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Philosophy Makes Kids Better in Math and Reading

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, January 26, 2017

With expanded and connected ideas, academics improve

Is it ever OK to lie? If you had a different name would you be a different person? Would you eat an animal if it could talk?

More than 3,000 nine and 10 year-old children in 48 schools across England examined such questions in weekly 40 minute philosophy classes.  The kids weren’t asked to examine the likes of Kant and Kierkegaard. They sat in circles and experienced stories, poems and film clips that prompted discussions on such concepts as truth, justice, friendship and knowledge.  Teachers were specially trained to act as moderators.

The program,  Philosophy for Children, was developed by The Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE), a nonprofit that promotes philosophy I schools, colleges and communities.  The goal for grade school students was to help children reason, formulate and ask good questions, engage in constructive conversation, and develop cogent arguments.  It hadn’t been directed toward raising math and literacy scores. But when the nonprofit Educational Endowment Foundation (EEG) evaluated the results of one year of the program, they discovered the youngsters who participated increased their math and reading scores by the equivalent of two extra months of teaching.  

Youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds achieved the most significant score increases, and researchers think the program, which costs about $23 per child, could provide an effective way to narrow the academic gap between poor and wealthy children.  A story by Sarah Cassidy in The Independent describes the program and quotes Stephen Gorard, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, the study’s lead researcher: “Our results suggest that these philosophy sessions can have a positive impact on pupils’ math, reading and perhaps their writing skills,” he said. “But crucially, they seem to work especially well for the children who are most disadvantaged. This is very encouraging as we, along with the EEF, are committed to helping tackle educational disadvantage.”

According to a story in The Guardian by Education Editor Richard Adams, teachers and students who took the classes report that classroom behavior and relationships on all levels improved, and that youngsters learned better listening and conversational skills and developed more perusal confidence.  Professor Gorard told Adams researchers aren’t sure why the philosophical discussions improved academic scores in unrelated fields, but suggested that open ended discussions may increase student engagement and enjoyment while improving the capacity to raise questions. He says more research is needed.

Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF, told Jenny Anderson of Quartz that the classes gave youngsters new ways if thinking and expressing themselves. “They have been thinking with more logic and more connected ideas,” he said.  Researchers who followed up on results of an earlier philosophy program said beneficial results lasted for two years, with the youngsters who had the classes continuing to outperform those who hadn’t. The EEF tested the effectiveness of the intervention using a randomized control trial, much the way drugs are tested. 

Lizzy Lewis, development manager of SAPERE, described some of the moral, scientific and practical questions that prompt children to explore their own thinking. These include: Can computers think? Is there anything we cannot know? Is it possible to think of nothing? What would you do if you had a ring of invisibility?

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