Are we neglecting education? Philosophy in schools as a longtermist area

by jackmalde17 min read30th Jul 202028 comments

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Moral Advocacy / Values SpreadingEA EducationCause Prioritization
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Overview

In this post I consider the possibility that the Effective Altruism (EA) movement has overlooked the potential of using pre-university education as a tool to promote positive values and grow the EA movement. Specifically, I focus on evaluating the potential of promoting the teaching of philosophy in schools.

I review empirical evidence and argue that teaching philosophy can:

  1. Promote positive values, including altruism and concern for sentient beings
  2. Grow the EA movement by:
    • Introducing certain EA ideas directly
    • Improving philosophical reasoning abilities such that people will be more open to EA arguments if they come across them. Due to this, I suggest that the teaching of philosophy to children and teenagers, combined with explicit EA outreach to young adults, may be an effective way to grow the EA movement

Due to these effects, I argue that promoting philosophy in schools is a credible EA intervention from various points of view, including a longtermist one. Promoting positive values should help with a wide range of issues including those that have not come up yet, and may be particularly important in light of risks of value lock-in in the future. Growing the EA movement is likely to be highly desirable whether or not one has longtermist leanings.

My neglectedness and tractability analyses focus on the UK. I argue that the fairly small, but not negligible, amount of attention given to the teaching of philosophy in schools provides an opportunity for impactful involvement from EAs in two main ways:

  1. Prominent philosophy academics in the EA movement could join existing advocacy efforts to raise the profile of philosophy in schools, with an ultimate goal of including philosophy in the national curriculum. This could be highly impactful if achieved, especially if involvement from EAs can lead to a greater focus on ethics and the inclusion of certain EA ideas
  2. EAs could become philosophy teachers, say at A-level, and boost the Philosophy for Children movement and/or help spread an interesting pre-GCSE philosophy course that has recently been made available to schools in the UK and elsewhere. Greater adoption of this course would be beneficial in its own right, but could also help with a long-run goal of having philosophy included in the national curriculum. I argue that this teaching route may be one of the most impactful available for philosophy graduates if, after some time in teaching, they plan to promote the teaching of philosophy through more influential roles such as curriculum-setting

I also briefly touch on some other routes, including influencing current philanthropic spending in education to focus more on a philosophical education. I finish by discussing why existing criticism of education in EA circles may not apply to teaching philosophy.

Epistemic status: Fairly speculative. This is my first long post on the EA forum, so I welcome feedback on content and style. I have never worked in education so am far from an expert and would welcome feedback from people who know more about education than I do. I am not aware of philosophy in schools being discussed much in EA circles so I hope this stimulates some discussion (although I am aware of efforts such as SHIC which I discuss in the post).

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Matt Slomka for some very helpful comments.

Importance

There is consistently positive evidence on the benefits of teaching philosophy to children

The formal teaching of philosophy to children stretches back to at least the 1970s when the philosopher and educator Matthew Lipman, concerned with the reasoning abilities of the students he taught at Columbia University, founded the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement with the goal to ‘improve children’s reasoning abilities and judgement by having them thinking about thinking as they discuss concepts of importance to them’ (Lipman, 1991). Lipman wrote ‘novels’ in which the young characters inquired about questions that mattered to them, stimulating discussion between teachers and pupils and fostering ‘a community of inquiry’. P4C materials have evolved over the years, but in general P4C involves pupils (from age 6 through 16) and their teacher sharing a short story, picture, poem, object, or some other stimulus. The children then take time to think of their own questions which are then discussed briefly before one is selected for more extensive discussion. The practice of P4C has spread across the world however, without being part of the formal curriculum, it remains something that relies on highly-motivated practitioners. Teachers are under multiple pressures and it is easy for P4C to “fall by the wayside” (Williams 2018).

Despite this, systematic reviews of controlled studies evaluating the effects of P4C have uncovered consistently positive effect sizes across a range of outcomes. Trickey and Topping (2004) review 10 studies that pass certain inclusion criteria, finding ‘moderate’ effects that are ‘certainly of educational significance’ across a range of outcomes, emphasising the low variance of effect sizes. The outcomes with significant effect sizes included, but were not limited to, logical reasoning, reading ability, interpersonal relationships, creative thinking, examination of assumptions and alternative ideas, confidence, persistence, maths ability and self-esteem.

Garcia-Moriyon, Robollo and Colom (2005) identified 18 studies of the impact of P4C on reasoning skills, concluding that ‘children do improve their cognitive skills through this methodology’ and noting that their studies tended to take place for one school year, whereas Lipman designed P4C to take place across several years, therefore speculating that gains would be greater with longer exposure to philosophical inquiry.

After their review study, Trickey and Topping decided to conduct their own longer-term research stretching over 16 months in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, finding a ‘substantial gain’ in reasoning ability of a greater magnitude than the previous studies. Perhaps most interestingly, their study tested long-term effects by testing treatment and control groups two years later, after participants had transferred to secondary (high) school without experiencing further philosophical inquiry in the interim. The significant pre-post cognitive ability gains in the experimental group in primary school were maintained, whilst the control group showed an insignificant but persistent deterioration in scores from pre- to post-test to follow-up. The authors state that the study provides evidence of maintained cognitive gains beyond the initial intervention.

