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Socrates in the classroom: Should primary school pupils be taught philosophy?

Socrates: suitable for six year olds
Socrates: suitable for six year olds

Should primary school pupils be able to learn philosophy?

This is the question being asked both within schools and by academia.

Amid ‘modern ills’ such as anger on social media, fake news, ‘cancel culture’, and a perceived lack of debating skills, do we need to do more to create ‘thinking children’?

Pupils couldn’t choose philosophy at Standard Grade level at publicly-funded schools until National 5 replaced Standard Grade in 2014.

Since then, the number taking the subject at National 5 has more than doubled. There were 238 pupils receiving a grade in 2020.

And 513 students attained Higher philosophy last year.

While rising, these numbers represent a fraction of school students, with the subject remaining non-compulsory.

Now experts and teachers alike are asking whether there should be more philosophy at school level. Some think this should happen as early as primary school.

It’s not a new discussion – in 1990 the BBC broadcast the docu-drama ‘Socrates for Six-Year-Olds’, based on American philosopher Matthew Lipman’s idea that before children can learn to absorb facts, they must be taught how to think.

Since then, teaching philosophy in primary schools has caught on across the world, notably in Australia.

Dr Federico Luzzi, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, runs a one-day course for primary and secondary teachers which trains them in introducing philosophical discussion into the classroom.

He also leads a course for undergraduate philosophy students which teaches them the same thing. After eight weeks they go to a primary school where they introduce philosophy to pupils.

There isn’t always a textbook answer

“In philosophy, pupils learn several things,” said Dr Luzzi.

“The first is that there isn’t always a definite, textbook answer to questions that everyone can agree on.

“The second is that that is fine.

“Philosophy teaches pupils to think carefully and articulate their reasons and beliefs.

“It also encourages reflection over why one holds the views one does.

“So we might ask: ‘Jack did this, is what Jack did right?’

“Some say yes, some say no. The important thing is to understand both your own reasoning and your fellow pupils’ who might disagree with you.

“Philosophy is a platform for disagreeing respectfully, and having the ability to adjust your opinion when new evidence comes to light.

‘It’s about not defending your point to the death’

“We see on Twitter a lot that someone has an opposing view and is then not listened to, or ‘cancelled’, or whatever.

“If taught from a young age, I think philosophy can be an antidote to that sort of thing.”

Dr Federico Luzzi, a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, thinks the subject should be taught from a young age.

He added: “Philosophy doesn’t require a tonne of background knowledge to grasp the question, so in that sense it’s a pretty good leveller.

“What often happens is that pupils who don’t otherwise participate in class so much come forward and participate in philosophy.

“Age is no barrier.

“The best philosophical discussions are those you can explain to a six-year-old.

“These children won’t have read anything by Kant or Plato, but then they’ll say something in discussion which broadly resembles what Kant or Plato said.

“Then you can say, well, this is what Kant or Plato thought about this.”

From soccer to Socrates

Steven Munro was a facilities manager who ran Strikers indoor football centre in Bridge of Don. Five years ago, he decided to turn to teaching.

Alongside his class teaching at Balmedie Primary School, he teaches philosophy to pupils in P5-7. He has even introduced the subject to a P2/3 class.

Primary teacher Steven Munro is passionate about bringing philosophy into the classroom.

“Ludicrously grandiose though it may sound, I wanted to make the world a better place,” he said.

“It was during my year doing post-grad primary teaching at university that I was introduced to the concept of philosophy for children.

“I very quickly realised the potential.

“Creating ‘thinking children’ gives them the skills to navigate a world that is not terribly conducive to the maintaining of good mental health.

“The ability to properly step back and assess situations, to compartmentalise, and understand which processes they can and can’t influence, is a vital skill.

“I think it is also vitally important to understand that acknowledging and understanding competing ideas not only leads to better routes to compromise but also, through challenging your own pre-held opinions, strengthens the understanding of your own argument or situation.”

Early exposure would reap huge rewards

He added: “I personally believe that early exposure, through properly targeted lessons, would reap huge rewards in terms of thinking ability in the later primary years.

“My greatest moment in the classroom came in the P2/3 class during a lesson about corporal punishment.

“There was a child in the class who found the traditional curriculum very challenging due to his specific learning difficulties, but had a laser-like focus during philosophy discussions. During a discussion about corporal punishment he stated that he ‘refused to be part of a system that hurts people’.

“The more we can dispense with the idea of ‘normal’, the happier I believe we will all be.

“I am forever telling the children that popularity – of thought or action – does not automatically equate with being right.”

Mr Munro said he was unaware of philosophy being practised in other primary classrooms. However, he said several colleagues had expressed an interest in doing so.

‘An openness to new thinking and ideas’

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Learning about philosophy can help pupils to develop an openness to new thinking and ideas, to make reasoned evaluations, and to develop and communicate their own beliefs and view of the world.

“Decisions about the learning and teaching of philosophy in primary schools are the responsibility of schools and practitioners.

“There are opportunities to explore philosophical ideas across the curriculum, including in English, science, religious and moral education, the social subjects and personal and social education.”