Philosophy in Senior Schools

(From my appearance on ABC Radio National’s ‘Philosopher’s Zone)

Philosophy is about asking childlike questions – how do we know the world exists? How do we know it hasn’t just started existing? Why can’t we go back in time? So why not teach philosophy in schools? It doesn’t happen much in this country (it doesn’t much happen anywhere) but it does go on in Queensland, and this week we talk to a Queensland teacher who’s teaching philosophy to high school children.

But now let’s go to Queensland and talk to Peter Ellerton, a teacher of philosophy in secondary schools. And my first question to him concerned my initial scepticism about the whole idea. I once talked to a distinguished Polish philosopher who told me that he’d been taught philosophy at school, but it was all about a sort of Readers’ Digest version of the doctrines of the great philosophers. And what use is that to kids?

Peter Ellerton: We would touch on the doctrines of the great philosophers, but we’re interested in how we do philosophy, and I guess the skills behind that. So, in our course we would look more towards critical thinking techniques, applying philosophy to modern day issues, but we don’t just teach the doctrines of the great philosophers; I agree that would be rather dull.

Alan Saunders: And on the other hand, I mean despite my initial scepticsm about the idea of teaching philosophy in schools, on the other hand I have to say that philosophy is really, if you get down to it, and I’ve said that on this program before, philosophy is about asking questions that, if not actually childish, are at least childlike. They are very, very basic questions; they’re the sort of questions that children do ask, aren’t they?

Peter Ellerton: Oh, they are. I also think that students are somewhat laden with the – forced to be or have some street credibility which gives them a veneer of sort of knowing it all and not wanting to ask too many questions. So it’s really nice in philosophy when you can get the students actually get to those basic questions, and you do find that they’re very interested in them. And I would say that the greatest fun we can have in the classroom is when the students feel free to ask those basic questions, certainly.

Alan Saunders: How old are the people we’re talking about?

Peter Ellerton: Typically 16 or 17 years old, in the last two years of their high school. We have worked with students at Year 9 level as opposed to 11 and 12, and we can do some good work with them but not to the degree we can do with the senior students.

Alan Saunders: Well let’s talk about you. How do you describe yourself? Do you describe yourself as a teacher of philosophy in secondary schools?

Peter Ellerton: I do. I describe myself as a teacher of philosophy and physics, and have long had an interest in both, and it is not a small overlap, I find. But no, I think that a lot of the people who do this, do see themselves first and foremost as teachers of philosophy, or like to think of themselves that way.

Alan Saunders: And how long has this been going on in Queensland?

Peter Ellerton: Well I can’t give you a specific date, but I think it’s about 30 years, that it had been offered in Queensland schools, although that has been to a rather small cohort. I think that the problems there are sort of a Catch-22. I think a lot of schools would like to do what we do, but it’s difficult to find teachers who are trained in all the areas that we cover.

Alan Saunders: Well I suppose the obvious thing, if you’re skilled in philosophy, there are really two alternatives: one is a university career, and the other is unemployment.

Peter Ellerton: Or a radio announcer.

Alan Saunders: Or working in radio, yes. But I don’t know that there are many people to whom it would occur that they could teach philosophy at school.

Peter Ellerton: Well no, I suppose that’s probably the case. I think one of the things we’re trying to do is work with some academics at the University of Queensland, to get philosophy recognised as a specific teaching area, in the same way that math and science and history might be as well, and that’s a long been a problem. We teach quite a scope of things. We do three strands: we do deductive logic, which we cover things like symbolic logic and truth trees and puzzles and paradox and categorical logic, that sort of thing, and people might meet that say in a mathematics degree if they didn’t study university level philosophy. And we do critical thinking which looks at things like hypothesis, or argumentation, causation, pseudo-science, inductive reasoning, fallacies of reasoning, that type of thing for critical thinking behind the philosophy. And then we do what most people would think of as philosophy proper, which is your moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, philosophy of mind, that type of thing, and it’s difficult to find teachers who are trained across all of them, and that really is our problem. We want to deliver something that has a lot of substance, and we find that it’s very important for the students to look at some deductive work and some critical thinking work before they hit the philosophy proper. Otherwise it’s gong to be chaos in the classroom.

