Monday, March 8, 2021

Among Straw Men

Reflections on a recent EEF research report into SAPERE P4C and primary SAT scores

The results are in. Some tweets have been tweeted; some stories written. But what is the EEF, what is SAPERE and what is all the fuss about?

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is “an independent charity dedicated to breaking the link between family income and educational achievement.”

SAPERE is a charitable organisation with the following aims in its articles of association:

 “The charity’s objects are specifically restricted to the advancement of education for the public benefit, in particular amongst those young persons up to the age of 16 years, by the promotion of the development of their skills in logical thinking and other philosophical techniques so that their personal and social lives are enriched.”

Over the course of two research projects funded by the EEF, SAPERE was able to work with thousands of children in over 50 schools to further its stated aims. The price: to put to the test some presumptive claims, based on available research, about enhancements to reading competencies brought about by regular p4c sessions. Why agree to a wager like that?

Trainers and other P4C enthusiasts were already making claims based on previous, less rigorous, quantitative research in order to get a hearing in schools. If primary schools fear that time given to p4c will detract from SATs scores, then the whole thing is a non-starter. And if an organisation like SAPERE turns down a challenge to test one of its presumptive claims with rigorous research methods, then there must be a question mark against its integrity. And isn’t it a good thing to have as much information as possible about an initiative being promoted to schools?

As it turned out, the conclusions of both research projects were remarkably similar. Giving over time in the school day for P4C, even during literacy lessons, does not depress reading scores. That conclusion will be useful to any individual or organisation trying do p4c with children in primary schools during the school day.

The first (smaller sized) project did not make grand claims that were dramatically undermined by the second (larger) one. The interpretive conclusion of the first project (p. 32) was clear.

"It is clear that P4C, whatever its other possible benefits in terms of wider outcomes, does not hinder children’s attainment at KS2 or their progress on CAT scores. In fact, in maths and reading there is a discernible but small benefit at KS2, equivalent to about two months of extra progress. All other indicators are positive but smaller (with the score for KS2 writing close to zero). Teachers and pupils generally report improved behaviour and relationships.”
No great claims there. The second report confirmed the highlighted section of the first but found there was no effect on reading scores rather than a small one.

Enter the straw men
Enter straw man 1: “It’s ludicrous to say the main reason for doing philosophy is to raise English and Maths scores.” Response: Nobody said it was.

Enter straw man 2: “SAPERE made false claims that are now proven to be wrong.” No. All the claims were honest ones based on available research. Now there is new research, the claims will change. SAPERE deserves some credit for putting some presumptive claims to the test.

What did the teachers think?
Given that funding from the EEF enabled thousands of primary pupils and their teachers to philosophise together, what did the professionals in schools think? These snippets are taken from the latest report:

“Teachers facilitating P4C sessions who responded to  a survey by researchers the survey highlighted areas they felt P4C was having the most positive impact:

  • Respect for other pupils’ opinions (96 per cent, 204 of 213, agreed that P4C had positively impacted on this)

  • Ability to question and reason (91 per cent, 196 of 213, agreed that P4C had positively impacted on this)

  • Ability to express views clearly (93 per cent, 193 of 213, agreed that P4C had positively impacted on this)

  • Listening skills (89 per cent, 188 of 213, agreed that P4C had positively impacted on this).”

The report continues: “By the end of the second year of delivery, the schools were reporting that these impacts were now being seen more widely across the curriculum. For example, interviewees in most schools reported that pupils were now applying their questioning and reasoning skills in other curriculum areas such as English and History. Interviewees also commonly noted that the turn taking modelled in P4C was now being seen to trickle through into other areas of the school, including the playground.”

SAPERE applied the funding from the EEF in line with its (ie, SAPERE's) stated purposes and in pursuit of a deeper understanding of the impact of P4C. 

In the two research reports, there is much information that supporters and opponents of p4c in schools can reflect on.

I’ve written some longer personal reflections about research used to justify p4c in a separate document here.  

Notes to self

  1. Don’t be afraid to make presumptive claims about p4c based on reasonable arguments and previous research but keep them modest. To my mind it is the variety of probable benefits that is important but that claim is the hardest kind to test.

