Dr. John Taylor is the head of Philosophy and Director of Critical Skills, Rugby School, UK; Visiting Fellow, London Institute of Education
What is the place of philosophy within education? Many teachers would answer that it has little or nothing to do with their daily task, which they would conceive of as the handing on of subject knowledge to the next generation. Of course, philosophy is one of the subjects that may be taught, but outside of this (usually relatively small) part of the curriculum, philosophy tends to be regarded as relatively insignificant. Teachers may encounter it through the occasional seminar in the ‘philosophy of education’ during their training, but the theories encountered here may seem to be ones that can be forgotten without any real loss.
To suggest, then, that philosophy is not simply an optional extra subject on the curriculum, but is in fact integral to all of education, will strike many teachers as absurd. But if we consider that philosophy addresses itself, through epistemology, to questions about the foundations of knowledge, and through conceptual analysis, to questions about the meaning of what is claimed as knowledge, the link becomes clear. At any point when we invite students to consider the basis of what they believe, or ask them about the meaning of an abstract idea which they have used, we are asking them to engage in philosophical inquiry. This can happen without the teacher (or student) being fully aware of the fact that they are engaging in philosophy, but the fact remains that whenever questions are asked which take us beyond the facts, to consider their epistemological basis or meaning, then the discussion takes on a philosophical character. Such discussions, far from being an optional extra, should be happening right across the curriculum, as part of the process of encouraging students to think more deeply, and in a more engaged, critically reflective manner, about the character of what they are being taught.
In recent years, I have been exploring avenues for helping students and teachers engage in this form of philosophical inquiry. Whilst I support the inclusion of philosophy as a discrete subject on the curriculum, I have been particularly interested in finding ways in which philosophical thought can be entered into in relation to all the subjects which form the existing curriculum. What are the best ways of starting philosophical discussion with science, languages or arts students? And how, once such discussions begin, can they be continued so as to enable deepening philosophical understanding?
My preferred model is to use a combination of seminar-style discussions, in which the teacher acts as a facilitator, or ‘Socratic mentor’, followed by an extended period of project work, in which students choose for themselves a research question which allows them to explore some of the conceptual issues surrounding a topic which they have learned about during their studies. This combination, of discussion and project work, is a fruitful one. Discussion provides a very natural environment for the development of the cognitive and critical thinking skills which philosophical investigation calls for. Project work provides an excellent context for the further development of these skills, particularly if students are encouraged to choose questions in which there is a clear philosophical issue in the background.
Education, conceived of along these lines, is an intrinsically philosophical process. In my view, it is no coincidence that the ancient Greeks, whose thought gave birth to the philosophical tradition of the West, were all teachers. Philosophy and teaching coincide in their purpose: they both aim at enabling a deepening of our understanding of the world, of ourselves, and of the endlessly puzzling relationship between self and world.