Whilst research has focused predominantly on cognitive abilities, there exists a smaller body of evidence that indicates P4C can contribute to moral development. Schleifer et. al (2003) find that P4C improved children along four important moral dimensions: autonomy, judgment, empathy, and recognition of emotions. Russell (2002) explores a method of philosophical reflection very similar to P4C, verifying a qualitative improvement in moral conscience and a deepening ability to reciprocate when engaged in discussion with others. (Note - I am unable to access Schleifer (2003) or Russell (2002) to gather more detail on these studies). It is surprising that there is comparatively little research on moral growth, but interest in this area may be increasing. Garcia-Moriyon et. al (2020) outline a research methodology that investigates the impact of P4C on various affective traits including open mindedness, flexibility, respecting others and their rights, self-feeling, agreeableness, cooperation, assertiveness, tolerance to the unconventional, reflexivity versus impulsivity, and achievement motivation.

Overall it seems clear that children benefit from the teaching of philosophy, with the strongest evidence so far in the area of reasoning ability. It is worth emphasising the point made by Garcia-Moriyon et. al (2005) that these studies have uncovered these positive effects from interventions that, at longest, lasted 16 months. It seems likely that if children and teenagers were taught philosophy as a core subject at all ages that such effects would be significantly greater and, given the evidence for long-term effects, could persist well into adulthood.

Research into the effects of P4C continues with studies on outcomes such as imaginative creativity, empathy, resilience to various forms of indoctrination, widening access to cultural capital, moral growth, and civic empowerment.

Teaching philosophy could improve values and grow the EA movement

Given the evidence that I have outlined, I propose that teaching philosophy could be of interest to EAs in two ways:

  1. Promoting positive values, including altruism and concern for sentient beings
  2. Growing the EA movement by:
    • Introducing certain EA ideas directly
    • Improving philosophical reasoning abilities such that people will be more open to EA arguments if they come across them. Due to this, I suggest that the teaching of philosophy to children and teenagers, combined with explicit EA outreach to young adults, may be an effective way to grow the EA movement

The small body of research into the effects of P4C on moral development, outlined in the previous section, indicates improvements in empathy and moral conscience. The work of Daniel Batson (1991) on the empathy-altruism hypothesis indicates that increased empathy can evoke altruistic motivation to help others. Therefore it seems plausible that more widespread philosophical education could lead to more altruistic societies.

In addition, the evidence outlined in the previous section around improvements in the examination of assumptions and alternative ideas, and logical reasoning, suggests potential for explicit discussion around the moral status of sentient beings in philosophy class at a suitable age. Unfortunately there is no direct evidence of the impact of P4C on empathy towards beings outside of a core moral circle, such as non-human animals and future generations. However, it seems plausible that explicit discussion of the moral worth of these beings could result in increased in empathy towards them, given the increased empathy that has been observed towards humans due to philosophical learning. Interestingly, there is recent evidence that teaching the ethics of eating meat can reduce demand for meat products, however this was specifically for university students (see Schwitzgebel et. al (2020)). Research into expanding the moral circles of younger students through teaching ethics could be of high value.

(EDIT 31/07/20: As pointed out by MichaelStJules in the comments section there is a recent study (Bryant, Dillard (2020)) that demonstrates that educating middle and high schoolers in USA about the consequences of eating meat can lead to diet change. Those citing animal welfare as their main motivation were most likely to change their diets).

As well as improving values at younger ages, the evidence from the previous section implies that the teaching of philosophy could train people’s minds such that they become more accepting of EA ideas when they come across them. Firstly, the evidence cited in the previous section around the long-term effects of learning philosophy implies that recipients of a core philosophical education will have greater philosophical reasoning abilities at older ages, say at undergraduate study. The relevant abilities from the previous section that are developed through philosophical study include the examination of assumptions and alternative ideas, and logical reasoning. It seems highly plausible that adults, both young and old, with greater abilities in these skills will be more accepting of some of the more difficult or controversial EA ideas. For example, two ideas that require some open-mindedness and logical reasoning ability to take seriously include: the long-termist claim that the primary determinant of the value of our actions today is how those actions influence the very long-run future, and the idea that speciesism could be a form of discrimination comparable to racism and sexism. If indeed a philosophical education can increase the likelihood of people warming to or engaging with such EA ideas when they come across them, it implies that the teaching of philosophy to children and teenagers as part of their core education could be particularly effective in growing the EA movement when combined with explicit EA outreach to young adults.

Finally, as briefly touched on, it seems reasonable that some EA ideas could be introduced directly into philosophy curricula at suitable ages, which may also increase the likelihood of people taking an interest in EA more broadly later on. Ideas such as concern for non-human animals, helping the global poor, and obligations to future generations seem penetrable by children who are nearing teenagehood or earlier, if some of the anecdotes from the Stanford Encyclopedia article on Philosophy for Children are accurate. These areas also seem to me to be pretty natural ethical questions that could be included in a school philosophy curriculum. Indeed the UK’s School Certificate in Philosophy, which I discuss in more detail in my neglectedness and tractability sections, included the following EA-relevant discussion questions without explicit involvement from an EA to include them: “Should we experiment on animals?”, “Do animals think?”, “Can machines think?”, and “Is it more important to be good than to be happy?”. I see no reason why questions around obligations to the global poor or future generations can’t also be included in core philosophy curricula.

More philosophy in schools is impactful from a long-termist point of view

Promoting positive values should help with a wide range of issues including those that have not come up yet. Also, it is virtually self-evident that growing the EA movement is desirable from a perspective of doing the most good. However, in this section I want to outline why more philosophy in schools may be a worthy priority specifically from a long-termist point of view, via the key mechanisms I propose of improving values and growing the EA movement.

