Reason being … Peter Ellerton teaches philosophy at Brisbane’s Calamvale Community College and started the Australian Philosophy Teachers Network to get more resources to teachers.
Photo: Paul Harris
Why is philosophy as a subject such a fizzer in schools, asks Laura Parker.
“One day after class I noticed a student pick up a pile of five chairs and place them on a pile of two. I wondered how many times this student chose the bigger, heavier, more troublesome pile of chairs,” he said.
Pondering reason and logic is a normal part of Said’s day at Calamvale Community College in Brisbane, where he studies philosophy under the guidance of teacher Peter Ellerton.
A former physics teacher, Mr Ellerton introduced the philosophy and critical thinking program to Calamvale after joining a network of Queensland teachers which promotes and spreads the teaching of philosophy in high schools throughout the state.
“Some people don’t understand what we mean by philosophy – they think it’s just discussion,” Mr Ellerton said. “The truth is it’s a rigorous and analytical subject; you have to do it properly. We don’t discuss the meaning of life. As a subject, I think it’s more fundamental than maths or English.”
The teaching of philosophy in Queensland high schools is not new. The subject has been taught, in one form or another, for 50 years.
Other states have been quick to catch up, with Western Australia introducing a philosophy high-school program in the last year, and Victoria in the past five years. But in NSW the situation remains uncertain. The NSW Board of Studies offers philosophy as a distinction course only to students who have already sat the HSC exams.
The course is delivered through universities, and, although it contributes to the student’s UAI, attendance numbers are not high: the Board of Studies data shows only 54 students enrolled in the philosophy distinction course last year. The Board of Studies also endorses school-developed courses in general philosophy, but only a handful of high schools in NSW that have taken up this offer.
One such high school is Newington College in Stanmore. The school offers critical thinking courses for each year group, as well as a moral philosophy course for years 10 to 12.
The school introduced the International Baccalaureate in 2007, which includes a theory of knowledge component. Jeremy Hall, a teacher at Newington, believes teaching philosophy in high school is the basis of a good education.
“We live in an increasingly complex world,” Mr Hall says. “Whether it is genetics, war, globalisation or environmental issues, we need students to be engaged with these issues at a level that goes beyond superficial.
But why aren’t more high schools in the state catching on?
Phil Cam is an associate professor in the school of history and philosophy at the University of NSW and the president of the Philosophy for Schools Association of NSW – a group that aims to introduce philosophy to more high schools around the state. For him, the lack of philosophy in NSW high schools is nothing short of an embarrassment.
“No one is seriously looking at teaching philosophy in high schools in NSW,” Dr Cam said. “Philosophy is actually doing very well in other states, so it’s clear we’re behind in educational innovation.
“Would the world be a better place if kids began learning philosophy in school? Yes. It would result in a more inquiring society, a society of thinkers who are rational and reasonable.”
On the world stage, philosophy is part of the high school curriculum throughout Europe and Latin America; it’s only the English-speaking countries such as the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Canada and Australia that are to catch up.
“I think philosophy will eventually be added as a high school subject throughout Australia,” Dr Cam says. “It’s a matter of strengthening what’s already happening in the curriculum.”
Mr Ellerton agrees. In June this year he started the Australian Philosophy Teachers Network, to provide philosophy teachers across the country with the ability to download and share resources freely and easily.
“The problem in Australia is a lack of qualified philosophy teachers,” he said. “My interest is in distributing and collecting resources for the teachers already teaching, and inspiring a few more to start.
“Overall, I think we need more teachers to bring philosophy into common ground, and understanding how great the skills it gives students are. It’s a system of understanding the world, and what could be more precious than that?”
The Queensland program is taught to year 10, 11 and 12 students at Calamvale and is composed of three strands: deductive logic, critical thinking and pure philosophy. Students are instructed in the teachings of the great philosophers as well as reasoning, argumentation and spotting fallacies. Mr Ellerton discovered a newfound scepticism in his students after just one year.
“Once my students realised that they were learning to reason, they seemed to be shocked that it wasn’t taught to them earlier,” he said. “I think it’s one of the most important things in life. A student even said to me that learning philosophy was like flipping a light switch inside his head. It’s encouraging for me as a teacher to elicit this kind of response.”
“I now question absolutely everything, and I take everyone’s word as opinion and not fact,” Said says. “Being able to distinguish the difference between those two, I think, is priceless. Learning logic and reason has helped me find my moral compass. For a long time I’d been wondering why should I do what someone tells me, and philosophy gave me tools to reason and find answers.”
Nikki found she was “far more likely to think things through now, and ask for more detailed reasoning. Nothing forces you to ask yourself ‘why’ quite like philosophy.”
As for Sara: “I’m Christian so I had very firm beliefs to begin with. But I found that even then I was able to become more sceptical and think about things in a different way because I had learnt to reason. Philosophy is not a yes or no subject.”
It seems that learning philosophy in high school also helps students to draw parallels to other subjects, encouraging their development in different areas.
“What we’ve found looking at the final year exams of Queensland students is that those who have studied philosophy perform better across all subjects,” Mr Ellerton said.
“The result is kids who are critical thinkers and informed citizens. It’s a big call to say the world would be a better place if everyone was taught philosophy young, but what you’d certainly get is a more informed and critical population, which can only be a good thing. This is incentive enough to see philosophy subject taught in other states.”
NEXT WEEK IN EDUCATION Does studying Plato or Jean-Paul Sartre at university improve your mind or your career prospects?