Philosophy in WA

2008 is the beginning of change – especially for education in Western Australia. This is nothing new for those who work here, as we’ve gone through massive changes since the implementation of Outcomes Based Education. With these changes comes one of several new courses: Philosophy and Ethics.

The overall summation is given on the WACE site: Here is a chance for the intelligent young 21st Century student to ask some timeless questions: “What is real?” and “How do I know?” Students reason, make judgments and inquire while investigating and responding to a range of philosophical, scientific, ethical, political and social issues. In learning, they examine the significant local and global philosophical and ethical positions that influence contemporary society. The classes apply independent, responsible and critical thinking when considering personal, local, national and global situations.

Online evidence of the teaching of subjects that skeptical groups support (JREF, Skeptic Society, et al) are more often than not shown to be from tertiary sector courses – Philosophy units, critical thinking in science and dozens upon dozens of skepticism and pseudoscience links. The work of Martin Bridgstock at Griffith University, as reported in the Australian Skeptic, is just one example that is being tested for its efficaciousness.

There is, of course, precedence for secondary school subjects in philosophy – I notice David Yate’s resource page and the ‘boom in popularity – almost 60% in 2007‘ which certainly reflects the support for the UK’s Critical Thinking A Level course. Like the secondary school course in Queensland, found on, they all contribute to finding out what makes teaching critical thinking interesting and productive for younger students – which is certainly a goal for the WA course.

Ultimately, I keep coming back to the same thought – what may seem to work well in theory for teaching children to think critically, and in a test-case practice demonstrates positive results as shown in the US Richard Paul studies… but as an overall practice, what are the obstacles facing an effective wide-scale implementation? I think about the discussions I’ve had in general about teaching critical thinking – for example, I was flattered to note how Robert Todd Carroll addressed the speech I made at the Amazing Meeting in ‘Media Funk’ about such challenges :

Another, perhaps more invasive problem, is that when you do what we’ve done in California and require that children pass standardized tests at various grade levels or they don’t move on or graduate, we end up teaching to the test. There is a critical thinking component to the test and teachers know what is expected and teach to that component. But critical thinking is much broader than the few components that are going to be tested for. Those other components won’t get taught because they won’t be tested for.

I’d rather take my chances that I’m not getting through to most of my students by Socratic modeling and instructing them in the importance of being open-minded, skeptical, and willing to hold beliefs tentatively. I’d rather take my chances that my students aren’t going to grasp the importance of learning about perceptual and cognitive biases, than focus my teaching on a set of testable skills.

The problem is a poorly-designed test, not of testing across the board – the gamble of ‘did we know it worked’ and ‘taking my chances’ is part of the problem. Reworking tests, not assuming that our teaching is better than it would be if it were actually tested – this prevents us from going down the same path that allows dowsers to ‘know’ that their twigs work, and that ‘testing them is irrelevant’.

Influences from parents, peers, the media, preachers, teachers, etc. could be affecting your outcomes. Hence, the need for huge samples to cancel out these other factors that might be significantly affecting the way test questions are answered.

There are behavioral methodologies with smaller samples but greater control which can be tailored to specific school systems (the “huge samples” problem requires a standardized method that may or may not be appropriate to a given school, thus multiplying the “too many factors you can’t control for” problem) in order to demonstrate effective intervention. And the “really large samples…to get statistically significant results” – well, it is not even necessarily true under this given model. It depends, of course, on the sensitivity of the measure and the effect size of the manipulation.

On the other hand, if all Kylie is talking about is devising meaningful tests to see if your students learned the lessons about, say, evaluating causal claims, then I’m all for it and have been doing it for more than thirty years.

What if a good set of tests are devised, and in using them finds that particular methods work better at getting kids to think critically? And what if P4C, using these tests, is shown to be a great method? Will we start telling others that our methods have been empirically demonstrated to be effective? Or dismiss it because it is just a standardized test? And if the tests show that the method is not effective, do we try something new? Or dismiss the test results because they don’t agree with the “take your chances” method? These are all questions that plague me and encourage rather than dissuade progress; I am grateful that skeptics like Robert Todd Carroll are asking them too.

Indeed, I find that good schools are happy to adopt such practices of encouraging subjects that extend their students, and in the end that will always mean some form of beneficial result… but then we have less to worry about when it comes to forward-thinking schools. How do you sell this to those which are less inclined?

These are only a few of the obvious challenges that the Philosophy and Ethics course face and thus by incorporating the Community of Inquiry methodology, it can be seen that providers of the units are taking on the challenge of testing the efficacy of this too. The creation of a good testing materials that reflect the ability of the students to think as well as being valid instruments to inform and fine tune teaching are clearly important, as well as making the teachers aware of how to administer and devise them in such a way that they indicate the reliability, sensitivity and validity in the subject. They are not unprepared for the questions that arise: after all, is teaching philosophy the best model for teaching critical thinking? Since the course is only beginning here, there are two years of data collection to start.

