The Woolslair Project

Philosophy for Children at Woolslair Elementary



A substantial body of work in Europe and North America over the last four decades has determined that philosophical instruction at primary and secondary levels, for as little as one hour a week, has a significant effect on raising subsequent learning indices in mathematics, critical reasoning, reading comprehension, emotional intelligence, and listening/talking skills.  This effect can last for years after philosophical instruction has ceased (see the discussion in Background and Evidence of Effectiveness below).  Studium Consulting is running a pilot program meant to gauge the demand for an extension of these courses into contemporary public and private education in the Pittsburgh, PA and Morgantown, WV areas. 

Beginning in the 2016/17 school year, Studium designed and implemented a five-week course on philosophy for 4th graders at Woolslair Elementary, a public STEAM magnet school in Pittsburgh (STEAM is STEM with a component on the arts).  During the summer of 2017 a similar course was run for the summer camp at the Ellis School, a private girls’ school also in Pittsburgh.  We are currently slated to run a full course for two classes at Woolslair Elementary during the 2017/18 school year, and we are seeking interest for programs in other schools in Pittsburgh, Morgantown, and surrounding areas. 


The Woolslair Project

The philosophy for children (P4C) program at Woolslair Elementary is aimed at providing three things. 

·         Community of Inquiry

First, we emphasize building and maintaining a community of inquiry.  In this community, students are taught the habits of conversation and exchange needed to delve into complex issues with reason and care.  This transforms the classroom into a pedagogical space where any voice has the right to contribute to the discussion, so long as one likewise obeys the duty to defend one’s opinion rationally, and to be cordial and respectful toward others in doing so. 

·         A Philosophical Toolkit

Second, we furnish the students with a series of philosophical concepts, distinctions, and forms of reasoning, including the notions of reality and appearance, the distinction between causal explanation and rational justification, and reasoning by analogy.   These modes of thought are represented in a ‘philosophical toolkit’ containing notecards with a short summary of the relevant idea.  The students are encouraged to use the resources as ‘free moves’ in the conversations we have throughout the school year. 

·         Topics in Philosophy

These tools are introduced in the context of stories, illustrations, and examples meant to highlight topics of historical and ongoing philosophical significance, covering questions about knowledge, justification, value, society, and the good life.   In the course of the year, together we erect and fortify a community of inquiry governed by egalitarian norms of rational discourse.

Crucially, this instruction is not directed at turning the classroom into a free-for-all where every idea will have as good a standing as any other.  While the issues discussed may not always have settled answers, the practice of searching for these answers is tethered to norms of rational debate that distinguish good from bad answers, and good from bad methods of searching for answers. 

Background and Evidence of Effectiveness

This project draws on and develops pre-existing materials and pedagogy for philosophical instruction in primary and secondary education.

Over the last four decades, individuals and institutions have developed a variety of approaches toward teaching philosophy in primary and secondary schooling.  Programs are currently in place in over 60 countries, servicing students from kindergarten through high school.  Most of the course material on philosophy for children, particularly in North America, descends from the pioneering work of Matthew Lipman.  His instruction centers on the use of novels and short stories.  Having read a selection beforehand, students convene with an instructor to discuss the conceptual issues raised therein.  Work in the United Kingdom has tended to center on separable modules making use of audio-visual media as a point of departure for reflection on philosophical issues.  The Socratic method of Oscar Brenifier in Germany, and the more formal and regimented dialectical style championed by Jacques Lévine in France, offer complementary modes of instruction.  See  the discussion at pp.20-21 of Teaching Philosophy in Europe and North America, the summary at “The Variety of Schools of Philosophy for Children in France and in Philolab,” and the essays collected in Catherine C McCall, Transforming Thinking:  Philosophical Inquiry in the Primary and Secondary Classroom (New York:  Routledge, 2009). 

A number of studies have been run on the positive impact of different varieties of philosophical instruction in primary and secondary education.   For an overview, see pp.  3-7 of Philosophy for Children:  Evaluation Report and Executive Summary (2015), pp.20-26 of Teaching Philosophy in Europe and North America (2011).  The former study, run by the Education Endowment Foundation in the U.K. and independently evaluated by a team from Durham University, employed a randomized and controlled test across 48 schools in England to measure the impact of a year’s worth of philosophical instruction for students in grades 4 and 5, receiving (on average) one period’s worth of philosophical instruction per week.  Page 3 of the report contains the following “Key Conclusions” (with ‘P4C’ as ‘philosophy for children’):

1.      There is evidence that P4C had a positive impact on Key Stage 2 attainment. Overall, pupils using the approach made approximately two additional months’ progress in reading and maths.

2.      Results suggest that P4C had the biggest positive impact on Key Stage 2 results among disadvantaged pupils (those eligible for free school meals).

3.      Analyses of the Cognitive Abilities Test (a different outcome measure not explicitly focused on attainment) found a smaller positive impact. Moreover, in terms of this outcome it appears that disadvantaged students reaped fewer benefits from P4C than other pupils. It is unclear from the evaluation why there are these differences between the two outcomes.

4.      Teachers reported that the overall success of the intervention depended on incorporating P4C into the timetable on a regular basis. Otherwise there was a risk that the programme would be crowded out.

5.      Teachers and pupils generally reported that P4C had a positive influence on the wider outcomes such as pupils’ confidence to speak, listening skills, and self-esteem. These and other broader outcomes are the focus of a separate evaluation by the University of Durham.

Matthew Lipman’s work on philosophy for children developed out of his experience as a professor at Columbia in the 1960s.  Convinced that American citizens, and consequently American public discourse, would benefit from an educational system that emphasized critical reasoning and dialectical skills at an early age of instruction, Lipman moved to Montclair State University (New Jersey) in 1972 to direct the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children.  

At Studium, it is our belief that American citizens are in as great a need of early and prolonged exposure to critical reasoning skills as ever in our country’s history.  At the same time, the state of the current job market for academic philosophy, the field most Ph.D.’s in philosophy pursue the degree with a mind to enter into, is undergoing a virtual crisis of excess supply and dwindling demand.  The number of Ph.D.-granting programs in philosophy swelled in the second half of the twentieth century.  Since the economic downturn of 2008, however, tenure-track and equivalent permanent positions have in some cases been phased out in favor of adjunct work and other temporary work.  Together, these forces have tended toward a glut of well-trained job candidates struggling for employment in a job market that cannot support the numbers of even very accomplished applicants that are searching for work.  As a result, many otherwise well-suited Ph.D.s in philosophy find themselves with little prospect of contributing to society in the way they have been trained to (often over the course of a decade’s worth of instruction). 

We hope that programs such as the Woolslair Project will help ameliorate this situation by opening up the demand side of the philosophy job market in a way that benefits junior philosophers, the profession of philosophy, and the education of American society.