There is a strong case for including Philosophy in the Australian National Curriculum. Philosophy will make a pre-eminent contribution to students’ general capabilities. Philosophy education promotes critical thinking, insightful questioning, reasoned argument, metacognitive reflection and problem-solving skills, as well as improving students’ social competence and self-management. Read our argument in full in Philosophy in the curriculum.
The Case for Inclusion of Philosophy in the National Curriculum
In 2009, a Working Party was established to promote the inclusion of Philosophy in the National Curriculum. Members were Monica Bini, Gil Burgh, Phil Cam, Eliza Goddard, Clinton Golding, Sue Knight, Stephan Millett, Graham Oppy, Janette Poulton, Tim Sprod, Alan Tapper and Adrian Walsh.
The following argument in favour of including Philosophy in the National Curriculum was submitted to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) in October 2009.
The case for inclusion of philosophy in the national curriculum has several parts.
First, philosophy will make a significant contribution to general educational goals for young Australians.
Second, philosophy will make a pre-eminent contribution to some of the general capabilities that young Australians are to acquire, and it will make an especially effective contribution to the acquisition of a wide range of these general capabilities.
Third, there are independent reasons why philosophy ought to be a discrete learning area in the national curriculum.
Finally, prima facie plausible challenges to the inclusion of philosophy in the national curriculum can be met.
1. Philosophy and General Educational Goals
Philosophy will contribute to each of the key educational goals for young Australians; and, in each case, it will make some contributions that could not be fully realised in any other way.
If young Australians are to be successful learners who are able to think deeply and logically, then young Australians will need to acquire the basic skills of philosophical inquiry: logical thought is, after all, the special provenance of philosophy.
If young Australians are to be confident individuals who make rational and informed decisions about their own lives, then, again, young Australians will need to acquire basic philosophical competence, for the capacity for serious thought about what makes for rational and informed decision making is also the special provenance of philosophy.
If young Australians are to be active and informed citizens who act with moral and ethical integrity, then young Australians will need to acquire the capacity for serious ethical and moral reflection, for the elements of such reflection are just the components of reasoned ethical decision making. Without this capacity, once again, the special provenance of philosophy, young people will be more likely to either base their moral judgments on the dictates of an authority, or alternatively, adopt a relativist stance.
Philosophy, then, has an important contribution to make to the National Values Framework.
2. Philosophy and General Capabilities
(a) As with many disciplines, philosophy can contribute to the development of almost all of the general capabilities. However, there are some general capabilities to which philosophy will make a distinctive contribution, i.e. a contribution that really cannot be made by any other discipline. These general capabilities are: thinking skills, creativity, and ethical behaviour.
Some of the intellectual activities that are referred to under the label of “thinking skills” are activities that are the special provenance of philosophy: developing arguments, analysing and criticising arguments, and so forth.
Moreover, all of the intellectual activities that are referred to under this label are the proper focus of, and are enhanced by participation in, philosophical inquiry.
Theories about problem solving, decision making, and critical thinking are themselves philosophical theories; worthwhile engagement in reflection upon processes of problem solving, decision making and critical thinking must be philosophical in nature. A recent meta-analysis of empirical findings related to the impact of instruction on the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions, found that teaching approaches combining both content and critical thinking instruction significantly outperformed all other types of instruction. This is precisely the approach which is taken in philosophy. (Abrami, P.C., Bernard, E.B., Wade, A., Surkes, R.T., and Zhang, D., ‘Instructional Interventions Affecting Critical Thinking Skills and Dispositions: A Stage 1 Meta-Analysis’, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 78, No.4, pp.1102-1134.)
Philosophical inquiry is, by its very nature, intimately linked to creativity.
Philosophical inquiry requires: generating novel ideas, seeing existing situations in new ways, identifying alternative possible explanations, seeing links, finding new ways to apply existing ideas, and so forth. Intellectual flexibility, open-mindedness, adaptability, and readiness to try new ways of thinking about things are hallmarks of well-conducted philosophical inquiry.
Ethics is one of the central areas of philosophy. The study of philosophy builds capacity for deep and serious ethical reflection and ethical argument. The study of philosophy increases understanding of disputes about the place of ethics and values in human life.
There is no question but that genuine ethical behaviour—action with moral and ethical integrity can only issue from serious ethical reflection and deep understanding of the processes of reasoned ethical justification.
This point is important in the context of the National Curriculum for two reasons.
Firstly, Research shows that, on the whole, people are not skilled in ethical justification. Epistemological Levels research indicates that in an average population, roughly 80% of subjects either justified their ethical decisions merely by appealing to authority-the law, religion or culture- or refused to make judgement at all, holding that everyone one has a right to his or her opinion, whatever that opinion may be. Clearly, both approaches are not only logically inadequate, but also pose social dangers. (Much of this research is reviewed in Hofer, B. and Pintrich, P. (1997) ‘The development of Epistemological Theories: Beliefs about Knowledge and Knowing and their Relation to Learning’, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 67, No.1, 88-140. An overview, with implications for education can be found in Kuhn, D. (2005), Education for Thinking, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.)
Secondly, given that the hard moral decisions are just those that result from a clash of values (for example, a clash between care and compassion on the one hand, and honesty on the other), the justificatory principles of philosophy would serve to enhance the Common Values approach of the National Values Education Framework.
(b) Apart from the general capabilities to which philosophy will make a distinctive contribution, there are yet other general capabilities to which philosophy will make a particularly significant and effective contribution. In particular, philosophy provides an extraordinarily effective means of developing general capabilities in self-management, teamwork and social competence.