The research into P4C, as shown on their sites and as discussed by Stephen Law in his own look into the issue (The War For Children’s Minds), is indeed promising in several aspects – here I’m quoting quite significantly a summation from his blog post that you can find here and was also touched upon in a September 2007 edition of Education Review.

In 2001-2, Professor Keith Topping, a senior psychologist, in conjunction with the University of Dundee studied the effects on introducing one hour per week of philosophy (using a Thinking Through Philosophy programme developed by Paul Cleghorn) at a number of upper primary schools in Clackmannanshire, including schools in deprived areas. Teachers were given two days of training. The study involved a whole range of tests, and also a control group of schools with no philosophy programme. The children involved were aged 11-12. This study found that after one year:

• The incidence of children supporting opinion with evidence doubled, but ‘control’ classes remained unchanged.
• There was evidence that children’s self-esteem and confidence rose markedly.
• The incidence of teachers asking open-ended questions (to better develop enquiry) doubled.
• There was evidence that class ethos and discipline improved noticeably.
• The ratio of teacher/pupil talk halved for teachers and doubled for pupils. Controls remained the same.
• All classes improved significantly (statistically) in verbal, non-verbal, and quantitative reasoning. No control class changed. This means children were more intelligent (av. 6.5 IQ points) after one year on the programme.

These benefits were retained. When the children were tested again at 14, after two years at secondary school without a philosophy programme, their CAT scores were exactly the same (that’s to say, the improvements that had previously been gained were retained), while the control group scores actually went down during those two years. Three secondary schools were involved and the results replicated themselves over each school.

Law himself emphasizes how the results should be retested and considered to be just one study, naturally. Thus here is an opportunity to test again, in Western Australia and with an opportunity for wider testing of younger secondary students and even nationally. The studies done previously on P4C can be found here – on the Montclair site.

At the 2007 conference held in Hobart this November, I received the Prize for Critical Thinking from the Australian Skeptics for my work. Although I have spent quite some time resourcing materials that look at pseudoscience and the paranormal that suit young mindsets, I know that it is not universally applicable to rework the outcomes of the West Australian Skeptics WA Award for Young Critical Writers for the English classroom, in isolation. I gave all of my worksheets to the WA skeptics, which I can make available to others; they in the meantime have produced an independently resourced site of their own, found here.

Not every school has a similar ‘skeptic awards’ to enter; not every teacher may be as confident in trying and nor can we be assured that school administrations or even teachers will take on the challenge when the paranormal and pseduoscientific is so widely supported. Government-endorsed and supported syllabus, trained teachers, professional development, testing and applicability beyond a few and all that entails will help test efficaciousness in the long term.

Also as teachers, we need to address where good thinking skills will be most effective. We can preach and stamp our feet all we want in the face of rampant fundamentalism and all the social hyperbole we want; if we are not accessing the cultures, educational providers and social groups where we will have significant impact, then it is pretty much just rhetoric and back-patting. Education is also just as much in need of verification and corroboration as any claim of science.

In discussion with a friend, they summed up that to teach critical thinking effectively, it cannot afford to continue to educate only the adult masses who already embrace it:

“Indeed, it’s good to receive confirmation and encouragement from our peers – but to what end? Asking why it is that some social groups are more accepting of skepticism than others is a good step towards making critical thinking effective at addressing problems in the wider society.

“Upon perusing the aims of skeptical groups like the JREF, I note that if we as educators continue to rest on our laurels by being applauded by the already converted, it would be sad indeed.”

I encourage all interested people nationally to also check out the site Not only will it be hosted again as a state-wide competition for students to engage in the P4C method – it has become national. Please, consider encouraging your schools and certainly (as one wonderful lady ‘V’ from the Richard Dawkins forum board did!) consider coming to visit the event in either May or October this year.

Several useful links: – the site for APIS, the Association for Philosophy in Schools for this state, which also runs the Philosophy Cafe I have previously mentioned and training courses. – Montclair State IAPC. – FAPSA, the Philosophy for Children group in Australia.

Facebook group: Philosophy for Children – P4C

References for further research:

Topping, K. J., & Trickey, S. (submitted). “Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Changes in interactive behaviour at 10 Years.”
Topping K. J. & Trickey, S. (2007). “Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children: Cognitive Gains at Two-year Follow-up”, British Journal of Educational Psychology.
Topping, K. J. & Trickey, S. (2007). “Impact of Philosophical Enquiry on School Students’ Interactive Behaviour”, International Journal of Thinking Skills and Creativity.
Topping, K. J. & Trickey, S. (2007). “Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Cognitive effects at 10-12 years.” British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 271–288.
Trickey, S. & Topping, K. J. (2007). “Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Participant evaluation at 11-12 years”. Thinking.
Trickey, S. & Topping, K.J. (2006) “Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children. Socio-Emotional Effects at 10-12 Years”, School Psychology International, 27 (5), 599-614.
Trickey, S. & Topping K.J. (2004) ‘Philosophy for children: a systematic review’. Research Papers in Education, 19 (3), 365-80.

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Filed under All About Me, Australia, Education, Literature, Paranormal, Parenting, Pseudoscience, Psychology, Science, Skepticism

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