Philosophy can sometimes be dismissed as an inessential subject, but Victorian schools are finding it has a crucial impact on students and their community.
As every teacher knows, getting students to answer simple questions can be a hard task. So it’s encouraging (and a little surprising) to see how enthusiastically Elliot Wall’s Year 11 class tackle questions that don’t have an easy answer.
Today his philosophy students are discussing whether or not there is a god as part of their community of inquiry – a structured form of argument, where ideas are interrogated, built upon or dismantled, without the emotion that often characterises disagreement. As with most philosophical discussions, it isn’t actually the answer that is important, but how well the questions are asked.
“The obvious benefits of philosophy that I always talk about with my students are the critical thinking skills,” Elliot says. “The ability to communicate clearly, the ability to distinguish between a logical and well-reasoned argument and a poor argument. In this age of fake news, it’s particularly important to be teaching students to be able to think for themselves and ask questions.”
While he admits some parents can see VCE philosophy as being impractical or lacking a career-focus, Elliot says the skills it teaches are vital to creating engaged citizens ready to cope with a rapidly changing job market.
“There’s a big trend in education towards transferable skills and philosophy is a big part of that. What is a more transferable skill than being able to think for yourself? I think these are highly practical skills.”
“Imagine that at 18 years old, you’ve figured out what a good life is! You’ve got a big head start on everyone else.”
Practicality aside, the teaching of philosophy reflects another trend in education towards mental health and wellbeing – teaching the ‘whole student’, rather than simply imparting academic knowledge. Philosophy might prepare students for the workplace, but it can also prepare them more broadly for adulthood, in a way other subjects would struggle to match.
“I say to my Year 12 students, ‘Imagine that at 18 years old, you’ve figured out what a good life is! You can spend the rest of your life just going and living it. You’ve got a big head start on everyone else.’”
Elliot stresses he is being somewhat facetious. Few students will have worked out exactly what a good life is by the time they graduate high school. But there’s little doubt that early exposure to different ways of thinking and well-established theories about what a good life looks like will give them an advantage in making healthy decisions. Little wonder then that an increasing number of Victorian primary schools are building philosophy into the curriculum.
“I’m not saying NAPLAN is without value, but we do accept it’s a fairly narrow way of assessing a fairly narrow set of skills.”
One such school is St Kilda Park Primary School (SKIPPS), where a Philosophy for Children program has been running for well over a decade. Students at all levels spend an hour a week on philosophical matters, from ‘community of inquiry’ projects to discussing ethics or unpacking ideas and concepts from storybooks.
“Even in foundation, they’ll start learning about asking good questions and then dig into topics like what friendship is,” Neil says. “That allows us to develop social skills and emotional awareness.”
Last term, teachers used the brain-bending drawings featured at the NGV International’s MC Escher exhibition to not only inspire creative works of art, but to stimulate rich philosophical discussions. As with Northcote High, SKIPPS also takes part in the annual Philosothon, organised by the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools. Unlike a debating contest, students who participate aren’t rewarded for winning arguments but rather how well they’ve dug into the topic.
Neil says that, rather than treating philosophy as a subject in its own right, the school treats it as something that reflects its core values. While there are definite academic benefits, philosophy is a reminder that the impact of good teaching goes well beyond the report card – or NAPLAN results.
“I think it’s very easy as a principal of a primary school to obsess over NAPLAN results and we’re certainly judged on those,” Neil says. “I’m not saying NAPLAN is without value, but we do accept it’s a fairly narrow way of assessing a fairly narrow set of skills.
“We need to keep our eye on the larger picture, which is being proud of the sort of adults our students go on to become, beyond how well they can read or write. I think philosophy is a really good way of allowing that to happen.”
“Given the standard of debate and discussion in public life – you don’t really see a space in which people respect other people’s opinions. It’s certainly something we try to teach the students.”
The success of this approach can be measured in the reports Neil receives about former SKIPPS students from neighbouring high schools.“The feedback we get from secondary school principals is that they can tell our students apart, because they have that approach of being good at reasoning, thinking things through and putting forward arguments.”
This approach to education is shared by the school community at large, Neil says. He feels parents would generally rather the school produce well-rounded kids than hot-housed students in the top two bands for NAPLAN. Indeed, the Philosophy program is often seen as a key attraction by prospective parents. Perhaps there’s an awareness that the program is not only producing better, happier students, but also helping to create a better society at large.
One of the most important skills students pick up from philosophy, Neil says, is the art of listening – a skill that currently seems to be in short supply. “Given the way adults behave on social media and the standard of debate and discussion in public life – you don’t really see a space in which people respect other people’s opinions. It’s certainly something we try to teach the students.”
Back at Northcote High, the students may not have come to a collective conclusion about the existence of god, but they are displaying an admirable ability to agree about disagreeing. Elliot says it’s something students initially struggle with, wary of causing offence, but the benefits of practise have been profound – in the classroom and beyond.
“Ultimately, I believe philosophical thinking builds resilience. If you can practise developing your argument and put it out there for constructive criticism – and either accept or rebut that criticism – it does build resilience.”