Rethinking philosophy for students

Teachers are taking up the call to bring critical thinking into schools, facilitating the development of a ‘community of inquirers’, writes Alissa MacMillan.

The following questions will not be on the Leaving Cert exam: Can machines be as creative as human beings? Is pet ownership domination in disguise? If you’re not on social media, do you exist?

However, these are some of the questions engrossing students in Pamela O’Leary’s classes at Cork Educate Together Secondary. O’Leary is one of several teachers across Ireland taking up the call to bring philosophy into schools, facilitating, as she puts it, the development of a “community of inquirers”.

“It’s a little bit like being in ancient Greece,” she says.

With the addition of philosophy as a Junior Cycle short course last year, the well-publicised launch of the Philosophy Ireland initiative in 2016 was supported by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina.

The push continues this September with the increase in hours for “wellbeing” classes, which can include philosophy. Another encouraging sign came at Our Lady’s School in Dublin, where Elizabeth O’Brien’s 8 week transition year course was oversubscribed; they could take 90 students and had to turn some away.

More Socratic than top-down, the method being used is philosophy for children, P4C, with a focus on critical and collaborative thinking, group discussion, listening, patience, and creativity. It is a method that reflects a different view on philosophy.

“[It’s] moving away from the idea that philosophy is isolationist, egotistical, one person sitting in a chair notengaging, retreating into themselves,” explains Áine Mahon, co-founder of Philosophy Ireland and lecturer in philosophy of education at UCD. She says that, instead, it’s “democratic, communal, about being responsive as much as about being assertive”.

As group conversation rather than debate club, students might still come to Kant and Wittgenstein, but from another direction, by letting a question drive the discussion — for example, what is it to be a good person? — and letting the discussion lead to possible answers in texts from the history of philosophy, such as from Aristotle.

However, it’s not just armchair philosophy. The questions matter, Mahon says, “something important is at stake here”, such as the kind of person students might be and become.

Aislinn O’Donnell, Philosophy Ireland co-founder and professor at Maynooth sees philosophy as opening the world and giving students a voice: “You belong to this community, you’re taken seriously, recognised as a thinker, and that’s what matters.”

It also helps students “develop richer, fuller, more thoughtful lives, both as individuals and as citizens”, a kind of flourishing described by ancients such as Plato, says Angie Hobbs, professor of the public understanding of philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

She is working to get philosophy into secondary and primary schools in the UK. “It extends a child’s sense of imaginative possibilities about how to live.”

It’s also fun, she adds, and flourishing isn’t just for later in life, philosophy is a means for flourishing now, in school years, which is also life.

The initiative might be new, and the concern the long view, but some of the benefits are already apparent. O’Leary sees more confidence and empathy in her students, listening skills are sharpening, while students with autism are among the best at getting to the core of questions.

“It’s the best thing I’ve done for my teaching,” she adds. O’Brien, a science and maths teacher, also finds it’s been enriching for everyone involved.

One student told her:

“You make a lot more sense now.” She admits she makes more sense to herself. “It’s humbling for me. I’ve learned to step back.”

It’s also transformed their school community and enlivened conversation in the staff room. Meanwhile, students linger to discuss questions that might be left on the board.

They also recently received a gift to start a philosophy section in the library, O’Brien was keen to add Sophie’s World, a global bestselling novel about a teenage girl and a philosopher.

If you needed any more evidence of the enthusiasm, on May 18 the Irish Young Philosopher Awards brought together hundreds of students, teachers, and the public in Dublin for a talk from President Higgins on philosophy’s far-reaching value.

There was also a lively philosophy competition (though some of O’Brien’s students are, philosophically, against exams and awards in philosophy).

The philosophy department at UCC also has a relationship with O’Leary’s school, with the faculty visiting classes and one of O’Leary’s classes recently presenting to the department. It was a hit, says Adam Loughnane, lecturer in philosophy.

Students led the way on topics that included social media and the self. Loughnane and his colleagues are now working on a Canadian-funded platform launching in the next year or so, seeking to connect university and secondary school faculties, providing a means to share knowledge.

Perhaps in anticipation of a new generation of thinkers, DCU is adding philosophy on their BA course this autumn.

The philosophical sensibility extends across the curriculum to some of the urgent challenges of

citizenship. “Students say: ‘I do business. That has nothing to do with philosophy.’ But they see quite quickly it has everything to do with philosophy,” says O’Donnell.

“In a society that’s changing so rapidly, we need some sort of framework to teach children how to be appropriately democratic citizens,” Loughnane explains, pointing to Ireland’s rapid secularisation, while schools remain mostly denominational.

Philosophy is a possible resource to fill this gap.

“Democracy has only been around a few hundred years and it’s a very fragile thing,” notes Hobbs. It requires informed, tolerant, critical, reflective, resilient, imaginative citizens.

Getting it into the schools also requires passion and enthusiasm, Mahon explains. “We need individual teachers, pioneers, to push this forward, to go to principals. It’s up to them to say, ‘I’d like to teach philosophy,’” with Philosophy Ireland there to train and support them.

As of now, it’s “an amazing grassroots movement”, says Loughnane, one “situated really perfectly to be a model for what education can be in Ireland. In terms of catching up with the EU, it seems like we might slingshot ahead and could have a really progressive education system that includes philosophy.”

“You are leading the field,” adds Hobbs. “We are all very envious.”

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