Firstly, as outlined on the 80,000 Hours website, promoting positive values such as altruism and concern for other sentient beings could be important from a long-termist point of view in light of risks that values held by society could get ‘locked in’ for a long time, for example in constitutions or at the dawn of a superintelligent AI. If such a value lock-in scenario occurs in the future, it is best to have ‘improved’ values as much as possible before this point. It would be important to start as soon as possible, as ‘values-building’ is something that can continue for a very long time. Indeed values-building would only be ‘finished’ if we had figured out the ‘perfect’ values and successfully embedded them into all influential institutions and people. Therefore if we find the concept of ‘value lock-in’ a credible one, this motivates promoting positive values as an important endeavour to begin now. Will MacAskill in his forum post on whether we are living at the most influential time in history, gives some possible future periods that could be the most influential ever, most of which are influential due to the prospect of value lock-in. Indeed it is partly for the reason of value lock-in that 80,000 Hours lists ‘broadly promoting positive values’ as a ‘potential highest priority’ issue that they find to be promising, but haven’t investigated enough yet to be confident.

One may counter the importance of promoting positive values now by arguing that we are currently living at the most influential time in history as we are at a unique ‘time of perils’ where we have the technological power to destroy ourselves but lack the wisdom to be able to ensure we don’t. In such a case we should be spending resources now on near-term existential risk mitigation, rather than on slower ‘buck-passing’ strategies that enable decision-makers to be as effective as possible in the future. I think that the ‘time of perils view’ is a credible one, but note that, given the current heavy focus in the EA community on direct actions to reduce existential risk, it seems reasonable that we should put a greater share of resources into ‘buck-passing’ strategies than we currently do. In addition, as recently argued by Will MacAskill, it is possible, given the observation that civilisations have recovered in the past and the immense desire for humans to avoid extinction, that we have overestimated the possibility of complete and permanent population or civilisational collapse. This, if true, may imply a shift towards somewhat broader attempts to influence the long-run future.

On a slightly different note, it is worth considering Greaves (2016) which introduces the idea that we may currently be ‘clueless’ about what we should do to make the world better given that common interventions, perhaps particularly those in global health, have a large number of effects that we can’t reasonably ignore, but that we have no real way of aggregating. If clueless, it is reasonable to suggest that we should spend more resources trying to get out of such a clueless state. This may be achieved by promoting philosophical reflection and growing the EA movement. It is also interesting to note that my suggestion of promoting philosophy in schools aligns with a recent post on the EA Forum that argued that increasing the benevolence and intelligence of actors can be beneficial from a longtermist point of view. Given the evidence I outlined earlier, philosophy in schools should accomplish both.

Neglectedness

Promoting philosophy in schools is fairly neglected in UK

The UK national curriculum currently contains citizenship education which is taught from 11-16 and religious education which is taught from 5-16. Philosophy is not part of the curriculum, however there is a philosophy A-level taught from age 16-18 that is optional.

There are some efforts to promote the teaching of philosophy in schools both from a curriculum and non-curriculum focus. The following are the main efforts in the UK to promote philosophy in schools, which I became aware of from materials from the 2019 Philosophy in Schools: Enriched Curriculum, Enriched Lives conference.

  • SAPERE (The Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education) promotes the P4C movement throughout the UK through training, conferences and academic research projects. Their total income in 2019 was £762,773
  • The Philosophy Foundation does philosophy sessions and workshops in schools, communities and workplaces
  • The NCH School Certificate in Philosophy Short Course is a philosophy course that was developed in 2019 as a partnership between New College of the Humanities and Cranleigh School. This course is currently targeted to years 9-10 (ages 13-15), and is available to all schools both within the UK and internationally

The NCH School Certificate in Philosophy Short Course was developed after an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince the government to allow a philosophy GCSE, led by philosopher AC Grayling.

Whilst I cannot claim that the teaching of philosophy or efforts to incorporate it into curricula are entirely neglected, this may boost the potential of further focus in this area as there is existing work and research to build on. I go into more detail on how EAs can get involved in the next section.

In terms of large gift giving (£1m+) in the UK in 2016, non-university education was only £23m whilst religious giving was £47m and higher education a much larger £656m. Whilst I don’t know the breakdown of this £23m, it seems highly likely that only a small fraction is related to philosophical or values-based education. In the US, educational philanthropic giving is vast with Bill Gates spending nearly $390m in 2017 and the Waltons more than $190m. This giving focuses on particular K-12 policies including increased accountability for teachers, more school choice, and higher-stakes testing, that are all quite controversial. It seems clear to me that values-based education is not really on the radar for educational philanthropists at the moment.

Tractability

There are a number of ways that EAs can build on existing progress in the UK

Advocacy for philosophy in the national curriculum

Firstly, I think that prominent philosophy academics in the EA movement could join existing advocacy efforts to raise the profile of philosophy in schools, with an ultimate goal of the inclusion of philosophy in national curricula. Not only could this involvement from prominent EAs add more voices to the advocacy, but it could also boost the status of ethics and increase the probability of the inclusion of certain EA ideas into a curriculum. The initial development of any curriculum is important as large deviations from this starting point are rare.

As mentioned, there was a recent and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to convince the government to allow a philosophy GCSE, led by philosopher AC Grayling and with involvement from other prominent philosophers including Angie Hobbs, Simon Blackburn and Julian Baggini. This previous attempt provides a base that makes it easy for prominent EA philosophers to get involved. Clearly curriculum change, like any institutional change, is difficult and relies on buy-in from specific government actors. However, it is worth noting that there is some positive attention from prominent politicians such as David Willetts, a former minister of state for Universities and Science who spoke at the 2019 Philosophy in Schools: Enriched Curriculum, Enriched Lives conference. In addition, changes in personnel can lead to sudden changes in policy, especially if these changes occur due to a change in government. It may also be that the strength of the case for the inclusion of philosophy in curricula is growing given increasing discussion around topics such as free speech, systemic racism and climate change, which are somewhat philosophical in nature.

