How can studying philosophy help students learn? IB alumna and team leader for the IB philosophy examination, Jane Gatley, shares her recent research with IB World magazine, and explains why the subject should be essential to a secondary education
The benefits of learning philosophy are highly documented. It improves thinking and communication skills, and encourages understanding of other beliefs. Students achieved approximately an additional two months’ progress in reading and mathematics after using the Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach – a movement that aims to teach reasoning and argumentative skills to children – according to a study. While another report found that one-hour weekly philosophy lessons have a meaningful impact on students’ cognitive abilities.
But how does philosophy impact learning, and is there evidence to show similar effects in secondary-year students? Jane Gatley, Head of Religious Studies at Worksop College in the UK, conducted research at her school’s recent philosophy conference, to find out. As an IB alumna, she was inspired by her Theory of Knowledge (TOK) lessons to study philosophy to Masters level. Gatley is now a team leader for the IB philosophy examination.
Students all over the UK attended a two-day philosophy conference, entitled: Pursuit of Knowledge 2015. For Gatley’s study, 95 students between the ages of 15 and 19 filled in a questionnaire about their experiences. “The questions they were asked aimed to elicit their understanding of the value of philosophy to them,” explains Gatley.
“Their responses echoed many of the documented benefits and there was evidence that philosophy can have many different positive influences, even to the same student. I found that philosophy helps students engage with their learning across the discrete subjects they study, and contextualize their learning through the development of their own world views and value systems.”
The three themes
Gatley split responses into three themes to reflect the possible ways philosophy might shape learning. Firstly, she found that students repeatedly used the word ‘allowed’ when writing about the value of philosophy. For example, one student stated that ‘it allows children creativity and expression, which you don’t get in other subjects’. “This reflects the idea that some students enjoy philosophical thought but are not given the opportunity to engage in it in their schooling,” says Gatley.
Responses indicated that philosophy helps students develop as a person. “Philosophy gives you ‘an understanding of yourself,” said one student, while two others reported that the conference helped them overcome anxieties they had about getting involved in discussions. “Students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to develop their own ideas in response to the views of others,” says Gatley.
“This helped them gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the world and society.” More than half (52%) of 16-19-year-old students felt the conference had changed them, and 77% of 15-16-year-olds agreed.
‘Philosophy develops thinking and communication skills’, was the final theme Gatley noted – particularly the development of independent thought and analytic skills. A common view was that the conference helped students listen to other people’s ideas.
They enjoyed meeting people from across the country who often had very different views. “This is one of the stated aims of the DP TOK course and is particularly valuable in culturally diverse communities, says Gatley.
For Gatley, previously published studies and her own research suggest a stronger role for philosophy within education. “I am particularly interested in the suggestion that philosophy is central to education as a whole. This would allow students to discuss ideas in depth, encourage open mindedness and develop communication and thinking skills,” she says.
“Philosophy has the ability to help students develop a greater depth of meaning within their educational experiences. This helps students engage more with the learning process and hopefully enjoy their learning more, too. In many ways, the nature of the discipline of philosophy is about a love of knowledge and learning for the sake of learning; the word ‘philosophy’ translates as ‘love of wisdom’. If we can encourage this attitude in students, I feel that something important will have been achieved,” adds Gatley.
Encouraging younger students
There are links between the P4C movement and TOK, and Gatley hopes that her findings will be recognized by TOK teachers, as well as help raise the profile of the IB Philosophy course.
P4C encourages younger students to discuss ideas that interest them and uses inquiry pedagogy, asking students to identify philosophical questions, vote on which questions they want to discuss and the teacher facilitates conversation. TOK shares a similar format; particularly with its focus on a series of questions and encouraging discussion. TOK aims include creating awareness of different perspectives in an international community and encouraging students to address fundamental philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge.
Gately also hopes more IB World Schools will consider introducing philosophy to younger students. “Students are more resilient when it comes to philosophical ideas than is often assumed. It’s worth experimenting with challenging ideas to see whether you are surprised by the insights students can produce,” she says.
Feedback from the conference was very positive and it is clear that philosophy can be fun, challenging and exciting.