An encounter in the school canteen convinced George Duoblys of the need for a philosophy GCSE. It would help pupils’ attainment, well-being and critical thinking, he says – and it’s fun
Until December, I was a teacher in east London. One incident at school really brought home to me the need to teach students philosophy at GCSE level.
It was lunchtime and the canteen hummed with noise. A year 11 boy was making his way to his table. It was a squeeze to get through the narrow gap between his friend and another girl sitting behind.
“You fat c***!” he joked.
As the teacher on duty it was my responsibility to act. What should I do? Ignore it? Or follow the school’s strict behaviour system and issue him with a two-hour detention?
Even if his friend was happy to be called a c***, doing it in the canteen might make other people feel threatened
Dilemmas such as this illustrate the importance of philosophy, at least in the everyday life of a teacher. I gave the boy a detention as I felt that the punishment was needed to maintain a safe and friendly atmosphere within the school. In ethical terms, it was a consequentialist argument.
Unsurprisingly, the boy challenged me on my reasoning. “Why did I get a detention?”
I explained that even if his friend was happy to be called a c***, doing it in the canteen might make other people feel threatened. I gave him the example of the family stand in a football stadium, a safe space where you’re not allowed to chant “the referee’s a wanker”. I wanted to illustrate that even if swearing wasn’t intrinsically bad, if the consequences were negative overall then it might still be the wrong thing to do.
My arguments fell on deaf ears.
Teaching ethics could be one aspect of a philosophy GCSE. What might the other outcomes be?
According to the Education Endowment Foundation, teaching students philosophy improves their literacy and numeracy. This came from analysis of the P4C programme, which uses philosophical-style dialogue to teach primary children in more than 60 countries.
LKMco and Voice 21’s report on oracy highlighted research showing that philosophical debate can boost confidence and self-esteem. The more students can articulate their thoughts, the more they can access other areas of their learning.
A report out last month from the House of Lords illustrated the need for better education around PSHE and digital literacy if young people are to navigate the swathes of information now available online.
But there are also many reasons why it would be worthwhile for its own sake.
There’s no better way to spark a classroom debate than a thought experiment, such as Michael Sandel’s example of the bus whose brakes have failed. What should the driver do?
Teaching approaches such as the case method, popularised by Harvard Business School, can allow every student to access philosophical concepts at their own level.
Philosophy addresses the problems of everyday existence.
Some would undoubtedly suggest time would be better spent focusing on core subjects such as maths, English and science. They may argue philosophy is too difficult for most students. And they will likely point to the ongoing teacher recruitment crisis and budget cuts as reasons not to bother.
The first two points are easily addressed.
On the first, Michael Oakeshott has likened subjects to voices, with philosophy reflecting “the relationship of one voice to another”. Taking this view, studying philosophy would not impede students learning maths, English and science; on the contrary, it would link them together and thus make the curriculum more coherent.
On the second, while many of the concepts in philosophy are difficult, understanding them is not binary. Students could have a decent grasp of the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic value, even if they didn’t know those terms. The same can’t be said for trigonometry or electromagnetism;
in simple terms, you either know those or you don’t.
The final objection – how to implement it in practice – is more difficult. While there are no easy answers, that shouldn’t put us off. Teaching philosophy at GCSE would be an investment, in people, time and money, but one that evidence suggests would deliver a healthy return.
George Duoblys is an associate at LKMco