Spreading philosophy as a teacher

In response to the disappointment of the government rejecting the request for philosophy to be a GCSE, John Taylor from Cranfield School and AC Grayling created the NCH School Certificate in Philosophy which, after a pilot year, has already been rolled out to around 20-30 schools in the UK for ages 13-15. Following a course of study during which philosophical ideas are introduced and debated, the School Certificate in Philosophy invites students to engage in a personally-chosen philosophy project which will typically take around 20 hours of work and can be produced in a variety of forms (e.g. written report, presentation, artwork or video). This project-based learning could create a good first impression of philosophy due to the hands-on approach, raising the probability of continued study.

I propose that philosophy graduates in EA may find it impactful to become philosophy teachers and spread this course, whilst also teaching philosophy in another capacity such as at A-level and/or by supporting the P4C movement. It might be most beneficial to focus on teaching at top schools, as this is where future leaders are most likely to come from. Expansion of the School Certificate is good in itself of course, but will only be tractable if there are teachers who are willing to teach it. Ultimately, large-scale adoption of this course would strongly boost a case for philosophy as a GCSE, which in turn could boost a case for formal inclusion of philosophy into curricula at other ages.

One reason why it might be highly impactful for philosophy graduates to teach philosophy is that they may, in many cases, not have a very high-impact alternative. Philosophy graduates are not in a great position to earn-to-give and the recent EA skills survey noted that philosophers are not really needed in the EA movement. Perhaps education is a good route for many EA philosophers who either can’t or don’t want to pursue a route in global priorities research. It is worth noting however that non-philosophy graduates can also teach the NCH course and support the P4C movement.

As I detail in the next section, I think that previous criticism in the EA movement of teaching as a career route may not be that relevant to teaching philosophy. In addition, there may be various benefits to having EA-aligned teachers at schools who can, for example, spread EA ideas through an explicit EA or philosophy society and advise students on high-impact fields of study and careers. Teachers can, and probably should, look to go into more influential roles in the long-run such as educational management or policy roles from which they may be able to promote philosophy in schools more effectively.

Influencing philanthropists with interest in education

As mentioned, many philanthropists such as Bill Gates are interested in education but direct money to educational causes that are often controversial or are unlikely to be that impactful from a long-termist point of view. The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation currently focuses on increasing educational access for black, Latino, and low-income students. Whilst this is undoubtedly a good thing, from a long-termist point of view it is unlikely to be as good as promoting philosophical education.

It may not be very tractable to shift philanthropic spending, but success in doing so could lead to very large benefits, meaning that such an approach has high expected value. In order to influence philanthropists, people could seek roles in grant-making organisations that have an existing interest in education, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation, and make a case for a greater focus on philosophy in education. Of course other philanthropic organisations such as the Open Philanthropy Project could also direct spending towards philosophy in education, but at the moment I am not confident enough in the value of such spending in comparison to accepted EA alternatives such as mitigating x-risks to endorse this as a goal (although my view on this could change).

Some other possible routes

Some other promising routes include:

  • More research into the benefits of and optimal ways to teach philosophy to children and teenagers
  • Going into party politics or policy-making to either become or influence the key decision-makers who set educational curricula
  • Others that I haven’t thought of and may be clear to those who know more about education than I do

Previous EA discussion of education may have overlooked the potential of philosophy

I feel that existing discussion of education in EA circles may have overlooked the potential of promoting philosophy in schools.

80,000 Hours’ past criticism of education may not apply to teaching philosophy

In January 2017, 80,000 Hours published a blog post entitled 5 reasons not to go into education which followed on from a Teaching Career Review published July 2015.

Essentially the key points made are:

  1. Teaching in the high-income world will only help the richest people in the world
  2. Teaching is very popular amongst the socially-motivated so it’s difficult to make a difference on the margin
  3. You can only impact a small number of students at a time through teaching which may be less than other approaches
  4. Teaching is not a great path for building career capital compared to other routes
  5. Teaching salaries are low relative to the skill and commitment required
  6. Not much is known on how to improve academic performance or the benefits of doing so (so applies to education more broadly than just teaching)

I am not going to claim that all of these points are weak or irrelevant. However, if we are focusing on philosophy education as a means to improve values and grow the EA movement, points 1 and 6 become moot. Additionally, point 2 depends on the neglectedness of the specific approach which I have argued in this case is pretty high. Point 5 is true when considering state schooling in the UK, but is less true when considering top private schools where I think most of the benefit of a philosophy education can be realised, due to the fact that future leaders are more likely to come from these schools. Overall I would accept point 5 but don’t see it as particularly relevant to the question of doing good given that, despite low salaries, job satisfaction in teaching is pretty high according to the 80,000 Hours review.

Points 3 and 4 are probably both fair, but specific to teaching, and may not be as relevant to certain educational work such as advocacy and management or curriculum-setting positions which can be exit options for teachers. I would suggest that anyone pursuing the teaching route aims at these more influential options in the long-run.

It is worth noting that 80,000 Hours in their teaching profile actually suggests that someone who is set on teaching “work in a top-tier school, where one has the potential to influence the capabilities and values of your country’s next generation of leaders in politics, business and research, and so on”. Rather than being a ‘best approach in a low-impact area’ I think that influencing values in a top school may be high-impact in its own right.

SHIC focused on EA outreach which proved ultimately unsuccessful

The closest thing to what I am proposing that has been tried in the EA movement may be high-school EA outreach. For example, Students for High Impact Charity (SHIC) was an organisation that delivered educational workshops for high school students (primarily ages 16-18) through interactive content focused on EA ideas. SHIC suspended operations in 2019 and a subsequent post went into some reasons why.

