Building a new generation to outsmart Google
Teaching philosophy to children is a growing global trend that could be the key to South Africa turning the corner on its skills problem.
about 25% of children who enter grade 1 at government schools in South Africa don’t make it to matric, while 80% of learners with a government school education fail their first year at university. “First-year students lack intellectual curiosity and flexibility, traits that are necessary virtues for learning,” says Candess Kostopoulos, who has been teaching philosophy, including philosophy of education and education theory, at university level for the past 10 years. She attributes this lack to the fact that children are not given enough space to engage in and practise intellectual curiosity and flexibility.
Research suggests that children who are taught philosophy, specifically critical thinking and problem-solving skills, excel at reading and mathematics, and have an edge over children with no exposure to philosophy. In SA, the vast majority of children tend to struggle with reading and mathematics in particular.
Philosophy for Children – or P4C as it is known – has taken off in countries like the US, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland, where critical thinking is taught at high school and even primary school level. Ireland’s president, Michael D. Higgins, famously said in 2016: “The teaching of philosophy is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal to empower children into acting as free and responsible subjects in an ever more complex, interconnected, and uncertain world.”
Kostopoulos, who aims to develop an African P4C, says that “genuine comprehension, deep learning, abstract thinking, and innovation all depend on the meta-reflective ability to think about thought – to think about what exactly it is that you are doing when you use your thinking to solve a problem.
“As technology expands, we are going to need young people who can, as President Higgins pointed out, ask and answer questions that aren’t googleable,” she adds.
The Independent Education Board (IEB) has also shown its commitment to teaching philosophy in its schools and recently introduced a Thinking Skills Assessment for grade 10 and 11 learners. The assessment focuses on two key skills, namely critical thinking and problem solving. It aims to “assist schools to develop a measure of how they are helping learners to cope with the cognitive demands of the future and with tertiary studies”.
But local government schools are still lagging behind.
“The South African curriculum is very data intensive,” says Colin Northmore, head of Sacred Heart College in Observatory, Johannesburg. This institution has invested in developing an independent and local thinking skills programme.
“The curriculum is designed to create a situation where low-performing schools and teachers are guided in the scripted way to deliver on the basics of literacy and numeracy. The curriculum does not allow for much leeway in customising the delivery of instruction to suit the specific context of the children. It uses a onesize-fits-all approach and is thus the anathema of critical thinking,” he explains.
“If we continue to educate a population using an approach to education that is better designed for the 1950s, we will never be able to become competitive in the world, let alone in Africa.”
He adds that the advancement in technology and growth of robotics in industry will result in lowskilled workers struggling to find employment: “It is crucial that we find ways to teach children to be innovators and to be able to create their own ways of generating income and resources.”
He explains that at Sacred Heart College they’ve been doing critical thinking skills with children for quite a long time, but the real difference is that they’ve now started to teach it as a formal subject.
“Our college has a reputation for innovation when it comes to curriculum. It became clear to us that most of the thinking skills programmes available were imported from the UK and America. That led to the decision to invest money in developing the first South African thinking skills programme. The most important distinction being that we use South African knowledge systems, examples and scenarios to help the children develop the skills,” says Northmore.
“We have one of the highest pass rates in university and particularly one of the highest first-class pass rates in the country,” he explains, attributing his school’s success to the importance of teaching critical thinking skills to children. Philosophy for children teaches the right skillset to give learners the opportunity to be ahead of the curve in the knowledge economy of the future, he believes.
Candess Kostopoulos Associate lecturer in philosophy of education at Wits University