Alan Saunders: So, how do you introduce them to deductive logic and to critical thinking?

Peter Ellerton: Well, it’s a bit of an in-at-the-deep-end approach I have to tell you. We do, probably a combination of deductive and critical first off. It’s important for them to understand that when we are speaking in philosophy, we are speaking in a very precise language. We want to qualify the meaning as much as we possibly can, and deductive logic helps us to do that by symbolising our propositions. And of course we need the critical thinking to establish what ground rules we can apply when we do philosophy proper. So, we might start off with deductive as showing you how you can look at the truth or the meaning of a statement, and our critical thinking would be looking at the reasons behind your arguments or your belief, looking at the justification, how you build a bridge from a premise to a conclusion, and that type of thing as well. And the great thing about that is you can apply it to a wide range of things in the students’ lives, any sort of logical argument that you hear in the media, so really, the world is your oyster when you’re trying to teach this sort of stuff.

Alan Saunders: And we should explain to people who perhaps don’t know that formal logic from the beginning of the 20th century onwards, has been very symbolic, almost mathematical, it uses symbols. A proposition in logic formally expressed, looks a bit like a mathematical theorem, and students are attuned to that, are they? They’re open to that?

Peter Ellerton: Oh yes, they appreciate what we’re trying to do I think. We do tell them that it’s not a mathematic subject. For many years in Queensland, the subject was called not philosophy and reason as it is now, but logic, and I think that put a lot of people off, thinking it was some type of mathematic subject. And to be sure, it is deductive, in the way that mathematics often is but you don’t see numbers. We’re simply working with the truth value of statements, and seeing how we can work those things and construct valid arguments with them, that sort of thing. So I think they get quite impressed with the fact that they can write all these symbols and leave them on the board for the next class to have a look at and be mystified at.

Alan Saunders: And they’re not frightened of them? Because I found that when I first started studying philosophy, there were some students who were just terrified by all these symbols, and I was actually terrified too, but I decided to face my fears. But a lot of people were just terrified of them and were just never going to get anywhere with logic.

Peter Ellerton: I think that after the first lesson we probably separate out the people who are going to be terrified, but we do take it very slowly as well. I think when you reach this sort of thing at a university level you do tend to get dumped on and you get a tremendous range of confusing symbols thrown on the board, and you just get a bit lost. But in the classroom we can take it quite slowly, because we are doing critical thinking as well, we can relate it back to simple statements. You know, much of deductive logic is symbolising things like being the ‘if then’ statement: if A is true, then B is true, and we can take that easy and explore its implications, and in real life ways. So whilst yes, we do end up sometimes with a very confusing blackboard, I think we take it slowly enough so the kids can enjoy the process.

Alan Saunders: How do you find the kids’ reaction to the less formal parts of philosophy to, say, the moral issues? I mean, I think I started studying philosophy when I was probably four years older than, possibly even five years older than the kids that you’re working with, but I do know that adolescents, although they can be very open, can also be very dogmatic. So are they open to a free discussion of moral or philosophical issues?

Peter Ellerton: Oh yes, they are. I think they’re surprised when they realise that there can be reasons behind holding a moral point of view. I actually think a lot of students just think, Well I think that because I do, or because my parents do, or because my peers do, or because it seems like that’s the way to do it. But a bit of a tenet with our classes is that we don’t really mind what you think, but we’re terribly interested in why you think it. And the notion that if you don’t understand why you have a belief or opinion, then what are you doing having it, is something that I think they accept. They haven’t come across it before and it sometimes shatters what can be a rather delicate web of opinions on the part of the students – but not that they mind that. They’re very, very keen to be involved in discussions and it really is working it from base. It’s not like adults where you may have some views set pretty much in concrete, and whilst certainly some students have strong views, I think they’re more open to discussing why they have them and recognising that there may be reasons why they do not, that makes it easier in the classroom.

