Published on: Friday, March 18, 2022

All too often people assume that teenagers are only interested in the superficial, such as texting, gaming, reality television and celebrity culture. In fact many young people are fascinated with philosophical, theological and ethical issues. There are, however, very few opportunities for young people to explore these issues with depth and rigour in their teen years. Exams and assessments dominate the thought world and the “deep” questions are often dealt with in simplistic or prescriptive ways. Many young people assume that the good life is just a life of leisure. 

Father Mark Smith, Head of Philosophy & Religion at King’s College, Taunton and Julie Arliss from Academy Learning spearheaded the Philosothon movement in the UK in 2013. The intention was to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on issues while developing vital metacompetencies like deep listening, critical thinking and effective dialogue skills. How we need these soft skills in our world right now.

Winners of the regional heats assembled at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire to compete in the first UK National Philosothon Competition. In the final, the King’s College competed against Brighton College, South Hampstead High School, Kingswood School Bath, Bristol Grammar School, Solihull School, St Helen and St Katharine Abingdon and New Hall School in Chelmsford. 

The King’s team was made up of senior philosophers Olivia B, Hazel B, Josh S, Greta S, Maddie H, Ben K, Thomas B, Lukas M, Caleb S and Thomas T. They spent hours practising the much needed soft skills of deep listening, questioning assumptions and facilitating positive, respectful dialogue in a context of complex moral, social, political and religious issues relevant to our time in history. 

Mark has been working with Academy Learning and Oxford University to set up regional hub schools around the UK. These hubs schools have been resourced and trained, and all held their very first regional competitions. The winners assembled at Stowe School in Buckinghamshire to compete in the very first UK National Philosothon Competition.

What is a Philosothon? A Philosothon uses the Socratic Community of Inquiry. This challenges the standard model of education as knowledge transmission where knowledge is unambiguous, unequivocal and un-mysterious, divided into non-overlapping disciplines, and teachers are seen as authoritative sources of knowledge. The Philosothon combines the educational models of “Great Books” and “Circle Time” by injecting a meaty chunk of great writing into the circle of exploration.

In the Community of Inquiry model, education is the outcome of participation in a teacher-guided round table discussion. The aim is to stir students to think about questions that are ambiguous and mysterious, where disciplines are overlapping and knowledge is therefore problematic, and where teachers have to concede fallibility. In learning to handle such questions, students must learn to be reflective, reasonable and judicious.

The rationale for the methodology is based on empirical evidence that teaching children reasoning skills early in life greatly improves other cognitive and academic skills and greatly assists learning in general. Over 74 studies have produced evidence of positive cognitive and social outcomes arising from the Community of Inquiry approach, even when used only in small doses. 

The Philosothon is not a lightweight airy fairy talk fest. Students at the National Final were  assessed by specialist philosophy academics from universities. The university sector is a vital ingredient in the success of the event. One of the benefits of the Philosothon is its close connection with the tertiary sector which in Britain is all too often assumed to be an academic ivory tower.

Some might say, and have said, that Philosophy cannot be undertaken in the context of a competition. They believe that by ranking individuals the process of developing a Community of Inquiry is fundamentally compromised. Interestingly, many students forget they are involved in a competition and engage in the exact sort of investigation and collaboration we would hope to see in Philosophy and Ethics. In any case, the same process is undertaken in any academic institution, tertiary or secondary where students are ranked against criteria. The only difference is that one of the more important criteria in a COI is collaboration.

The following quote is interesting from a report on a Philosothon in Sydney, Australia.

Everyone was working together to come up with the most intellectually sustainable understanding that they could. Another extraordinary thing was that although the Philosothon was a competition it hardly felt competitive at all. Students almost forgot that they were being judged against each other. The ‘prize’ for the students was just being in the discussions and being able to thrash out these things. A medal for winning was just the icing on the cake. Everybody walked out feeling like the proverbial winner.

Congratulations go to the South Hampstead High School team who came first this year after very enjoyable and challenging exchanges.

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