  2. Always be clear about the values behind my advocacy of p4c. It’s a good thing for adults and children to talk together in a philosophical way about things they find interesting and important. Philosophising is part of what it means to be human. Or perhaps it would be better to say: It’s an important means by which humans find meaning.


I was hired by SAPERE to manage training for the first project and most of the second. I am writing here in a personal capacity. I do not speak for SAPERE.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Philosophising and facts

Some people contend that philosophy is out of the picture once factual considerations come into play. Nicholas Rescher identifies the common view as: ‘Whenever questions require factual materials for their satisfactory resolution, then addressing them is “no longer doing philosophy (p.35).”’ He quotes Bertrand Russell:

‘… as soon as definite knowledge concerning any subject becomes possible, this subject ceases to be called philosophy, and becomes a separate science (p.35).’

Yet big philosophical problems can, and often do, arise within subjects that are seemingly distinct from philosophy, such as science, psychology, politics, economics and history. An important role for philosophical dialogue is, using Rescher’s phase: ‘the philosophical elucidation of fact-laden issues (p.36).’

In philosophical enquiry with young people, a neglect of factual details could have some unfortunate consequences. Firstly, teachers might limit the agenda for enquiry to issues that don’t require additional research. They might avoid some of the most pressing questions of the day, with huge moral, political and epistemological implications, even when young people want to discuss them.
Secondly, young people may not have sufficient background knowledge available to them, even after pooling their own experiences and prior learnings, with which to exercise their best thinking about issues that matter to them.

Rescher considers two words in relation to agenda-setting that I use a lot when I work with young people: interest and importance.

He writes that the importance of a philosophical issue can be evaluated by considering ‘the difference its absence makes in the larger scheme of things'. What is lost by not discussing the issue? On the other hand, interest hinges on people’s personal – and potentially idiosyncratic – concerns.

Ideally, one wants young people to think their sessions of philosophical enquiry are both interesting and important. However, when factual input is avoided or sessions move too quickly from one topic to another, issues of importance are bound to be crowded out or treated in shallow ways. Then philosophy becomes the preserve of enthusiasts. If it doesn’t much interest you, why bother making an effort? If you’re not having fun, why give it your attention?

There is an argument that reasoning skills and dialogical virtues will transfer from context to context and subject to subject. According to this view, when adults inevitably encounter fact-laden controversies in life, they will be better prepared to navigate them and act wisely if, as young people, they have honed their skills and communicative virtues on abstract thought experiments or brief discussions in response to a single information source (otherwise known in p4c circles as ‘the stimulus’). That is plausible but not convincing. It might be better to deliberately help children recognise the importance of philosophising for ‘the elucidation of fact-laden issues.’ That means working with young people to welcome the world into the space of philosophical dialogue, seek relevant facts from more than one source, evaluate them and link them to the ‘big picture’ that lives and grows within groups and individuals.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Writing and philo-writing

Writing is the mind’s portable workbench of ideas, a means of holding your thoughts steady for a moment while you chip and chisel away to create meaning. You can choose to keep your words to yourself for a while or share them with others. You can discard them without anyone knowing they ever existed. And the wonder of it is that the writer’s workbench can accommodate a project of any size from a brief note to a long novel or a life journal.

What's good for the individual is also good for the collective. Writing holds people’s thoughts in place so others can reflect on them and respond.  

In writing, we have at our disposal one of the greatest cognitive tools ever known to humankind. In schools we have a potential haven for dialogue about things that matter and a population of individuals with experiences and abilities that are both common and diverse.

You would expect to see, if not a hotbed for developing inventiveness and judgement, then at least a place where those two essential capacities are encouraged through regular talk and writing. But the ecosystems of schools are often not conducive to reflection and dialogue.
Over the last twenty years, I have been involved in a movement to engage students of all ages in philosophical enquiry with their peers. I’ve been heartened by how willing and able they are to reflect, through talk, on what to believe, do and value.

Yet despite the rewards that philosophical talk alone can bring, I’ve come to the conclusion that philosophical writing (philo-writing) should be used more regularly to support, enhance and communicate philosophical thinking.