Alan Saunders: I’m talking to Peter Ellerton, a teacher of philosophy in secondary schools in Queensland. And does he, I wonder, do what I sometimes try to do in this show, and try to relate philosophical debates to topical issues and popular culture?

Peter Ellerton: Yes, across quite a range of areas, not just in moral philosophy, although if you’re doing someone like Peter Singer, it’s very difficult not to apply some contemporary issues to that. For example, in critical thinking we’ll do an area called fallacies of reasoning, and the students are expected to scour the media for examples of fallacies of reasoning, and that’s one of their favourite parts I think, they enjoy it the most, and they come back in later years and keep telling me about fallacies they keep finding; they can’t read the newspaper in the same way. So that’s something where contemporary issues come up quite a bit. There’s not so much in conductive logic, but if we’re discussing things like, say, pseudo-science, that certainly is something that is out there right now and something that’s easily accessible to the students. When we do in philosophy of religion, for example, a unit on intelligent design, and we will look at that as an argument for the existence of God, one of many throughout the ages that have been put forth as a logical argument for the existence of God, and we’ll analyse that and look at its weak points, and you know, there are obviously elements of that in both the notion of what a science is and in the use of inductive reasoning and the use of fallacies of reasoning, that type of thing.

Alan Saunders: Well that’s very interesting because I would imagine, and possibly I’m caricaturing Queensland here, a State of which I have a long-standing love, but I would imagine intelligent design would go down quite well in Queensland, so how do your students take it, take your analysis of it?

Peter Ellerton: Oh, pretty well. I mean we approach all our philosophy of religion, part of which is Intelligent Design, on the notion that we are looking for logical arguments and we’re going to see what’s wrong with the logical arguments about them. We don’t make a claim about the ultimate truth of them, we say that may be a matter of faith, but that’s not what we do here, we’re doing philosophy, so we’re looking at logical arguments. So we look at arguments for the existence of God, and arguments against the existence of God.

Alan Saunders: Do you get students, and I know this happens in university because I’ve talked to university teachers of philosophy, who just say, Oh, you’ve taken the carpet out from under me, from everything that I believe.

Peter Ellerton: Yes. I think students are susceptible to that, but again, I don’t think they’ve had too long a time to really make their beliefs in say moral philosophy, or philosophy and consciousness, their own. They haven’t had that much time, and so we get them while they’re young, before they’ve really amalgamated that into their identity, and that’s the sort of problem you might find in an adult. I know that students have often come to class after going home and said, Well I discussed such-and-such with Mum or Dad and gee, they weren’t impressed.

Alan Saunders: Just the sort of brat you want as a child, isn’t it.

Peter Ellerton: Well it goes further than that. It’s not altogether pleasant to get a fellow teacher ring me up saying, Listen, I wish you’d stop teaching these kids about fallacies of reason, because they keep picking me up every time I make a mistake. So no, I think they are aware that there are reasons why you’ve got to be a bit careful in discussing some of these things. And we look at that again in our notion of argumentation, how do you construct an argument, and what do you have to be careful of when you present an argument, and one of those things is prior beliefs.


Alan Saunders: Yes, we’re talking about logic at the moment, but you do actually cover the board, don’t you? I mean you look at philosophy of mind, you’ve mentioned consciousness, you obviously look at moral philosophy, you look at philosophy of science. So it’s a very broad curriculum we’re talking about here.

Peter Ellerton: Oh, it is, yes. It is a two-year course, so we can do quite a lot over that time, that you might not find in philosophy 101 at university. So you will be able to look in depth at philosophy; in the course you may decide to do a broad sweep of philosophies, or you might choose to focus on a few particular areas and go in depth into those things as well. There’s some level of autonomy in individual schools as how they can do that. We’ve experienced something of a boom recently, perhaps a name-change to Philosophy and Reason has helped, but we’ve also set up a network of teachers, both in Queensland throughout the States, who are interested in this type of thing. I’ve set up a website that has all our resources so that anybody who would like to initiate this type of thing in their schools can see what we do with all our booklets and resource and assessment pieces are available as well. So we’re hoping that that will start to increase pretty rapidly because I think people are talking a lot about critical thinking and philosophies in schools, and this is a very practical and realistic way to make that happen.

