and programs involving philosophy with children in several countries. The results are impressive.
One notable example is the Buranda State School, a small Australian primary school near Brisbane, which in 1997 introduced into all its classes a philosophy program along much the lines outlined above. Children collectively engaged in structured debates addressing philosophical questions that they themselves had come up with, following a Philosophy in Schools programme using materials developed by the philosopher Philip Cam and others. The effects were dramatic. The school showed marked academic improvement across the curriculum. A report on the success of the program says,
[f]or the last four years, students at Buranda have achieved outstanding academic results. This had not been the case prior to the teaching of Philosophy. In the systemic Year 3/5/7 tests (previously Yr 6 Test), our students performed below the state mean in most areas in 1996. Following the introduction of Philosophy in 1997, the results of our students improved significantly and have been maintained or improved upon since that time.
There were substantial payoffs in terms of behaviour too. The report indicates “significantly improved outcomes” occurred in the social behaviour of the students:
The respect for others and the increase in individual self esteem generated in the community of inquiry have permeated all aspects of school life. We now have few behaviour problems at our school (and we do have some difficult students). Students are less impatient with each other, they are more willing to accept their own mistakes as a normal part of learning and they discuss problems as they occur. As one Yr 5 child said, ‘Philosophy is a good example of how you should behave in the playground with your friends’… Bullying behaviour is rare at Buranda, with there being no reported incidence of bullying this year to date. A visiting academic commented, ‘Your children don’t fight, they negotiate’… Visitors to the school are constantly making reference to the 'feel' or 'spirit' of the place. We believe it's the way our children treat each other. The respect for others generated in the community of inquiry has permeated all aspects of school life.
Of course this is a single example – hardly conclusive evidence by itself. But it’s not the only example. In 2001-2, Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, in conjunction with the University of Dundee studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of philosophy (using a Thinking Through Philosophy programme developed by Paul Cleghorn) at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire, including schools in deprived areas. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools with no philosophy programme. The children involved were aged 11-12. This study found that after one year,
• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.
These benefits were retained. When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (that’s to say, the improvements that had previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down during those two years. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school. Again, this is only one study. No doubt such results should treated with caution. But, they do lend considerable weight to the claim that not only can children of this age think philosophically, it’s also highly beneficial. A recent study strongly supports the view that philosophy for children provides measurable educational benefits for children even in their first year of school.
To sum up: there’s good evidence that children, even fairly young children, can think philosophically. And, while more research needs to be done, there’s a growing body of evidence that it’s good for them academically, socially and emotionally. The kinds of skills such philosophy programmes foster are, surely, just the sort of skills we need new citizens to develop. Or so I’ll now argue.
From The War For Children's Minds, Routledge 2005.