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Can Philosophy for Children improve primary school attainment?

Written By: Daryn Egan-Simon
5 min read
P4C might help pupils make about two months’ extra progress in reading and maths

Title: Can ‘Philosophy for Children’ Improve Primary School Attainment?
Published in: Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 51, No. 1, 2017.
Stephen Gorard, School of Education, Durham University
Nadia Siddiqui, School of Education, Durham University
Beng Huat See, School of Education, Durham University

What did the research explore?

Philosophy for Children (P4C) is a pedagogical approach, developed by Professor Mathew Lipman in 1972, which uses philosophical enquiry to develop children’s thinking and reasoning skills. P4C aims to develop pupils’ ability to express their opinion, listen to the opinions of others and use ‘appropriate language’ when arguing their point (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p. 9). It is worth noting, however, that P4C is a pedagogical approach – it does not have any specified materials or stimuli that teachers use with it (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017).

This research aimed to assess what impact P4C had on key stage 2 maths and English scores and pupils’ Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) scores.

P4C might have a positive impact on pupil attainment at key stage 2, equivalent to about two months’ extra progress for reading and maths…
Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017.

How did they conduct the research?

There was a group of 48 volunteer schools – 22 were randomly chosen to receive P4C for a year (treatment schools), and 26 were randomly selected as the control group. All pupils were from key stage 2, and the schools were recruited from London, Hull, Sheffield, Manchester, Hertfordshire, Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent in England. In all these schools, at least 25% of their student population was eligible for free school meals (FSM).

The team visited the treatment schools 30 times over the course of the study – usually once at the beginning of the intervention, once towards the end, and repeatedly throughout to assess progress. The visits involved observations of both teaching training and the delivery of the programme.

Informal interviews with teachers and pupils were conducted during the school visits. The authors used these interviews and observations to help answer the following questions (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p. 13):

  1. Is the suggested number of sessions adhered to?
  2. Are the children doing P4C sharing their ideas more with each other in a critical but friendly way?
  3. Are questioning and reasoning being prompted and demonstrated in lessons?
  4. Are the instances of questioning and reasoning increasing?
  5. Is there less dominance by the teacher in discussions?
  6. Are children taking more responsibility for the questioning and reasoning?
  7. Are teachers and children talking about significant concepts?
  8. Are teachers’ perceptions of children changing?
  9. Are teachers’ perceptions of their own work changing?
  10. Are children’s perceptions of themselves and school changing?

For the test results, the pupils’ key stage 2 results in reading, writing and maths were provided by the National Pupil Database (NPD). The online CAT test was proposed by the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE). It was thought that CAT test results were a robust way to assess the impact of P4C because they include elements that are needed for critical thinking (Stein et al., 2013). These are verbal, non-verbal, quantitative and spatial ability (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, pp. 11 – 12).

P4C was reported by the teachers to be very helpful in helping pupils think critically about issues such as bullying, equality, racism, and fairness.

What were the key findings?

The research suggests that ‘P4C might have a positive impact on pupil attainment at key stage 2, equivalent to about two months’ extra progress for reading and maths, after just over a year of implementation’ (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p. 14).  There was no clear impact on pupils’ writing, however. This is not much of a surprise, though – as the authors note, there is no written element to the P4C programme.

Overall the treatment group made a slightly larger gain (around one months’ extra progress) in CAT scores compared with the control group, suggesting a positive impact on pupils’ critical thinking skills.

Furthermore, it was suggested that ‘P4C is effective for FSM-eligible pupils and that P4C could be one way of reducing the current poverty gradient in key stage 2 results’ (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p. 16). However, the same results did not appear with regards to the FSM pupils’ CAT scores.

Finally, P4C was reported by the teachers to be very helpful in helping pupils think critically about issues such as bullying, equality, racism, and fairness (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017).

What are the limitations?

The authors note that the gains in the CAT score results are too small to state that they are definitely the result of P4C (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p. 15).

As P4C does not directly teach elements of the National Curriculum measured through SATs, it was a challenge to find room within the current curriculum for the programme. Given the lack of set resources and discussion topics within the P4C programme, the authors noted that the approach could be influenced by teachers’ beliefs and biases – and this became apparent throughout the fieldwork.

Finally, although the research was conducted over a year, ‘this may still be too short a period for the kind of impact sought by the developers’ (Gorard, Siddiqui and See, 2017, p.17).

What ideas might you adopt for your own classroom from the research?

It might be interesting to look for ways to embed the P4C approach to teaching within your subject to encourage critical thinking and reasoning, as well as creating a community of enquiry. You could use thought-provoking stimuli – such as films, stories and paintings – to help pupils generate questions and encourage discussion and debate. This may involve revising schemes of learning to ensure sufficient time is allocated to cover the curriculum.

What questions does the research raise for teachers?

  • Can the P4C approach be used across the curriculum to teach subjects such as English, maths, geography, and modern foreign languages?
  • If P4C is to be taught as a separate entity, where will the time be found within the existing curriculum?
  • Is P4C best suited to PSHE lessons?
  • How can teachers ensure that the stimuli used will challenge pupils’ thinking and generate critical dialogue?
  • Is P4C CPD training a good investment for both the school and individual teachers?

Further reading

Colom, R., Moriy´on, F., Magro, C. and Morilla, E. (2014) The Long-term Impact of Philosophy for Children: A Longitudinal Study (Preliminary Results). Analytic Teaching and Philosophical Praxis, 35.1, pp. 50–56.

Fair, F., Haas, L., Gardosik, C., Johnson, D., Price, D. and Leipnik, O. (2015) Socrates in the Schools from Scotland to Texas: Replicating a Study on the Effects of a Philosophy for Children Program. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 2.1, pp. 18–37.

Topping, K. and Trickey, S. (2007) Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry for Schoolchildren: Cognitive Gains at 2-year Follow-up. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77.4, pp. 787–796.

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