When to philo-write
Philo-writing is always in a close relationship with both oral dialogue and private reflection. There are many opportunities to use it. For example:

  • To record ideas for future refinement or elaboration.
  • As a vehicle for private reflection
  • To gather questions or key themes leading to enquiry through oral dialogue.
  • As a means of activating prior knowledge and listing ‘what one knows’ prior to oral dialogue, writing or reading.
  • As a way of remembering one’s research about a topic under examination.
  • As a way of remembering questions or claims to check later through research.
  • As a ‘thinking break’ during an oral dialogue to gather and sort ideas.
  • As an alternative means of having a dialogue with others.
  • As a way of gathering thoughts immediately after an oral dialogue.
  • As a means of reflecting on an oral dialogue or a sequence of dialogues.
  • As a means of responding to reading in preparation for oral dialogue or further writing.
  • As a means of preparing one’s ideas for an audience.
  • As a means of communicating one’s ideas to multiple audiences.
This list suggests a culture of learning and teaching in which teachers and students value dialogue. Writing supports the dialogical process and dialogue supports the writing. Learning in all subject areas could benefit from episodes of philo-writing to support a dialogical culture.

Audience and dialogue
The term ‘writing for an audience,' in the sense that it is used in school literacy lessons, is not the same as writing in a context of dialogical learning and teaching as intended here. Writing for an audience doesn't necessarily assume a response, writing dialogically does. When we ask students to write for an audience, we often mean an imaginary audience who, in reality do not respond. However, when writing is thought of dialogically, there is always an intended response, even if the writing is for oneself.

The most accessible audience for students is other students, their teachers and their families. When students write dialogically, they can engage these audiences.

So, philo-writing can be long or short but it arises from dialogue and leads back into dialogue. That's not to say that we shouldn’t introduce students to the concept of different audiences and appropriate expression for those audiences but that ongoing dialogue through talk, reading and writing should be paramount.

Friday, January 29, 2021

Teaching bad writing

 Teachers are often told that children should use more ‘wow words’ and ‘modifiers’ so they can achieve better grades or levels. It’s called up-levelling. But in what senses has their writing improved? Is it more interesting or more powerful?    

A few years ago, I was visiting a local primary school. I had volunteered to do some philosophising with them. It was December and it had been snowing. I was early for my session, so I sat in on the final part of a literacy lesson for a class of 11-year-olds. The children were asked to write poems entitled 'Frost'. A girl sitting next to me called Maya wrote: "My heart is warmed by the song of the robin." That’s good, I thought. I was impressed by her nice contrast of the warmed heart to the cold frost and interested in her choice of the passive voice. When the teacher asked for volunteers to read out a line, I encouraged Maya to have a go. The teacher listened and said:

"Hmm, I like that line but I think we could improve it with a modifier. What kind of sound does a bird make?"
"It makes a tweeting sound doesn't it?"
"So let's change that line to: "My heart is warmed by the tweeting song of the robin. There, that's better isn't it?"
What can one say? If only Shakespeare had been up-levelled when he was a boy:

‘Wilt thou be gone?
It is not yet near day:
It was the tweeting nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the tweeting nightingale.’

(Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 5)

‘Presence’: a significant concept for dialogue

Advocates of dialogue should give due weight to the concept of ‘presence’ – presence, for example, of difference points of view, different interpretations of information, different life experiences and perspectives and different notions of key concepts.

Chaïm Perelman and Lucy Olbrechts-Tyteca (1971) remind us that ‘presence is an essential factor in argumentation and one that is far too much neglected in rationalistic conceptions of rationality’ (p.118). They quote a Chinese folk story to emphasise their point that in all deliberative situations, much depends on what is seen and not seen, heard and not heard: 

‘A king sees an ox on its way to sacrifice. He is moved to pity for it and orders that a sheep be used in its place. He confesses he did so because he could see the ox, but not the sheep.’ (p.116)

