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Education: it's child's play

By Kevin McDonald, John Turner and Peter Williams - posted Thursday, 21 February 2008

He advocates the introduction at an early age of a basic philosophy course where children are led to discuss various topical ethical and societal questions of their own choosing and to reason for the positions they take.

Law describes the success that this approach has had at Buranda State School in Queensland since 1997. Staff members at Buranda are satisfied that there has been a substantial improvement in the intellectual abilities of the students in their program and that bullying and other bad or thoughtless behaviour has ceased to cause very significant problems.

Statewide comparative tests have confirmed that Buranda students are now performing at or near the top of the state. From being a school with falling enrolments, mediocre test results, and only 40 or so pupils there is now a full complement of students (+190) and families have moved to the area so that their children can enroll.


In 2001 many schools in Clackmannanshire in the UK, in conjunction with Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, and the University of Dundee, conducted a controlled experiment utilising a similar program. That trial resulted in an increase of 6.5 units in measured IQ scores for the philosophy classes compared to control classes and significant behavioural benefits. Two years after the end of the trial the differences between the philosophy class students and the control class students had further diverged.

Nottinghamshire in the UK is another location where the system is being introduced. Dr Gilbert Burgh at the University of Queensland  has commented, “... rather than learning about philosophers or the history of philosophers, philosophy in schools is more about getting children to think for themselves, both critically and creatively”.

The program only requires about one hour of school time each week but, from what we have found in our research, the time and any cost gives a better return in educational outcomes than any other current curricula item. To adopt such a program the participating teachers at each school, and preferably all teachers, will need to read a few articles, maybe one or two books, do some Internet research and attend a one or two-day in-service training course. The required reading materials and teacher aids are already available at reasonable cost, with some free on Internet sites, and courses are available in Queensland and possibly through the University of NSW and many overseas sites.

While in the previous paragraph we mention one hour of school time spent on this proposed new subject that one hour can be utilised to cover some of the subject matter that would normally be covered in another strand such as social studies, personal development, or science.

The discussions envisaged would also significantly improve the students’ language skills, as has been reported in the trials, and the general reduction in behavioural problems, as achieved in the early trials, will make each teaching hour more effective.

At Kirkaldy, in Scotland, the proposed subject is introduced midway through the P1 year (students aged six) for one hour a week replacing half an hour of language and half an hour of personal development. It then continues throughout the primary school years. We believe it axiomatic that an ability to argue rationally in support of a position will improve a student’s language ability and be of major assistance in his or her personal development.


Federal Government funds which could be applied to allow prompt adoption of what is proposed are already available. For a public school with, for example, 200 children in Years 1 to 7, about eight hours of teacher class time is required. Train one competent and experienced teacher in each school in the new method and provide a casual relief teacher for two days a week so that the trained teacher can “double up” in class for the one hour of P4C. This cost would continue to be incurred only until the students become experienced with the new method and the normal class teachers had both experience and training. The funds could be those now available for the Chaplaincy Program and the funds would then be supporting a program with much greater potential benefit to the young students.

We also see the possibility of reduced drug addiction and criminality as children learn to help and co-operate with one another, to develop their own ethical concepts and philosophy of life and to apply and react to a different style of peer pressure. This difference in peer pressure will be due to the increased influence in the classroom and the school of the more competent and clearer thinking students, probably from more enlightened households.

There are long term economic and societal cohesion advantages to Australia from improved educational outcomes for public school students and probably political credit advantages to any government that introduced the program.

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About the Authors

Kevin McDonald has a couple of degrees, one as a Masters in Education.

John Turner has an applied science degree on top of a diploma in metallurgy.

Peter Williams worked in the power industry initially as an electrician and then as a training officer. He later operated his own business and while doing so studied to obtain a B.A in Philosophy.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Kevin McDonald
All articles by John Turner
All articles by Peter Williams

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