‘Philosophy for children’ isn’t real philosophy

Surely the worst, most instrumental reason for doing philosophy is that it might improve your skills in other areas, like maths and reading, while also boosting ‘cognitive abilities’ and pupils’ self-esteem. And yet it is for precisely these reasons that philosophy for children — or P4C, as it’s known — was celebrated in a recent evaluation by the UK Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

P4C is a popular method of exploring concepts such as fairness or bullying in small group discussions. By claiming that P4C might help all primary-school pupils — especially those on free school meals — to do better in other disciplines, the EEF report does a serious disservice to philosophy.

Its argument that P4C is also a cheap option, costing just £16 per pupil per year, literally cheapens philosophy. Philosophy is a subject in its own right, and should be taught for no other reason than that. The problem today is that children are being taught bits of philosophy, in their circle-time activities. They should be taught more. Why not start with the classical Greek philosophers? Teach your charges about Socrates and Plato and Aristotle! Let them rehearse the arguments of all the great philosophers.

If you teach philosophy to children, properly, they will respond. At least they are being taught a subject. Asking children about ‘fairness’ and ‘bullying’, and treating this as philosophy, plays up the contemporary fears of adults more than it gets children thinking. It’s no great advance if children can say ‘That’s not fair!’ but can’t relate their view to concepts of justice and fairness as developed in the theories of Plato, Rawls and others. Childish whining is not philosophy; reading books, even difficult ones, and then having proper classroom chats about them is.

The EEF report also said teachers don’t know enough about philosophy and aren’t confident enough to teach it. Yet as we wait for a drive to recruit more actual philosophers into primary schools, which we should do, teachers can easily teach some of the history of philosophy in history, and some of the works of philosophy in literature. Even in nursery rhymes there are challenging topics. Why was Humpy Dumpty on that wall? And a burning question for all young girls: Does kissing frogs work? These are potential philosophical sticklers, and can be addressed without the dumbed-down approach of P4C.

The EEF report has been widely welcomed, but largely as a convenient shortcut away from serious teaching in favour of therapeutic talking shops. If we really want the best education for children, then we should ditch classes on jargon and go back to teaching real subject matter — including sometimes difficult, philosophical subject matter.

Dennis Hayes is a professor of education at the University of Derby.

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