Modern Australian

Who am I? Why am I here? Why children should be taught philosophy (beyond better test scores)

  • Written by Ben Kilby, PhD student in Education, researching Philosophy for Children, Monash University

In a recent TED talk titled No Philosophy, No Humanity, author Roger Sutcliffe asked the audience whether a flagpole was a place. Around half the audience said yes, the other said no.

He went on to describe the response a nine-year-old gave him to that question:

to me a flagpole is not a place, but to an ant it is.

This creative perspective shows what children can do when given space to perform philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking skills are highly valued in society, and are beginning to be valued more in education. A Critical and Creative Thinking capability was introduced into the Australian and Victorian Curriculum in 2017.

The Australian Curriculum notes:

Responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century – with its complex environmental, social and economic pressures – requires young people to be creative, innovative, enterprising and adaptable, with the motivation, confidence and skills to use critical and creative thinking purposefully.

This capability isn’t meant to be taught as a standalone subject, but through other learning areas. One content descriptor states students should be able to consider when analogies might be used in expressing a point of view.

Who am I? Why am I here? Why children should be taught philosophy (beyond better test scores) Is a flag pole a place? Maybe for an ant. from

This is exactly what philosophy teaches children. And this can be done through a program specifically tailored to primary school aged children, known as Philosophy for Children, or P4C.

Programs in Philosophy for Children have shown significant benefits for students around the world. These benefits include improvement in academic results, as well as less measurable outcomes such as helping children make sense of their place in the world.

What is Philosophy for Children?

The idea of doing philosophy with children began in the 70s when Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp developed the first P4C program in primary schools.

In the last 50 years, Philosophy for Children has spread to more than 60 countries. It has gone on to influence university level philosophy, the business world and has also been used in prisons.

In these programs, children discuss issues around ethics or questions of personal identity. These are fundamental to understanding ourselves, especially during the formative years of school where young people are developing their identities.

For instance, students in Years 1 and 2 can analyse the ethics of truth-telling and explore whether it matters if the lie produces a positive outcome, or whether the intention of the liar matters, or whether it matters if it was an insignificant little white lie.

Read more: What's the point of education? It's no longer just about getting a job

Students in Years 5 and 6 can discuss their interpretation of how gender identity is formed. This can generate questions such as: is gender tied to sex, does gender happen at birth or do you develop a gender, and can people identify as a particular gender?

In Australia, Philosophy for Children is still largely unfunded and relies on volunteer-based institutions such as the Victorian Association of Philosophy in Schools (VAPS).

Schools such as Brunswick East Primary and Lloyd Street Primary have run successful Philosophy for Children programs for many years. But, with little outside support available, school staff must develop the program and embed it into their own curriculum.

Ireland has embraced Philosophy for Children and given philosophy a core place in the Irish education system. President Michael D. Higgins introduced the program by saying

an exposure to philosophy – as method and revelation, as rational exercise and imaginative journey – is […] vital if we truly want our young people to acquire the capacities they need in preparing for their journey into the world.

The UK has also funded research worth more than A$2 million to evaluate outcomes of Philosophy for Children programs at primary school level (scheduled for completion in 2021).

How do we know it’s effective?

A long-term study that began in Spain in 2002 followed more than 400 students in a P4C group and another 300 who weren’t involved in the programs in philosophy. It showed children in the P4C group gained an extra seven IQ points and were prone to more social behaviour over the 12-year project.

One of the largest UK studies involved more than 3,000 students in Years 4 and 5 in a randomised trial. This study concluded students engaged in the P4C program gained an extra two months progress in maths and reading compared to those who didn’t over the course of a year.

Read more: Want to improve NAPLAN scores? Teach children philosophy

Philosophy is a broad subject. It helps develop skills that can be transferred to other academic areas. This partly explains how philosophy programs improve test scores in reading, writing and mathematics without children having to actually do any reading, writing or mathematics.

Who am I? Why am I here? Why children should be taught philosophy (beyond better test scores) Philosophy skills extend into other subject areas. from

These skills range from clarity and coherence in speaking and listening to providing reasons for arguments, constructing counter-examples, and using analogical reasoning.

In the US, students who major in philosophy have some of the highest test scores when applying for graduate school. In 2014, philosophy majors had the highest average score in the LSAT (law school test) and the GRE – a standardised test used to assess applicants for graduate school in most disciplines. Philosophy majors came fourth out of 31 majors in the GMAT (business school test).

