Opinion- 08 March 2012

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John Turner

John Turner* Posits A Better Outcome For All Students


pdf file-available from Australasian Science


What should a politician do if presented with a request for the introduction of a new subject into the education syllabus for early years students and the proposers and supporters of the new subject make evidence based claims that the proposed subject would improve each student’s intellectual competence substantially, improve their classroom and general behaviour and improve their decision making abilities throughout the whole of their adult lives?


Of course there may be some disadvantages. As participating students mature and make up a significant proportion of the population, fewer police may be necessary. And it may be more difficult to sell products of dubious quality so per capita GDP, and employment in some positions, might decrease, much in the way GDP decreases when there are fewer car-prangs or fewer people need psychiatric help. Also, because adults would be making better decisions, lawyers specialising in family matters or business disputes might not get as much business as they have been getting in recent years.


But politicians should still recognise that the new subject could prove an absolute god-send. Actually, it is an intellect-send. Its originators did some seriously clear thinking about how to teach children to think and devised an answer to what they perceived to be a serious problem: “How can children learn to think?”


In a controlled trial in Scotland supervised by the University of Dundee, discussions of open ended questions for one hour per school week for 50  consecutive weeks, the cognitive ability test scores (similar to IQ tests) of the trial group improved 6.5% compared to a matched control group which did not participate in the philosophical discussions. The trial took place among 10-11 year old students with over seventy students in each group. It was very noticeable that the students in the trial group learned to negotiate their differences and cease bullying. All behaviour improved. Filming of class activities showed that communication between students and teachers in both directions increased dramatically in both frequency and quality, and not just in the discussion lessons.


Three years after the trial was completed the two groups, then distributed through high schools, were again tested. The improvements in the trial group students were more than maintained so the improvements can reasonably be claimed as long lasting. The improvements in students' inclination and ability to use rational negotiation to resolve issues are outcomes that could even pay off in better parenting skills when they reach adulthood.



So what should politicians do when confronted with the question posed at the beginning? In Australia the attitude of many appears to be, “Thanks, but no thanks!”


In NSW, however, a backdoor approach has had some success. In 2009, the then Premier, Nathan Rees, accepted a Parents and Citizens Association proposal to trial an ethics class alternative for students whose parents did not want them to attend the Special Religious Education (SRE) classes given by visiting clergy and lay volunteers. The churches had long enjoyed a policy that prevented schools from offering "non-scripture" children any alternative likely to be more attractive than SRE.   After a successful trial in 2010, the Labor Government, with the support of the Greens, passed legislation to allow students whose parents had opted them out of SRE to attend the ethics class alternative. The ethics classes were modelled on the open-ended discussion techniques that had proved so successful in the Scottish trial.


The young students learn to assess their own opinions by testing them against the opinions of their peers. The teacher's role is to ensure everyone has an opportunity to contribute to the discussion free of any pressure. 


Teachers of the ethics classes are not the normal classroom teachers. They are volunteers who have to complete a training program designed by the St James Ethics Centre which also develops the curriculum framework and the classroom materials used.


Issues discussed include treatment of animals, fairness, white lies … issues where there is no universal right answer and those involved have to work out the best answer taking account of all the consequences of the available actions on everyone affected by them. 


While the classes are proving exceedingly popular with the students and their parents, the fundamentalist churches in particular are still trying to have the enabling legislation repealed. Apart from the risk that the classes could draw students away from SRE, their main objection is that open discussion promotes the idea that morality is relative. Given their belief that there is a morally "correct" stance on every issue, they much prefer a form of education in which an authoritative teacher tells students what that is. 


Interestingly, whereas all the Christian religions were initially united in their opposition to the very idea of ethics classes, the mainstream religions now seem most concerned about the arrangement which prevents children who attend SRE from also participating in the ethics class discussions.


A Legislative Council Committee Inquiry is underway. The Legislative Council is the upper house in NSW elected by proportional representation state-wide. The Inquiry was established by the Liberal Premier, Barry O’Farrell, to secure the support of the Christian Democratic Party, a party led by the fundamentalist clergymen, Mr Fred Nile MLC, for other unrelated legislation. Some have questioned whether Mr Nile's action in leveraging his vote on the unrelated matter to pursue his opposition to the ethics class provision was itself ethical.


But the NSW Ethics classes are hopefully only a first step in this state. The urgent need is for every school student to have the benefit of a one hour of open discussion every week, firmly entrenched in the normal timetable and delivered by the normal classroom teacher whose teacher training should prepare them fully for this role. The mainstream churches are right. It is unfortunate that their SRE children are missing the ethic class discussions. But to gain that advantage the parents of students attending SRE classes would have to accept that teaching of dogma or teaching to a tightly defined curriculum has no place in philosophical discussion classes.


The benefits of the discussion method, as described above, will be lost if there is any move away from that method to a dogmatic or curriculum method with defined aims and prescribed outcomes. Such methods stifle thinking. Dr Collette Livermoor, who has worked with the late Mother Teresa stated, “Suppression of thought drowns the intellect and leads to immaturity and stunting of the personality. An individual must be allowed the freedom to explore, to float and let their ideas find equilibrium; to fashion for themselves a set principles that helps them respond to the world with intelligence.”


The late notable essayist, Christopher Hitchens, also made a pertinent point or two when he wrote, in ‘Letters to a Young Contrarian’, “ …the concept of revealed truth degrades the whole concept of free intelligence by purportedly relieving us of the hard task of working out ethical principles for ourselves.”


 I very much favour having every student in Australia spend one hour per week in philosophical discussion classes from their earliest school years “working out ethical principles for themselves”. Every youngster would obtain a substantial benefit: their intellectual ability will improve, they will learn to think about things they may never have thought about before, they will spend their school years in a much improved environment, largely free of poor behaviour particularly bullying, and they will learn to make better decisions throughout their whole life.


How would a school find the extra hour per week? Easily! In the Scottish trial, time allocated to two subjects was shortened because the discussion classes partly covered their content; and besides, every hour of school class time became more productive.


The Primary Ethics website http://www.primaryethics.com.au/  has more info on the NSW ethics classes.

The whole report of the Scottish Trial is available at:




Please read and digest the report, then take some action to improve the education of your children or grandchildren. Attend their school’s parents’ meetings at least a few times and ask for the discussion classes to be introduced. Become a volunteer discussion teacher if the initial stepping stone to the ‘real deal’ is as it is now in NSW. Through such action, the education of Australian children may become as competent as education is for students in Finland and at a cost that would be peanuts.


*John Turner retired from managing the primary production departments of the Newcastle Steelworks some 30-years ago to found his own business. Currently he is president of Hunter Skeptics Inc and keeps abreast of numerous subjects including man's evolution from our Australopithecus forefathers.