How then could a broad range of perspectives be brought to a dialogue? One educational initiative that tackled this problem devised the term ‘rivalling’: the practice of ‘learning to seek alternative explanations and perspectives within and across competing discourses’ (Flower et al, 2000, p.5). Rivalling – or taking a rival hypothesis stance – was described as a practice of enquiry that was used mostly to ‘come to grips with culturally charged open questions’ (Flower et al, 2000, p.60). Linda Flower and her colleagues at Carnegie Melon University ran an ‘intercultural community literacy programme’ that encouraged students to suggest community problems and generate proposals. The process of getting to the proposals required students to seek ‘rival hypotheses’ gleaned from research, interviews with others in the community and self-reflection. Students presented proposals and supporting arguments at public meetings where further dialogue was encouraged. Flower writes: ‘… we attempted to ground our relationships on a shared problem and an agenda for action.’ In this project, she says her team was trying to respond, ‘to a bell hooks question: on what do blacks and whites build a relationship?’ (Flower et al, 2000, p. 25).

The ‘rivalling’ project demonstrates the feasibility and potential benefits of associations between philosophical reflection, community engagement, historical and sociological research and rhetorically competent exposition. Perhaps such associations suggest one way forward for philosophical dialogue with young people and in communities. There are some parallels with the idea of citizens’ assemblies but with reduced participation and scope.

The dark side of Plato’s cave

 Symbols can outlast the arguments they serve to illustrate.

The allegory of the cave presented by Plato in The Republic (514a-520a) is embedded in western culture ( Works of fiction such as ‘The Matrix’ have built on Plato’s vision of a community of cave dwellers constrained by the orthodox, yet false, beliefs they have acquired by watching shadows on their cave walls and mistaking them for reality. One of their number escapes his shackles and glimpses an authentic reality outside the cave but his wisdoms are dismissed by the cave-entombed majority.

Plato likens the rejection of the enlightened escapee by the cave people to the likely rejection of a philosophical truth seeker in society. Plato’s truth seeker is capable of self-correction – not just once in response to a great revelation but as an ongoing labour. He is aware of his own ignorance and fallibility.

Nowadays, a host of zealous truth claimers and conspiracy theorists pronounce to the world as if they are the ones who have escaped a cave of ignorance. They look back at those who remain in the cave with pity and disdain, for surely they are brainwashed by mainstream media and prevailing expert opinion on matters such as climate change or Covid-19.

The humility of the genuine truth seeker is not the modus operandi of the self-aggrandising truth claimer. The virtue of modesty, the painstaking work of acquiring expertise and the patience to sift though evidence before before pronouncing, do not serve them well. And yet they appear to thrive.

This is the dark side of Plato’s allegory as it plays out in modern times.

Philosophical enquiry and rhetorical invention

 It is surprising that the arts of philosophical enquiry and rhetorical argument have not been conjoined by advocates of philosophy in schools. It is surely important for people to reflect on a question carefully, pay attention to different standpoints, assess reasons and admit fallibility. However, they are disempowered if they cannot defend their beliefs or promote their considered commitments effectively.

 Philosophers frequently define their practice against rhetoric. The one involves rigorous truth seeking, the other is no more than manipulation by clever use of language and persuasive techniques. This is a lazy, if convenient, generalisation. Rhetorical competence is an important life skill. Rhetorical invention in the moment often reveals new insights that contribute to further inquiry.


 Cicero in ‘The Orator’ complains about philosophers claiming the great topics of politics and ethics as their own preserve.

“All the academies and schools of philosophy will, I do believe, raise the cry that all these matters are their exclusive province, and in no way whatever the concern of the orator. But when I have allowed that they may debate these subjects in their holes and corners, to pass an idle hour, it is to the orator none the less that I shall entrust and assign the task of developing with complete charm and cogency the same themes which they discuss in a sort of thin and bloodless style.” (p.43).

Philosophy in schools doesn’t always have to be carried out with people sat in a circle taking turns to speak and listen, with little time to embellish their arguments or find the right words to express the meanings they want to convey. Teachers could help their students recognise and use rhetorical techniques. They could also allow for episodes of argumentative performance by students and adopt those performances as starting points for further enquiry. Often, when people respond to the challenge of rhetorical invention, their efforts can refresh and re-energise a dialogue that has reached a point of stasis. Minority viewpoints can be articulated without interuption. Philospophical enquiry and rhetorical invention can be friends.


 * Cicero translated Sutton, E. W.  (1948), Cicero on the Orator Books 1–2, Harvard University Press.