Philosophy lessons lead to better behaviour and marks in Sydney school

Every Wednesday afternoon in term 3, all students at Malabar Public School put away their textbooks and gather in their classrooms to talk about everything from beauty and fear to terrorism and other global issues.

The hour-long lesson is part of a growing movement to bring philosophy into public schools.

In Kindergarten, teachers bring out a "toolbox" for discussions and ask students simple questions such as "what is your favourite fruit?"

"One of the tools might be the word 'because', which tells them that when they answer a question they need to use the because tool," said Rachel Borthwick, who is a year 2 teacher at the school.

"It equips them with reasoning skills and whether they agree or disagree with each other, they've always got to back that up."

Malabar's principal Neil Atwell, who led the initial development of a philosophy program and resources more than a decade ago when he was principal at Stanmore Public School, said his original aim was to help the school stand out and improve debating skills.

However, Mr Atwell said he soon started seeing other benefits.

"Behaviour started improving in the classroom and the playground, we weren't having children resorting to antisocial behaviours to solve problems but using words to sort their differences out instead," Mr Atwell said.

Ms Borthwick said she has seen children using their new skills to solve issues around exclusion and friendship.

"Little gripes like someone saying 'you can't play with me today', you see them using language skills to reason with each other and say things like 'we shouldn't be excluding each other because we're friends and we've all got feelings'," Ms Borthwick said.

Olivia Aristides, 11, who is in year 6 at the school, said having philosophy lessons since Kindergarten have helped her class "go really deep into everything we talk about".

"The other day we were asked 'would you rather discover a planet or find a cure to cancer," Olivia said.

"I chose find a cure and we talked about how we think of the people we love before ourselves and think of the benefits to the world beyond us.

"Our class is always having a philosophy lesson, we've learnt to justify our reasons and show our answers in that way. Using those skills helps us get higher marks in our writing and stuff like that."

Ms Borthwick said two of the three schools she has taught at have philosophy programs in place and "the difference when they didn't ... was huge".

"They're so much more articulate, you see it even when you're having discussions outside philosophy, and you see it in their writing too, that ability to reason and the skills to back up their arguments," Ms Borthwick said.

"Sometimes as a teacher, you might think something has a clear answer but then a child will throw a spanner in the works, it's interesting to see how far they can take the discussion."

Teachers at Malabar go through a two-term training program on writing philosophy lesson plans and running classroom discussions that runs after school and on weekends, and undergo regular professional development in the area.

Mr Atwell said time pressures and a greater focus on assessments have made it difficult for all schools to implement philosophy.

"It was more widespread four or five years ago but it's probably been put on the backburner with everything else that's going on in education," Mr Atwell said.

"I don't see any negatives and the positives far outweigh time concerns. We sacrifice an hour every week purely because we think the benefits are there."

This story Philosophy lessons lead to better behaviour and marks in Sydney school first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.