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A Kantian approach to philosophy in schools

Alix Cohen and Daniela Machado on the benefits of Kantian principles of education in primary education

We organised sessions designed to develop the philosophical skills of critical and creative thinking in children. They were also designed to facilitate the progress of children’s ability to reason, communicate and disagree with each other.

Games exploring equality and happiness

Working with the local Bruntsfield Primary, we delivered sessions to a class of children aged 5-7 using stimuli exploring topics such as fairness, equality, gender stereotypes, happiness, the nature of numbers, personal identity and ownership. The method is designed to have philosophical guidance but minimal input from the facilitator so as to not influence the responses or interrupt the thinking process.

The sessions began with a game designed to focus on some specific skills the class would need (e.g., attention, listening or story-telling). The children were then told a short story that explored an abstract theme in a concrete and accessible way – usually featuring colourful characters and teddy bears as props. Following the story, they were asked a question, and the session was facilitated to elicit responses to the question from the group.

E.g., a genie heard an unhappy prince wish he was a happy pig instead, and she realized his wish. The children were asked whether they would rather be a happy pig or an unhappy prince.

E.g., how to divide a cake at a teddy bear picnic, depending on the different roles that the animals played – some helped to make the cake or buy the ingredients, some were bigger than others, and it was someone’s birthday.

Philosophical questions

While we prepared the stimuli in advance, for some sessions, pupils approached us with a specific philosophical question or topic they had been wondering about and asked if they could put the question to the group. One of the questions they wondered about was why their playground was split into two when they went to queue up to come back to class – one side was for boys and the other was for girls. This opened up a really thoughtful and somewhat controversial discussion that was successfully navigated – despite the class being so young!

As part of this project, we also received funding sources from the Royal Institute of Philosophy to expand the sessions to three other classes in P5. We were able to explore running sessions with groups of older children, covering similar topics but at a deeper level. A particularly thought-provoking session was inspired by John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds composition, that led to questions about the nature of sound, music, silence and meaning.

Reflections

The school was supportive of the project throughout, and the teachers were enthusiastic about introducing their pupils to philosophy. They provided invaluable feedback on the sessions and worked closely with us to improve them. Pupils made notable progress: they became better at giving reasons for their answers and explaining what they meant, disagreeing and agreeing with each other, listening to what others were saying so they could respond appropriately, not interrupting each other when someone was talking, and showing that they were thinking independently.

The teachers enjoyed watching their classes develop their philosophical and communication skills. Some pupils with additional support needs thrived doing philosophy in class, although there were some original concerns that they might feel alienated due to the high demands and expectations set for the sessions.

Following its success, we will continue working with them this year, providing placements for post-graduate students who received training from the Philosophy Foundation in the summer, thanks to the Training and Development Fund provided by the School of PPLS.

Next steps

Following the advice of the Depute Head of School, we have developed an assessment rubric that aligns the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence with the specific skills developed through pupils participating in philosophical enquiry. This scheme will help us clarify the value of doing philosophy in schools, and we hope it will support teachers’ understanding of the progress pupils make in class as a result of the sessions.

The next steps are for us to think about articulating the connections between philosophy and the Curriculum for Excellence in a clear way that aligns the education priorities of the Scottish government and the skills that children develop when engaging in the process of philosophical inquiry. This style of philosophical facilitation has been shown to make significant and sustained improvements, though there is still more research to be done.

We are currently in the next phase of the project, now funded through a College KE grant that aims to train more PG students to run more philosophy sessions in local schools as well as pursue further research on the application of the Kantian notion of autonomy in thought to children of primary school age.

About the research

This project was run by Dr Alix Cohen with the help of Daniela Machado, a Master’s student and qualified teacher with training in philosophical pedagogy.

This project is based on the research of Dr Alix Cohen on Kant’s philosophy of education and his account of the cultivation of autonomous thinking in the development and socialization of children.

 ‘The Role of Feelings in Kant’s Account of Moral Education’, Journal of Philosophy of Education, vol. 50, Issue 4, 2016, pp. 511–523. ‘Enabling the Realization of Humanity: The Anthropological Dimension of Education’, Kant and Education: Interpretations and Commentary, Chris Surprenant & Klaus Roth (Eds.) (Routledge), pp. 152-62.

Ultimately, this project aims to use the research gathered in the school environment to show that, and how, Kantian principles of education can be successfully implemented at a practical level.

About Alix Cohen

Dr Alix Cohen is a Philosophy lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. She works on Kant and is currently writing a book on the nature and role of emotions in the Kantian mind.

About Daniela Machado

Daniela Machado is a Master’s student and qualified teacher with training in philosophical pedagogy. She is also Schools Liasion for OPEN Scotland, and online philosophy and education network.

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