Read more: Bertrand Russell and the case for 'Philosophy for Everyone'

It’s about more than test scores

The benefits of philosophy stretch far beyond its measurable effects.

Most P4C practitioners find something inherently valuable in facilitating philosophical dialogues with groups of young people – something we consider more valuable than the improved test scores that might impress educational administrators.

Philosophy is about life. It’s about being engaged with life. It’s about being in the world. Asking ethical questions allows us to reflect on how our actions affect the world. The value to these young people goes far beyond their test scores, their use of critical thinking skills or their future employment options.

They are engaged members of a thinking community. They deliberate, negotiate, and contemplate with respectful and thoughtful dialogue. Philosophy for Children can help improve academic results, but the reason it should be used in schools is because it allows children a space to make sense of the world and meaning in their lives.

Authors: Ben Kilby, PhD student in Education, researching Philosophy for Children, Monash University

Read more


Altruistic or self-serving? Four things judges consider when sentencing politically-motivated crimes

This morning an Extinction Rebellion protester was arrested after hanging from a rope over the William Jolly Bridge in Brisbane, blocking all lanes to peak hour traffic. And earlier this...

Why do I dwell on the past?

Dwelling on the past, like writing in a diary, is part of being human and helps us form our identity. But not all memories are helpful.from www.shutterstock.comMany of us enjoy...

Surge in pre-poll numbers at 2019 federal election changes the relationship between voters and parties

Another issue is that pre-polling gives an advantage to the major parties over the smaller ones, due to the latter having fewer resources.AAP/Bianca de MarchiOn the morning of the last...

why memorising poetry still matters for human connection

Committing poetry to memory is so much more than a rote exercise.Taylor Ann Wright/UnsplashMemorising poetry was once common in classrooms. But it has, for the most part, gone out of...

what exactly does a showrunner do?

Donald Glover is the showrunner on Atlanta, 'perhaps the most curious credit in the history of the small screen'. imdb/FX NetworksWhat do J.J. Abrams, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Shonda Rhimes, David Lynch...

How many people have eating disorders? We don't really know, and that's a worry

Eating disorders disproportionately affect females and young people.From shutterstock.comLast week, federal health minister Greg Hunt announced that more than 60,000 Australians will be asked about their mental health and well-being...

keep in mind the 'bacon and eggs' principle

Morrison describes the “the bacon and eggs principle" where "the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed".AAP/Shutterstock/The ConversationScott Morrison has a sharp lecture for bureaucrats about their KPIs, in...

Frydenberg outlines financial sector reform timetable

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has issued a timetable for the government’s dealing with the recommendations from the royal commission into banking, superannuation and financial services, which aims to have all measures...

For the first time in centuries, we're setting up a generation to be worse off than the one before it

The avocado latte is indeed a thing, but young Australians are spending less on luxuries than they used to, while older Australians are spending more. ShutterstockEach new generation of Australians since...

Michelle Grattan on the Pacific Islands Forum wash-up, media freedom and the public service

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been at the Pacific Islands Forum in Tuvalu.AAP/Mick TsikasMichelle Grattan talks to University of Canberra Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Deep Saini about the week...

Pacific Island nations will no longer stand for Australia's inaction on climate change

The Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu this week has ended in open division over climate change. Australia ensured its official communique watered down commitments to respond to climate change...

Glamorising violent offenders with 'true crime' shows and podcasts needs to stop

Even in death, the voice of Carl Williams is louder than that of his victims. Intimate prison letters written by the convicted murderer and drug trafficker to his ex-wife, Roberta...

Popular articles from Modern Australian

The Process Followed by Car Removal Companies5 Ideas for Small Melbourne BackyardsSplurge or Save: Our tips on what to Spend the Big Money on for your Wedding5 ways to make sure you have a good camping tripMouth Ulcer Treatment – The Easiest It Can GetLaser Treatment For Skin Tag RemovalThe Importance of Mental Health During PregnancyFavourite Pastimes for SeniorsHow to Dress for Work: Chic 9-5 StyleFind out how reading Funeral Poems can bring comfort to your griefWhat Men Like in Women’s FashionDocument you need for a divorce7 Steps Complete Guide to Sustainable Lifestyle5 ways to hydrate your hair and skin while you travelGreat Ways to Stay Fit When You are Busy