BLOG - On the Benefits of Teaching Philosophy Back to archive
3rd March 2017

The simple question of whether a Jaffa Cake is really a cake led to a deeper conversation on the benefits of teaching Philosopy from our Head of Religious Studies, Emma Wheeler:

Are Jaffa Cakes really cakes? They are for tax purposes, explained a recent BBC magazine article, since a tax is charged on chocolate covered biscuits. 

In fact, the article continued, the cake and biscuit debate is deeply philosophical: to what extent do our concepts relate to reality? How should we classify things and should we be compelled to place Jaffa Cakes into either category? And anyway, who cares? 

Recently, I began a lesson with this confectionary conundrum, armed with a packet of the cake-biscuit hybrids. It could be argued, of course, that we don’t have time for this sort of nonsense in an already full curriculum. The students have only eight weeks until their GCSEs, and I can’t imagine any of the questions being related to Jaffa Cake classification (even if the question setters have gone wildly off-piste). 

Jaffa Cakes
Above: Jaffa Cakes - a cake or a biscuit?!

However, I could afford to go a little off track, because the class in question were there entirely voluntarily. A small group of Upper Fifth (Year 11) girls have opted to attend Philosophy extension classes in their own time and it is great fun. 

We don’t have to worry about exams or syllabi (although some have chosen to sit an AS Philosophy exam anyway) and we are exploring life’s fundamental questions with frequent digressions. We certainly don’t need any expensive resources. In fact lessons take place in a classroom which lacks the aesthetic allure of the Science Centre, philosophy texts are normally free online and we explore the nature of reality often through props as cheap as fruit (Plato’s forms were serviced by five apples, which had all seen better days).

There are various perspectives on the proper place of Philosophy in the curriculum. For some, it should be taught discretely as it underpins all academic disciplines, hence the central place of Theory of Knowledge in the International Baccalaureate. For others, philosophical conversations ought to be embedded in all subject lessons as a matter of course.

At Benenden we have gone some way to cultivate a culture of philosophical enquiry by having enquiry-led lessons in the Lower School. So in Religious Studies instead of titling the lesson ‘Muslim Views on Women’ we might ask: ‘What are some different perspectives on women in Islam and why are they so different?’  This kind of Socratic model of rigorous critical thinking can be used in all subjects, and taps into children’s innate capacity to enquire philosophically.

However, we’ve also discovered an appetite for more Philosophy from some of our students, hence the optional academic extension classes. I particularly enjoy these lessons because they don’t usually follow the trajectory one might expect.

In one epistemology lesson we examined John Locke’s contention that objects have primary and secondary properties, with the secondary properties experienced only as a result of our sense perceptions. A banana, for example, is not intrinsically yellow but only appears so because of the wavelength of the light that is reflected from it. The students then raised the question: what is a banana independent of its secondary properties? I have no idea, I said. This resulted in some quite remarkable theorizing and frankly baffling bananas:

In a different lesson, we asked what constitutes true knowledge, with reference to Plato’s tripartite theory of knowledge as justified, true belief. The girls then enquired as to whether a prediction of a future event could count as knowledge if the prediction was unfounded, but came true.

PlatoWho knows? We’ll find out in ten years’ time, since the girls decided to write a prediction for 2027.  Philosophy lessons, at their best, leave deep impressions on the individual, and can transform the way they think about life.

Thinking philosophically has also been shown to boost progress in reading and Maths, according to a controlled trial involving more than 3,000 primary school children by the Education Endowment Foundation. The study showed that opportunities for profound conversations improved students’ confidence and had a particularly significant impact on children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Not all students enjoy Philosophy, of course. Lower Fifth girls at Benenden follow a philosophy of religion scheme of work in Religious Studies, and it’s not uncommon to hear comments like ‘my head really hurts’, or ‘I can’t do it’ when confronted with a tricky abstract concept or any kind of moral ambiguity. 

Even Plato (right) acknowledged in his ‘Republic’ that “in practice, people who study philosophy too long, become, most of them, very odd birds”. With the right sort of encouragement, though, most students tend to agree with us that, in the end, the examined life is preferable to the unexamined one.

I’m not sure how exactly Philosophy should fit into the curriculum; I suspect different models will work for different schools. What is clear to me, however, is that philosophical enquiry benefits us all.  Through doing Philosophy, students generally learn to think with greater clarity and express themselves articulately. They are able to appraise their own views with a critical distance and consider what is of value. Teaching philosophically, whatever our subject specialism, makes our lessons more interesting for us, too.

At the very least, you might get a Jaffa Cake out of it.

Emma Wheeler
Head of Religious Studies, Benenden School