Philosophy is the kind of class many of us might never get a chance to take until we reach university age, but recent research suggests that young people could benefit from being exposed to the study of knowledge and existence much earlier.
A study published in the UK last year found that primary school children in years 4 and 5 who took part in a series of lessons devoted to discussing philosophical concepts didn't just learn about reasoning and the nature of reality – the classes delivered academic advantages in their regular school curriculum too.
The experiment was conducted by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) – an independent charity that seeks to close the gap between family income and educational attainment. Their trial involved more than 3,000 students across 48 primary schools in the UK taking weekly lessons in what's called Philosophy for Children (P4C).
The kids who took part ended up improving their maths and reading skills by around two months' of extra progress compared to students who weren't taking the classes.
What's remarkable about this result is that the classes in themselves weren't centred on achieving these kinds of outcomes. Instead, the specific aim of the lessons was to develop children's confidence in asking questions, constructing arguments, and having reasoned discussions with one another.
Sessions involved dialogues and questions focused around philosophical issues, exploring concepts such as truth, justice, knowledge, friendship, and fairness.
The kinds of thought-provoking questions students contemplated and discussed included: "Should a healthy heart be donated to a person who has not looked after themselves?"; "Is it OK to deprive someone of their freedom?"; and "Is it acceptable for people to wear their religious symbols at work places?"
The schools involved in the study were spread across England, and while they reflected a diverse student body, as a whole, they had above-average levels of disadvantaged pupils – and it was actually among these students that the biggest academic benefits were seen.
Disadvantaged students saw their reading abilities improve by four months, maths skills by three months, and their writing ability progressed by two months. For just one lesson lasting approximately an hour each week over the course of a school year, these are some significant gains.
Aside from the academic improvements, positive observations on the general effect of the experiment suggest that incorporating a small amount of philosophy into primary school syllabuses might be worth doing for its own sake.
"Feedback from teachers throughout the trial suggests that the philosophy sessions created an opportunity to engage with pupils and develop a whole school culture of thinking, listening, speaking, and using logical arguments," write Stephen Gorard, Nadia Siddiqui, and Beng Huat See – a trio of education researchers from Durham University who evaluated the study – at The Conversation. "They claimed it also had a beneficial impact on wider outcomes such as confidence, patience and self-esteem."
While Gorard and colleagues acknowledge the trial ought to be repeated to check that the results are secure, the findings offer what could be a promising direction for educators, with no negative results detected from the year-long intervention.
"This is very encouraging as we, along with the EEF, are committed to helping tackle educational disadvantage," Gorard told Hannah Richardson at the BBC. "Evidence like this is extremely important in identifying what works and what doesn't, and to help head teachers decide how to spend their pupil premium funding for most benefit to their pupils."