The post implied that the main reason why SHIC wasn’t a success was that it was hard to engage with students long-term due to the fact that the outreach was temporary and delivered by people who are not staff members at the school. The outreach was also focused on EA concepts and it is noted that “while it could be very influential to alter the national, state, or provincial curriculum, this is likely to be difficult to do”. This is indeed true if we are talking about EA specifically. However, as I have argued, I think it may be more promising in the case of general philosophy. General philosophy instruction at schools, combined with EA-specific outreach to young adults at university, may be an effective overall strategy.

Concluding remarks

As mentioned in my epistemic status note, all of this is quite speculative and I hope for engagement and feedback. I am open to the possibility that this is not in fact a worthy long-termist area for EAs, but it would be interesting to see where the main points of contention are.

In the event that this idea is well-received, further investigation would be warranted as this post is only designed to start a discussion and provide a base to work on. If such investigation is warranted, I would be interested in connecting with people who are interested in being involved.

Academic References

Batson, C.D., Batson, J.G., Slingsby, J.K., Harrell, K.L., Peekna, H.M. and Todd, R.M., 1991. Empathic joy and the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Journal of personality and social psychology, 61(3), p.413.

Bryant, C. and Dillard, C., 2020. Educated Choices Program: An Impact Evaluation of a Classroom Intervention to Reduce Animal Product Consumption.

García-Moriyón, F., Rebollo, I. and Colom, R., 2005. Evaluating Philosophy for Children: A meta-analysis. Thinking: The journal of philosophy for children, 17(4), pp.14-22.

García-Moriyón, F., González-Lamas, J., Botella, J., Vela, J.G., Miranda-Alonso, T., Palacios, A. and Robles-Loro, R., 2020. Research in Moral Education: The Contribution of P4C to the Moral Growth of Students. Education Sciences, 10(4), p.119.

Greaves, H., 2016, October. XIV—Cluelessness. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society (Vol. 116, No. 3, pp. 311-339). Oxford University Press.

Lipman, M. (1991) Philosophy for Children, in: Costa, A.L., 1991. Developing Minds: Programs for Teaching Thinking. Revised Edition, Volume 2. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development

Russell, J., 2002. Moral consciousness in a community of inquiry. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), pp.141-153.

Schleifer, M., Daniel, M.F., Peyronnet, E. and Lecomte, S., 2003. The Impact of Philosophical Discussions on Moral Autonomy, Judgment, Empathy and the Recognition of Emotion in Five Year Olds. Thinking: The Journal of Philosophy for Children, 16(4), pp.4-12.

Schwitzgebel, E., Cokelet, B., Singer, P., 2020. Do ethics classes influence student behavior? Case study: Teaching the ethics of eating meat. Cognition, Volume 203, 104397

Topping, K.J. and Trickey, S., 2004. ‘Philosophy for children’: a systematic review. Research papers in Education, 19(3), pp.365-380.

Topping, K.J. and Trickey, S., 2007. Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Cognitive effects at 10–12 years. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), pp.271-288.

Topping K. J., & Trickey, S. (2007). Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Cognitive gains at two-year follow-up. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 781–796.

Williams, S., 2018. A brief history of p4c, especially in the UK.

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"Overall it seems clear that children benefit from the teaching of philosophy, with the strongest evidence so far in the area of reasoning ability."

I like P4C and I've seen quite a few schools use it well, but my impression of the education literature is that children benefit from the majority of interventions, because teachers or practitioners tend to put more effort and enthusiasm into these programmes while they're being studied. How can you tell that P4C is better for children's reasoning skills and/or moral development than another intervention (for example, spending an extra hour a week on religious education)?

Hi Khorton, thanks for your comment. MichaelA makes a similar comment which I have replied to - I would suggest checking out my comment to him.

To respond to your question about other interventions, the Trickey and Topping (2004) review study mentions: “Many of the studies could be criticized on grounds of methodological rigour, but the quality and quantity of evidence nevertheless bears favourable comparison with that on many other methods in education.” This is a somewhat subjective statement and not one I can comment on with expertise. As I emphasise in my answer to MichaelA, the most accurate way to interpret the existing evidence for teaching philosophy might be that the evidence is highly promising, building a strong case for further research.

As an atheist it might not surprise you that I am not (that) enthusiastic about religious education. Admittedly I don’t know much about how RE is taught, but I can’t see it being better than general philosophy. My main thoughts are (I expect you to disagree with much of this!):

  1. I’d imagine some part of RE involves teaching children about different faiths. This is certainly desirable in that we should know about these faiths and accept them in society, but I’d imagine such learning would be quite factual in nature and so wouldn’t afford the same critical thinking skills which I think are particularly important from an EA perspective. Personally, I’d make learning about faiths compulsory in History class and scrap RE
  2. Maybe in RE class there is some discussion/debate about the actual ethics of particular religions which is hoped to stimulate critical thinking. This might be my bias entering here - but my understanding of religious ethics is that it is pretty much handed down from god and, as such, the scope for independent thought is somewhat restricted. I’m not saying it is completely restricted - you can for example discuss different interpretations of what the holy books say which will build comprehension skills - but I doubt these critical thinking skills will be built to the same extent as in general philosophy
  3. Teaching Christian ethics can feasibly foster altruism (golden rule and such), but I don’t see it as widening our moral circle particularly far (e.g. non-human animals, future generations?), so it wouldn’t really foster the moral growth ‘I want’. I mean, I guess this is another way of saying that I simply don’t think religious ethics is valid so why would I want it taught? Obviously that’s a personal view, but I do think a strong case could be made that religious ethics should be left to parents/churches

Hi Jack, it sounds like what you really want is for children to be introduced to the case for utilitarianism at an earlier age. You're interested in children building other skills through P4C, especially critical thinking, but if you found out that children learned more critical thinking through a specific class that focused just on critical thinking and didn't talk about philosophy, you might still prefer P4C. Is that a fair characterization?

