Can children do philosophy?

Sunday 18 October, 14.00 until 15.30, Pit Theatre, Barbican Battle for the Classroom

Philosophy is a venerable university subject, but until recently it was much less common in schools. If anything, philosophy was taught to over-16s only, and in a historical context. Aristotle’s principle of contradictions would have been learnt first, before any attempts were made to apply it, and that was about it. Today, though, there is a whole ‘Philosophy For Children’ (P4C) movement. Its aim is to help children even at primary school to think for themselves using a wide variety of materials to instigate questioning and inquiry, like provocative stories designed to stimulate young people’s thinking about friendship, fairness, truth and other key moral concepts.

Critics of teaching philosophy in primary schools maintain that philosophy is not just a formal way of inquiry involving dilemmas, reasons, criteria and fallacies. It also has its own tradition, a long quest for truth about the human condition and more, which would-be philosophers must engage with. Supporters of P4C insist children do not need this body of knowledge to philosophise because philosophy teaches reasoning in a conceptual way. What’s more, they maintain that an early introduction to philosophical dialogue would foster a deeper empathy for the experiences of others, as well as a crucial understanding of how to use reason to resolve disagreements. They say it promotes the development of reasoned argument and higher-order thinking – skills which underlie learning in most other domains (including literacy and numeracy) and which are essential for responsible civic engagement.

Yet, shouldn’t a lot of the issues that children raise in P4C about god, the nature of the world and feelings be taught in other subject such as religious studies, science or literature instead? We are told that philosophical enquiry in primary schools offers children the confidence to exercise independent judgement. But could the use of bespoke P4C materials undermine the development of genuine autonomy and creativity in learners? Are we doing a disservice to children by letting them think that arguing without any prior study is meaningful? Is teaching philosophy to kids a good opportunity to discuss important subjects with young minds or just a case of dumbing down complicated ideas?

Watch the debate

Dr Catherine McCall
director, EPIC (the European Philosophical Inquiry Centre)

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert
educator, writer, doctoral researcher

Adam Seldon
co-director, Lauriston Lights, an education charity

Peter Worley
CEO and co-founder, The Philosophy Foundation

Toby Marshall
A Level Film Studies Teacher; PhD researcher in sociology of education, UCL Institute of Education

Produced by
Elisabetta Gasparoni teacher; convenor of the Future Cities Project Readers’ Group
Recommended readings
Why children should study philosophy The Conversation, 19 March 2014

The Unexpected Uselessness of Philosophy

Physics and other walks of science do not gain from Philosophy in the slightest, the presumptions are more often than not wrong and the modern world is moving away from philosophy to science and the subject will soon become obsolete globally.

Steven Weinberg, LibCom, 6 June 2010

Philosophy for Children

Philosophy prior to high school seems relatively uncommon around the world. This may suggest that serious philosophical thinking is not for pre-adolescents, for two principal reasons. However, both of these can be challenged.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 8 June 2009

Socrates For Six Year Olds

This clip* shows Dr. Catherine McCall with a class of 5 and 6 year olds in Sept 1989 after 4 sessions of CoPI, and in May 1990 after 25 one-hour-long sessions of CoPI.

Dr. Catherine McCall, YouTube, 1990

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