Teaching primary school children philosophy improves English and maths skills, says study

Children from deprived backgrounds benefited the most from philosophical debates about topics such as truth, fairness and knowledge

Teaching philosophy to primary school children can improve their English and maths skills, according to a pilot study highlighting the value of training pupils to have inquiring minds.

Children from deprived backgrounds benefited the most from philosophical debates about topics such as truth, fairness and knowledge, researchers from Durham University found.

The 3,159 primary school pupils from 48 schools who took part in the trial saw their maths and reading scores improve by an average of two months. But the benefits were even more pronounced for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose reading skills improved by four months, their maths results by three months and their writing ability by two months.

Teachers interviewed as part of the study suggested that the year-long programme also improved children’s wider skills such as confidence, patience and self-esteem.

Researchers concluded that the programme – Philosophy for Children, which was developed by the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE) – could be an effective way for schools to spend their pupil premium funding to improve results for deprived pupils.

Philosophy for Children aims to help children become more willing and able to question, reason, construct arguments and collaborate. For the trial, which was funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), teachers were given professional training and ongoing support to help them deliver the sessions and promote philosophical thinking in their nine and ten-year-old pupils.

Alexia Fox, assistant head teacher of Hinde House School in Sheffield, said: “Philosophy for Children has made a huge difference to the way our children interact with each other. In the playground, they can talk about their disagreements. They now respect other children’s points of view. In the classroom, their ideas are far more developed as they are better equipped to understand how others think and accept that these opinions are all valid. It is extremely valuable academically and socially.”

Stephen Gorard, Professor in the School of Education at Durham University, the study’s lead researcher, said: “Our results suggest that these philosophy sessions can have a positive impact on pupils’ maths, reading and perhaps their writing skills. But crucially, they seem to work especially well for the children who are most disadvantaged. This is very encouraging as we, along with the EEF, are committed to helping tackle educational disadvantage.

“Evidence like this is extremely important in identifying what works and what doesn’t.”

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