Yes it's possible, but not definite, that I would prefer P4C (or another method of teaching philosophy). Critical thinking alone has no ethical dimension. Someone with better critical thinking skills may be more able to grasp important ethical principles, but would they be interested in doing so? Maybe not.

Michael A's post introducing the benevolence, intelligence, power (BIP) framework seems relevant here. It may be bad to increase the intelligence of actors who aren’t sufficiently benevolent in the first place. That's why I am interested in the evidence that P4C can improve empathy.

I should note that I don't necessarily see utilitarianism as the best ethical theory we will ever have, but I do think it's probably the best one we currently have (although I understand Parfit has some interesting things to say on this in his 2011 book which I haven't read). More people studying philosophy increases the probability that we will one day make further ethical progress towards the 'best' or 'true' ethical theory if in fact such a thing exists.

I agree with this comment.

I also appreciate the reference to my/Convergence's post, and agree with how you've applied it. But I just want to quickly note that that post doesn't take a clear stand on: 

  • how benevolent is "sufficient benevolent"
  • how that differs for different intelligence improvements
  • precisely what "benevolence" involves (though we gesture at some likely components, and state that "we essentially mean how well an actor’s moral beliefs or values align with the goal of improving the expected value of the long-term future")

Relevant paragraph from the post for the first two of those points:

Determining precisely what the relevant “threshold” level of benevolence would be is not a trivial matter, but we think even just recognising that such a threshold likely exists may be useful. The threshold would also depend on the precise type of intelligence improvement that would occur. For example, the same authoritarians or militaries may be “sufficiently” benevolent (e.g., just entirely self-interested, rather than actively sadistic) that improving their understanding of global priorities research is safe, even if improving their understanding of biotech is not. 

I think some of this comes down to one's more general views on differential progress, and on whether "speeding up development" in general is currently beneficial (see Crucial questions for longtermists).

I say this because I want to note that that post doesn't rule out hypotheses such as "improving the critical thinking of (lets say) 99.99% of schoolchildren is beneficial, and the slight harm from improving the critical thinking of the last 0.01% (perhaps those predisposed to unusually high levels of malevolent traits) is outweighed by those benefits."

But I think the key relevance of that post here is that it suggests that: 

  • improving benevolence may be more clearly or more strongly beneficial than improving intelligence
  • improving intelligence of especially benevolent actors (or improving intelligence and benevolence in tandem, which seems roughly equivalent) may be more clearly or more strongly beneficial than improving intelligence of just a random/general subset of people

(And therefore, long story short, I'd also be particularly excited about an intervention which increases things like empathy, moral circle expansion, inclination towards EA ideas, etc.)

Thanks for these clarifications Michael

Another recent study on the (short-term) impacts of a classroom intervention on animal product consumption, mostly on middle school and high school students:

Educated Choices Program: An Impact Evaluation of a Classroom Intervention to Reduce Animal Product Consumption, by Christopher Bryant and Courtney Dillard

They followed up on a subset to check consumption 3-30 months after the presentation.

That's great, thanks for sharing! I have included this in the main body of the post.

One may counter the importance of promoting positive values now by arguing that we are currently living at the most influential time in history as we are at a unique ‘time of perils’ where we have the technological power to destroy ourselves but lack the wisdom to be able to ensure we don’t. In such a case we should be spending resources now on near-term existential risk mitigation, rather than on slower ‘buck-passing’ strategies that enable decision-makers to be as effective as possible in the future.

I think you may have in mind the argument that we're living at the most influential time specifically due to extinction risk being high?

One could also think we're living at the most influential time specifically because value lock-in could happen soon. (And this could also mean existential risk is high, as existential risk includes not only extinction but also things like irreversible dystopias.) In that case, promoting positive values now could be a top priority.

Also, if one does think extinction risk is currently much higher than other existential risks, it's still possible promoting positive values now is a top priority. E.g., if we spread moral concern for future generations and something like "the virtue of prudently attending to low-probability, high-stakes risks", that could lead to more resources going towards extinction risk reduction. (Though if we think the time of perils is quite short and right now, that probably pushes against promoting positive values, as that's probably a slower-moving intervention than interventions like directly improving AI safety or biosecurity.)

But this is a minor point in the context of your article, and would in any case merely strengthen your core arguments. 

Also, I'm not saying I actually think value lock-in is likely soon, or that promoting positive values is a top-priority intervention for reducing extinction risk - I'm merely saying these are plausible views one could hold.

I think you may have in mind the argument that we're living at the most influential time specifically due to extinction risk being high?

I don't think I only mean extinction risk. We could have say a nuclear war and it not cause us to go extinct, but it be sufficiently harmful as to significantly curtail our future potential. My point is that this could happen very soon and it could be that most broad methods of promoting positive values such as altruism and concern for sentient beings (e.g. through promoting philosophy in schools) are just too slow and indirect to significantly reduce these technology-based existential threats in the short-run.

if we spread moral concern for future generations and something like "the virtue of prudently attending to low-probability, high-stakes risks", that could lead to more resources going towards extinction risk reduction. (Though if we think the time of perils is quite short and right now, that probably pushes against promoting positive values, as that's probably a slower-moving intervention than interventions like directly improving AI safety or biosecurity.)

I agree with this. There may be some values spreading we can do now to those who are currently in power to reduce near term threats, but I'm unsure how tractable these efforts would be. Also I guess that such efforts are to some extent entailed in current AI / bio safety research work.

