Monday, April 13, 2009

Schools: too busy to educate?

Interesting article (via sympoze) on philosophy in schools:
Philosophy lessons are being introduced in dozens of primary schools in a bid to get more children reading and open their minds...

But critics say that teaching youngsters how to discuss the finer points of Cartesian dualism over the dinner table with their parents is only diverting them from the more important lessons of learning the times table and spelling.

I'd dispute the claim that petty skills are "more important" than learning how to think, but whatever. It turns out the critics are wrong even on their own terms:
In 2007, psychologists in Scotland did a study on the benefits of teaching schoolchildren philosophy. In a survey of 105 ten-year-olds, it found children showed significant improvements in tests of their verbal, numerical and spatial abilities at the end of the 16-month period of lessons, compared to those who were not taught philosophy.

But Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, Nick Seaton said: 'Schools have enough to do teaching the basic three Rs without worrying about philosophy for children at that age. Considering how many youngsters leave education without a fundamental grasp of the basics, schools should concentrate on building a foundation of knowledge for youngsters in the limited school time they have.'

You've gotta love journalistic objectivity. "On the one hand, X actually promotes goal Y. But wait -- here's someone saying that Y is too important for us to worry about X (the effective means to Y, remember). Oh noes! How will we ever decide?"


  1. Richard,

    I was writing a final paper for an economics class and one of the reports we looked at showed significant effects of teacher interaction with lees-able students on grades and test scores. It also showed that better students didn't need the teachers instruction, and actually, their scores were significantly affected by more peer-to-peer interaction.

    What am I getting at? Basically that there are many studies focusing on the idea of social capital. But good philosophy (open-mindedness, reflection, conciseness, etc.) is really just a sophisticated way of opening up communication between agents, ie. a way to increase social capital. Looking at philosophy in this way, it seems clear that schools do need to focus on this. I know I've summarized their findings very poorly, but I've included a link to the report.

  2. My impression is that the chief rationale behind modern education is a simple minded approach to the question of the justification of the expenditure of time and resources on educating the young and the personal experience of some able individuals. The able individuals notice that with or without formal education people learn to talk and acquire a variety of other practical skills. The able individuals notice that their ability to learn diminishes with age. The able individuals develop politics.

  3. Unfortunately, I mostly have questions to contribute:
    I agree that education in "learning how to think" is important and probably neglected, but is teaching philosophy the best use of limited educational time? Why is philosophical discourse a better way to teach critical thinking than science or engineering education? Can the "petty skills" of reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic be separated from critical thinking? Are you familiar with this study and what it actually measured? As Roscoe almost point out, teaching philosophy may only be one of several methods for teaching "thinking".

  4. @Ricky, I agree, all sciences develop your brain and they aren't separate from critical thinking. What I don't get is who decided that other sciences are more important than philosophy?

  5. @Nancy, A little thinking out loud, or rather, in print:

    I am going to sidestep the comparative value of philosophy vs. other sciences. I am actually an engineer, not a philosopher, so watch out for a biased engineering-is-the-most-important point of view.

    1) To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To me, everything looks like a system of filters. The equations I use to build signal processing systems are the same kinds of equations used to model traffic flow on a highway. It's nothing new that world views can be thought of as filters (e.g., rose-colored glasses), but I think the analogy can be carried further. Formal ideas about the stability and causality of a filter should also be applicable to a world view. I find myself thinking like that -- breaking down interactions and decisions into data streams and filter banks. I think a mechanical engineer would do the same, but in terms of linkages and gears and such. Finance people see everything as a marketplace. In the end, what is the difference between philosphy and the vocations besides the language and constructs used to model the world? I find it difficult to believe that philosophers have a language or structure that is any more pure than another discipline's.

    2) I'm curious what is actually being taught to the children in this case. Briefly going through some philosophy-for-kids websites (here and here the top two answers for this google search, I was impressed at the kinds of questions and topics that are addressed, although they seem very different from the "Cartesian duality" that the kids in the study were supposedly discussing at home.

