Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Philosophy in Primary Schools

Philosophy in Primary Schools

In the few years that I have been studying Philosophy the same question has come to mind a number of times. Why did we never study Philosophy in school? Or rather, why was it not an option? Some would say that Philosophy is wasted on the young, and that they haven’t the experience or character yet to feel its full worth, and to a extent I would agree with them. Children with little experience of the world would struggle to grasp the very adult matters with which Philosophy is often concerned. However I am not suggesting that we gracelessly chuck the kids in at the deep-end knowing full well they can not swim, but instead that we could prepare them with the skills they will need to meet these problems head on later in life.

While exploring this debate I found the following in an article at

Within a few months, my class's ability to listen and respond appropriately improved almost beyond belief. The children were able to challenge each other's ideas in anassertive and non-aggressive way. They began to show respect for each other as contributors and there was a more co-operative feel to the class. Empathy displayed regularly in the classroom, continued to be displayed in the playground and the children were in trouble outside much less frequently than previously.

This is the testimony of a Primary School teacher from London, who introduced philosophical debate to her 7 and 8 year-olds Personal and Social Health Education classes. She was initially concerned that some disruptive pupils would sabotage the debate, but as you can see above, they eventually responded positively to the situation and their classmates.

What is important is for children is to be encouraged to think for themselves and then be able to express those thoughts. To be able to have a discussion and listen to each other, understand each other and teach each other. Only Philosophy can deliver this.

Rob Humphries


  1. I think that this is a great idea. But I guess we need to get clear from the start about what kind of effect, exactly, that philosophy is meant to have in this instance. Aristotle can help us here. According to Aristotle, one important dimension of philosophy was its ability to deliver 'practical wisdom' - phronesis. Phronesis for Aristotle was the knowledge that oriented us towards the good, especially the virtues.

    More generally, I think that philosophy can be a big help in bringing about a culture of virtue, especially when people encounter philosophical ideas early in life.

    Neil Turnbull

  2. Yes, the notion of how to live a good life (however we might wish to define this) which is the lynchpin of ancient philosophy should be addressed as early as possible in children's lives. After all, it is at their youngest when children are most open to new ideas, before self-consciousness and peer pressure sets in.

    Teaching philosophy in schools is a practical demonstration of the direct intersection between philosophy and everyday life, and would help philosophy to escape from its so-called ivory tower connotations.

    As Slovoj Zizek suggests, philosophy is (or ought to be) a modest subject; it is not trying to change the world or provide the last word on the meaning of life. What is should try and do is enable people to think, analyse, question their preconceptions and beliefs as well as those of others.

    And that is why philosophy should begin as soon as children begin to formulate their own ways of thinking...

    Ruth Griffin

  3. I couldn't agree more! Since philosophy is the foundation of all the sciences, both hard and soft, it provides the main ground for the unity of knowledge. Philosophy, and its central drives for enquiry, understanding, meaning, ethical guidance, clarity, argumentation and the organization of the human community, is absolutely necessary for framing the different subjects we learn at school. Indeed, on some level, it sounds wholly absurd that one can go to school and not have at least some minimal sense of the central characteristics of philosophy which I mentioned above. The point is that philosophy transcends the differences between the different subjects; it attempts to articulate the generic core of what it means to be human. Without philosophy, humans could not interconnect the different regions of knowledge. In terms of teaching philosophy in schools, this would be indispensable. Philosophy can provide essential tools applicable to all regions of knowledge. Furthermore, it would foster creativity since different subjects would be open to contestation, synthesis and transformation. Philosophy makes for a richer appreciation of different subject matters since knowledge would not be rigidified into particular and isolated spheres. In essence, philosophy itself provides the material for the generation of all the different subject matters. Without philosophy, the prospect of education at any level is therefore very much diminished.

  4. With reference to the above post, I think the below link is exceptionally relevant. Dundee University engaged in a project for measuring the value of philosophy in primary schools in 2007. There is a link to the results below. It's all good I have to say!

  5. I think we must be careful here. whilst i think philosophy would be great at secondary school i think the sheer lack of experience (as mentioned in the original post) creates a danger of misinterpreteation of certain concepts. if a child did not continue philosophy and dispel misunderstandings we would have a generation of people believing there is, say, ample justification for genocide and ethnic cleansing (perhaps thru a misreading of nietzsche) or for tyranny by say simplifying Machiavelli. no i thnk philsophy must wait til we can fairly weigh up concepts- not as long as descartes would have us wait but still, at least til post puberty