I may have been wrong to lump all values-building work in the same box, but I do see promoting philosophy in schools as something that will only bear fruit after a few decades when today's children become those in influential positions, and even then it may only be modest effects in the short-run. To quote my post:

values-building would only be ‘finished’ if we had figured out the ‘perfect’ values and successfully embedded them into all influential institutions and people

Overall I guess I don't see attempts to broadly promote positive values as being effective in countering any existential threat that may happen anytime soon (including value lock-in events). It's probably only justified by appealing to the fact that we currently spend a lot of resources on near-term existential threats and that we should diversify in recognition of the possibility of there being value lock-in threats in the mid to far future too.

I don't think I only mean extinction risk. We could have say a nuclear war and it not cause us to go extinct, but it be sufficiently harmful as to significantly curtail our future potential.

Oh, yes, I should've had "extinction and unrecoverable collapse" on one side and "value lock-in / unrecoverable dystopia" on the other, rather than having only "extinction" on the first side. My mistake.

I also largely agree with the rest of your comment. I think value promotion will tend to pay off slower than many (though not all) other longtermist interventions, and that this is true of promoting philosophy in schools in particular (which is the key point for this post).

Thanks for this post - I found it clear, interesting, and potentially important. 

(I've also added two links to this in one of the Crucial questions for longtermists Google docs, under "How valuable are various types of moral advocacy? What are the best actions for that?" and "Value of, and best approaches to, communication and movement-building")

Have you already reached out to the people who were involved in SHIC about this idea? I'd guess they'd have interesting insights, and maybe also the ability to help set some things in motion (e.g., by reaching out to teachers they know).

I'll give a grab-bag of other thoughts on this in a few separate comments.

Epistemic status: Some of these thoughts draw on my year doing psychology research, two years teaching, and/or ~7 months so far doing longtermist EA research. So that's more than nothing, but less than expertise.

Vague skepticism

I haven't read any of the studies you cite, but I find myself quite skeptical that there'd really be effects that large, that durable, and across that many key domains. Or maybe there'd be such effects, but not when the approaches are replicated by people who aren't as passionate and expert in the approaches as the people involved in the initial studies. (The latter patterns seems to occur sometimes with psychotherapy studies, for example.) 

I base this skepticism not on analysis of these studies in particular, but on things like: 

  • My general impressions of education research
    • including my impression there seem to be many "fads" that get amazing hype and even impressive research results, and many of these conflict
    • (E.g., I seem to recall that some research teams repeatedly show that project based learning is clearly better than more traditional methods, and some repeatedly show the opposite. I'm almost certain I've seen that sort of thing, at least.)
  • My expectation that, if these interventions do have substantial and durable effects on things as widely prized as reading ability and logical reasoning, I'd have heard about them before seeing this post (as a result of my Masters or my independent study at that time)

This is just like a skeptical prior, so I wouldn't want anyone to take it too seriously or not bother looking into the studies as a result. Also, even if the real effects are far less impressive than those studies suggest, this could still be an area worth investigating and perhaps prioritising. I just felt like this skepticism was worth noting.

Hi Michael, thanks for your skepticism of the empirical findings which is helpful. Khorton makes a similar point to you so I think that it is something worth taking seriously. As I mention in my epistemic status note I don’t have any experience in education and so can really benefit from insight from those that do and comments on the general state of educational research (e.g. that it struggles to come to firm conclusions on things) are useful.

In response to your surprise at not having heard of this evidence before, I don’t actually think the evidence I have cited is that incredible. For example the Trickey and Topping (2004) review finds ‘moderate’ effects, not large. The Trickey and Topping follow-up which finds evidence of long-term benefits does sound very impressive, but ultimately that is just one study and I take on board the comment that it might be that such a preliminary study may involve the very best, most highly-motivated teachers. Also, as I mention in the post, the research on moral development is slightly sparse and I am looking forward to seeing further evidence in this area.

There are a few relevant quotes from Trickey and Topping (2004) (which is pretty well-cited with 379 citations FYI). Perhaps I could have included some of these in the post:

  • “Many of the studies could be criticized on grounds of methodological rigour, but the quality and quantity of evidence nevertheless bears favourable comparison with that on many other methods in education.”
  • “It is not possible to assert that any use of the P4C process will always lead to positive outcomes, since implementation integrity may be highly variable. However, a wide range of evidence has been reported suggesting that, given certain conditions, children can gain significantly in measurable terms both academically and socially through this type of interactive process.”
  • “further investigation is needed of wider generalization within and beyond school, and of longer term maintenance of gains”

Overall these comments seem to imply that the evidence for P4C is highly promising building a strong case for further research. I wouldn’t say that subsequent research has definitively put the question to rest and the comments from Khorton and yourself have led me to uprate the expected value of further academic research in this area. It is worth noting that expansion of philosophical education would make such further empirical research easier, so I still see this as a worthy aim.

Thanks for that extra info - that all makes sense to me :) 

And perhaps I interpreted your statements as suggesting stronger and more durable effects (or stronger evidence of that) than you actually intended to suggest.

Though "moderate" effects on "logical reasoning" and "reading ability" still sounds like a fairly big deal (though I say this without having checked precisely what's meant by any of those three terms, in this context). Although maybe it's the sort of pattern I and Khorton allude to, where a wide range of interventions will all cause benefits compared to business-as-usual, due to additional attention, passion, etc. when an intervention is being delivered and studied.

In any case, there could indeed be value in:

  • Looking into the existing evidence more closely and exhaustively (or, if you've already done that, additional people doing that)
  • Gathering additional evidence on this sort of intervention
  • Perhaps rolling this sort of intervention out even if we get no additional, or additional and less promising, evidence about outcomes such as logical reasoning and reading ability. We might do this for the other potential benefits of this sort of intervention, e.g. for moral circle expansion or EA movement-building.

