Over the last year The Philosophy Foundation has been supporting the Philosophy in Education Project (PEP), run by Dr John Taylor and A. C. Grayling, along with SAPERE, A Level Philosophy and a host of well-known philosophers including Angie Hobbs, Simon Blackburn, Nigel Warburton and Tim Williamson.
Carter’s argument is premised on an incomplete understanding of philosophy. She says,
‘One thing which makes philosophy sessions so wonderful is that they go some way to breaking the mould of educating children on factory lines. They are set apart from any lesson anywhere in the school. Children get a chance to just wonder, to think, to discuss to learn, without writing anything down at all. They are engaged with the biggest questions ever dreamt up, questions which they may have never considered. I judge my lessons to have been successful if, and only if, pupils continue to talk about the material when our 40 minutes are up.’
I agree that doing philosophy with children (especially very young children) is often more successful when they do not write things down, but it would be wrong to conceive of philosophy as something that is – or must be – done without writing things down; or, for that matter, without reading texts, or without learning about philosophers and philosophers’ ideas. The way many practitioners do philosophy with primary-aged children in particular (myself included) is just the beginning of how philosophy is done. Miss Carter seems to think that it is the beginning and the end. The evidence for this claim is in this line:
‘I judge my lessons to have been successful if, and only if, pupils continue to talk about the material when our 40 minutes are up.’ [My italics]
Remember: ‘if, and only if’ means ‘under no other circumstances’ (I would ask Miss Carter: does she really think there are no other circumstances under which she would consider a lesson to be successful?); it is a very strong claim. Even when working with younger children, I think this is an incomplete conception of philosophy. This view of philosophy confirms my more general worry that philosophy is seen to be nothing more than a sharing of opinions, an involved chat. But, as I have argued elsewhere [TEDx ‘Plato not Playdoh’] philosophy is evaluative and re-evaluative; and this means – and many will not like this – that it is judgmental. By this, I mean that philosophy includes evaluative judgments (albeit provisional) about the arguments that have been made, based on the quality of reasons given. I will fall short of saying ‘if, and only if’! This conception of philosophy invites criteria: criteria for what makes good reasons. And these criteria would be good candidates for a marking criteria for a GCSE, and I see no reason why we should have a problem with this per se.
This argument about why there should not be a GCSE is also premised on a false dichotomy: that either education initiatives are:
a) box-ticking, knowledge-heavy, test-driven ‘factory’ models, or they are
b) exploratory, dialogical, engaging ‘discovery’ models.
Surely, the preferred place is in between? And a well-put together GCSE would, ideally, inhabit this space. At this point we reach the question of whether a GCSE would be well-put together and whether it really would inhabit this space and how we might ensure that it does. In this respect I am sympathetic to many of Miss Carter’s worries, and that is why PEP have gathered together academics as well as philosophy in school practitioners and teachers, but that discussion is for another day.