Alan Saunders: I suppose another problem for schools would be that we have these days a very, very crowded school curriculum; do we want to shoehorn in yet another subject?

Peter Ellerton: Now that’s an interesting one. Probably not, no. I would say definitely not, in fact. In Queensland we’re looking at something very much along those lines where we’re trying to simplify the subject offerings. However, I will say this: I think that students that have come back from leaving class and they’ve come back in the next year or so or even longer, and they’ve discussed their experiences at university, and they’ve said, You know, one of the subjects that I found most useful or even the subject I found most useful was philosophy and reasoning; it gave me the thinking skills I needed, and that can be across arts, journalism, pharmacy, science, all sorts of things. We’re continually getting that feedback, the teachers of the subject. So I think that it does something that is applicable to much of what a student will do later on. I don’t think it’s something you want to just squeeze in as a bit of extra knowledge, it really does provide a base for them to use in all sorts of areas.

Alan Saunders: But talking about extra knowledge, do students come away from the course knowing about, well, as I said earlier, the doctrines of the great philosophers, do they come away knowing about Aristotle and Descartes and Immanuel Kant, or has the entire approach been just concentrated on problems and issues?

Peter Ellerton: No, not at all. They’re certainly aware of the philosophers. In doing say ethics, or social and political philosophy they’ll meet Socrates and Aristotle and Plato, John Stuart Mill, Bentham, Kant, Rawls, Singer, they’re all represented there; Descartes, Spinoza, and modern philosophers like Singer and John Searle, so they’re certainly familiar with their philosophers and they’re familiar with their philosophies, as well as the processes behind philosophy in general.

Alan Saunders: How do you teach Spinoza to a 17 year old? He’s very difficult. I find him difficult and I’m a good deal older than 17.

Peter Ellerton: Ah, well yes, that’s a good point. You don’t teach all of Spinoza to a 17 year old I think is the clue. I mean, you may mention him as, say a contrast to Descartes and dualism then move quickly on. But they’ll certainly understand that he was there and that he had an impact, but we don’t pretend either that we’re going to be producing university level essays on any particular background of a philosopher or their philosophy necessarily, although some of them are extremely sophisticated.

Alan Saunders: Just finally, did you set out in life intending to teach philosophy in secondary schools, or is this just something that you found, I mean obviously it’s a rewarding experience for you, but is it just something that you found yourself doing?

Peter Ellerton: To a large degree, yes, it is. I’ve always had that sort of bent, and I happened to marry a woman who also taught the subject, so it was a more or less freefall into the realms of philosophy for me. And that sparked some more postgraduate study and yes, I just find it very satisfying as a teacher, I find it’s the sort of subject where I can get an immense amount of satisfaction out of it with the students.

Alan Saunders: Well Peter Ellerton, I wish you every success with teaching philosophy, and broadening the subject. I hope you use The Philosopher’s Zone as a resource, by the way.

Peter Ellerton: Oh, absolutely we do. I’m continually peppered with requests for material which I findThe Philosopher’s Zone very comfortably provides, so I must thank you for that, it’s a very popular resource.

Alan Saunders: Peter Ellerton, thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Peter Ellerton: Thank you, Alan.

Alan Saunders: The Philosopher’s Zone is produced by Polly Rickard, with technical production by Janita Palmer. I’m Alan Saunders, and I’ll be back next week looking at the philosophy of mind.

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About Peter Ellerton

Director of the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project and Lecturer in Critical Thinking.
This entry was posted in Critical Thinking, Deductive Logic, Ethics and Moral Philosophy, Media Articles, Cartoons, Philosophy of Mind - Consciousness, Philosophy of Religion, Philosophy of Science, Social and Political Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

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