Teamwork and Social Competence:
The development of social competence and the capacity to work as a member of a team is greatly enhanced by the standard method of teaching philosophy in K-10, namely, through the establishment of communities of inquiry.
When rightly understood, communities of inquiry are, ipso facto, communities of philosophical inquiry: and there is a wealth of evidence that participation in communities of inquiry effectively builds social competence and the capacity for teamwork.
There are aspects of self-management to which philosophy makes an essential contribution. In particular, the process of reflecting and evaluating one’s own learning will, if done properly and seriously, be a species of philosophical reflection. Of course, there is considerable cross-over between self-management and social competence (and capacity for teamwork): participation in communities of inquiry is also an effective way of building capacity for self-management.
Civics and Citizenship:
A last point to note in this section is that philosophy has a particular contribution to make in the area of civics and citizenship.
Philosophy is the discipline that teaches students how to make reasoned judgments about what is a good society–by contrast with other disciplines that give some of the relevant facts about the way in which society actually operates–and it is also the discipline that teaches students to be democratic–as opposed to those disciplines that teach students about democracy.
(c) The contributions that philosophy will make in connection with general capabilities are not merely procedural (as the above arguments might misleadingly have suggested).
Core concepts that philosophy illuminates include: justice, proof, knowledge, consistency, rightness, freedom, naturalness, care, change, growth, truth, identity, reason, goodness, evidence, cause, independence, and so on.
These concepts underlie and unify all of the other disciplines, but are objects of study only for philosophy. It is the study of these kinds of concepts that gives philosophy its substantive content; and it is the study of these kinds of concepts that is required in reflective attainment of the general capabilities–thinking skills, creativity, ethical behaviour, teamwork, social competence, and self-management–mentioned above.
3. Philosophy as a Discrete Learning Area
There are several different kinds of reasons that support the inclusion of philosophy as a discrete learning area in the national curriculum.
Almost every country in the world includes philosophy in its curriculum. Philosophy is recommended for inclusion in national curricula by the UN–and, in particular, by UNESCO–because of its importance in creating the conditions for a free and democratic society, and because of the role that it plays in developing the general capabilities of citizens (in the areas outlined above).
Promoting Equity in Australian Education:
There is strong evidence that studying philosophy increase educational outcomes in all areas.
Whether or not philosophy is included in the national curriculum, there will be some privileged–high socioeconomic–schools that will teach philosophy at all levels of the curriculum.
If philosophy is not part of the national curriculum, then it will certainly be the case that many low socioeconomic schools will not teach philosophy, to the detriment of their students.
In consequence, the failure to include philosophy in the national curriculum will contribute to the systematic entrenchment of disadvantage in the school system.
One of the challenges in addressing socio-economic disadvantage is empowering first generation students to go to university. Philosophy would induct them into skills of thinking that hitherto have largely been developed through the privilege of a university education and then passed on to the children of graduates through their culture – at a simple level this may be manifest through the standard of discussion around the dinner table. This has flow on effects to success at school. Philosophy in the curriculum would assist children of non university educated families who may not have access to such discourse, thus helping to break a generational circuit.
Effective Teaching of Philosophy in Australian Schools:
If philosophy is not included in the national curriculum as a subject area, there is little chance that many schools will offer philosophy, and there is little chance that teachers will acquire the skills needed to teach philosophy.
If philosophy is included in the national curriculum, the message that philosophy is valued and valuable will make it much more likely that many schools will offer philosophy and will also make it much more likely that teachers will acquire the skills needed to teach philosophy.
In short: if we really want our children to develop the general capabilities that are best developed through the teaching of philosophy, then philosophy needs to have a space in the curriculum as a legitimate subject to teach and as a legitimate area on which to spend time, money and effort.
There are a number of prima facie plausible challenges to the suggestion that philosophy ought to be included in the national curriculum (as a discrete learning area).
The proposal to add a couple of sessions of philosophy to the school week might simply seem infeasible given the already crowded curriculum.
However, in response to this worry, it should be noted—as argued above—that there are educational goals that cannot be properly met unless philosophy is part of the curriculum, and there are many other educational goals that can be most effectively met by including philosophy as part of the curriculum.
Moreover, it should be noted that philosophy is actually a means to integrate the curriculum, and to meet several curriculum objectives at once.
Because of the reflective nature of philosophy–expressed in specialisms such as philosophy of art, philosophy of science, and metaphilosophy–it is the proper means to explore the underlying methods, concepts and assumptions of various subject areas.
By doing philosophy, we can meet curriculum aims from a subject area as well as many general capabilities. For example, by philosophical discussion of justice arising from historical cases, we can meet objectives from history and civics and citizenship, as well as general capabilities of thinking, ethics and self-management.
Another challenge arises from the perhaps seemingly plausible observation that it might be difficult to find meaningful ways to measure student achievement in some parts of philosophy.
Here, however, there seems to be a relatively straightforward answer. The case for the inclusion of philosophy is grounded in the general educational goals and the general capabilities. If—as has been argued—philosophy provides the sole or more effective goal for realising some of these goals and developing some of these capabilities, then the relevant questions about the measurement of student achievement in parts of philosophy are just questions about the measurement of student achievement with respect to the goals and capabilities in question.
Unless there is a prior commitment to eliminate goals and capabilities that are not susceptible of measurement, there is no reason to worry about the inclusion of philosophy on these grounds.
Moreover, it should be noted here that much work has been done in the pedagogy of teaching philosophy about how to assess more abstract general capacities such as thinking and ethical behaviour. Philosophy actually enables the assessment of these areas where most teachers have little idea how they might assess the capacities and achievements of their students.