    3) Who decided that other sciences are more important? I don't have any idea. My own belief is that many people see philosophy as (usefully or not) formalizing something we do everyday in dealing with our existence, the choices we make, and so on. If that were true, then what does philosophical discourse get you than an engineering or marketplace analogy doesn't? Is philosophy the universal language or is it one of a number of languages or structures for modeling the world? And if it's just one of many, then how many languages do I need to learn to understand something? If I already look at the world in terms of filter systems and mathematics equations, do I also need to be able to describe it in terms of linkages, or in terms of markets? For me this is all rooted in a belief that there is a way things are somewhere, and that most of science, religion, and philosophy (did I miss anything?) are really just trying to describe that way-things-are, probably through some kind of catholic-, engineer-, market-, or philosopher-colored lenses.

  6. Ricky - "is teaching philosophy the best use of limited educational time?"

    This doesn't strike me as an answerable question. But nor does it particularly matter (i.e. if some X would be even better, but X is not an option on the table). What we need to know is: would introducing philosophy classes be an improvement on current practices? And the only empirical evidence I'm aware of, as cited in the post, suggests "yes". But I'd certainly agree that more evidence would be helpful here.

    Having said that, I think some general reasons could be offered for thinking that philosophy is especially important to teach to youngsters.

    Firstly, it trains one in reasoning as such. Other fields offer specialized tools for modeling or solving certain kinds of problems, but there seems an important sense in which the methods of philosophy are more basic. (It's what we turn to when no one else's tools are applicable to the problem at hand.)

    This is important -- perhaps the most important point -- because we want citizens to have good general reasoning skills. For example, we want them to be able to detect when, say, politicians are offering bad arguments. Philosophical training, to an extent surpassing any other discipline, equips students with the tools to make and assess rational arguments.

    Secondly, the subject matter of philosophy often concerns the most fundamental questions. Applied sciences might help us answer the instrumental question whether X will achieve goal Y. But whether Y is a goal worth achieving in the first place, for example, is a question for moral philosophy. I think it's important to encourage kids to consider such fundamental questions, to develop their intellectual curiosity. And it's especially important that they receive some training in assessing ethical issues and arguments, if we want them to develop into responsible democratic citizens.

    And, given Roscoe's point about the importance of social capital in the classroom, the dialogical and participatory nature of philosophy makes it seem especially suitable. (At least, I can't think of any other subject that surpasses it in this respect.)

  7. At it's core, philosophy makes you question things you take for granted. And it doesn't just teach you to question them, but HOW to question them in a productive way and how to be comfortable and open to new ideas (even if they turn out to be stupid). A lot of kids don't get that kind of education in school. Rather, they get the opposite, don't question it, just sit there and learn. Then, when they get to the age where they do need to question things, they either don't or they are really bad at it, and it's not really questioning, rather spewing out your feelings and discontentment at others who are doing the same and no one gets anywhere, re:most people, even educated ones, that's the kicker!

  8. As you suggest teaching philosophy might fulfill functions that can be achieved by other means. It is surely a mistake to believe that all words have a correct use. The words of ordinary parlance very often have many 'correct' uses and it seems to me that words whose principle use is personal expression can be said to have no correct use. I doubt that philosophy can be done without such expressive usage but I doubt that it is the only such example of nonfiction.
    I have expressed my view in my new article at

  9. You've gotta love journalistic objectivity. "On the one hand, X actually promotes goal Y. But wait -- here's someone saying that Y is too important for us to worry about X (the effective means to Y, remember). Oh noes! How will we ever decide?"So in your opinion, the article writer should have simply said: case closed, teaching philosophy in elementary school is beneficial and has no potential downsides?

  10. My complaint was that the article presented an incoherent case against. That doesn't necessarily imply that "case closed" is the right response. It could be that there is a coherent case against that they should have presented instead (e.g. suggesting that the cited research might be faulty).

  11. Point taken -- the article could have critiqued the study's methodology. But the writer could also assume that the general reader will be aware that one empirical study doesn't automatically thwart common sense, tradition, and experience. Those things are factors in and of themselves that educators can reasonably weigh against the study results. I'm not necessarily against teaching philosophy in elementary school, but it is a pretty startling idea -- I don't think the reporter(s) would be doing their job if they didn't articulate people's instinctive aversion to it.

  12. A minimally competent writer would have first set out the traditional objection, and then noted, "but here is some empirical evidence to the contrary...".

    The actual structure of the article, by contrast, is straightforwardly incoherent.

    (Personally, I find the results completely unsurprising. It would be far more contrary to my experience and "common sense" if it turned out that rote learning and uncreative, boring classes served kids better in any respect.)


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)