My wording may have been slightly over-positive, but I agree that the evidence seems good enough to warrant further investigation. I wouldn't say I have done an exhaustive review by any means.

I agree with your suggestions! I probably need a little bit of time to reflect on feedback but I may reach out to some people (e.g. SHIC folks) to see if there is anyone who is interested in investigating further and who has more specialised expertise in education than I do.

(Just want to note that it's possible your wording was as positive as I initially thought and that that was appropriate, as I haven't actually read the studies, so I can't rule out that the effects really are very good and very well-evidenced.)

Hi Michael, thanks for your very helpful comments! I should have some time to address them tomorrow. By "address" I don't necessarily mean rebut as I agree with a lot of what you have said.

I haven't yet reached out to SHIC or anyone else for that matter, other than getting a friend to do a review of the post before I uploaded it. So the idea is pretty nascent and there is certainly much more investigation that could be carried out.

There's Primary Ethics in Australia that is starting to take off in schools. Some of us in the EA Sydney group volunteered to be teachers (mostly telling stories from a script and facilitating discussion to help kids discuss ethical questions).

That's great, seems similar to the P4C model. And it's nice that you don't have to have a teaching or philosophy background to get involved which I understand is also the case for SAPERE in the UK.

What has your experience been like? I'd imagine it would be quite a rewarding thing to do.

The experience has been really fantastic. Very rewarding, plus it's helped with training my 'socratic questioning' style with adults 😀

One strategy to consider would be connecting with Teach First somehow. 

My two years of teaching was with Teach For Australia, an organisation related to Teach First, and I had the impression that Teach For Australia "Associates" would be, on average, far more predisposed to EA-type ideas than the average person. This is due to things like them typically being fairly privileged, ambitious, impact-oriented, idealistic, and interested in evidence. (Also, three of the five other TFA teachers with me in my school were quite interested in the SHIC-style, EA-related club I ran, and planned to carry it forward after I left.) I'd guess similar things are true of Teach First teachers/alumni. 

So maybe Teach First would represent a good pool of people who could help implement the sort of strategies you suggest. This is perhaps especially true as I'd many Teach First people aim for and get into leadership roles and roles where they can influence systems change. 

Two more potential advantages of connecting with Teach First for this:

  • This could perhaps reduce the potential reputational risks to EA. This is because this could involve EA influence this stuff partly indirectly, via Teach First, rather than EA being very visibly involved itself.
  • Teach First teachers/alumni themselves are probably good people to have in/feeling positive towards the EA movement, as they may be in good positions to spread EA ideas to their students or networks, and many may end up with decent earnings (many Teach For Australia people come from high-paid jobs and some go back into them later). So giving them something cool-seeming an EA-aligned to do could be good movement-building in itself.

But this is just an idea. I think there are some EAs who were in Teach First or know more about it, so it could be worth trying to find and talk to them about this idea.

Thanks for this, sounds very promising. I may reach out to some Teach First people when I've had a bit more time to reflect on feedback.

Hard-to-reverse and hard-to-tweak decisions

Summary from the article Hard-to-reverse decisions destroy option value

Some strategic decisions available to the effective altruism movement may be difficult to reverse. One example is making the movement’s brand explicitly political. Another is growing large. Under high uncertainty, there is often reason to avoid or delay such hard-to-reverse decisions.

And even when we're confident we won't want to reverse a decision, we might want to be careful about locking in a decision that will be hard to tweak later, if it would've been even better to make a somewhat different version of the decision. Relatedly, you write:

The initial development of any curriculum is important as large deviations from this starting point are rare.

With this in mind, I think I'd want us to be quite cautious about trying to push for or accelerate the widespread adoption of philosophy courses, when trying to include fairly explicitly EA-related ideas in proposed courses, or when doing things that could lead to EA being seen as associated with proposed courses or the pushes for them. 

It seems possible that associating EA with this could backfire in some way, like if pushes for philosophy courses later become a partisan issue and EA thus comes to be seen as associated with one side of politics. Or if it turns out that mandated philosophy courses end up turning students off whatever they learn in those courses, or giving them a bad first impression of EA somehow, or diluting what EA is seen as being about (e.g., making it seem to be all about obligations to do a certain set of things, rather than also including things like excitement and exploration of new areas).

It also seems possible that this wouldn't backfire, but that we'd achieve more impact if we thought more carefully first, and that it'd be very hard to change path once things are set in motion.

So I think what I'd be most excited about in this space is people:

  • Looking into this further
  • Trying to find ways to pilot this sort of thing on a relatively small scale, and thereby gather more info
  • Trying to influence the academic studies already being run on this sort of thing to include more relevant material (e.g., EA-relevant thought experiments) and measures (e.g., measures of expansion of moral circles to future generations; measures of perceptions of EA)
  • Getting into relevant positions and networks to later be able to influence how this stuff goes
  • Potentially influencing path-dependent decisions that would be made soon with or without us, if this is relevant
    • In such cases, it can sometimes be worth just using our best guesses rather than waiting and thinking more, as the window is closing and our best guesses may be better than what other people would do otherwise
    • But it may be worth staying out of it even in such cases, due to things like reputation risks or risks of coming to be perceived as partisan

I'd be less excited about increasing the chance that path-dependent decisions are made soon, e.g. by pushing for widespread adoption of philosophy courses.

But this is just a tentative view.

Thanks for this, all very fair points.

I share your concerns about EA being too associated with all of this. I'm not sure it has to be though.

For example when it comes to my suggestion of prominent EA academics (e.g. Peter Singer, Toby Ord etc.) joining advocacy efforts to boost philosophy in schools I don't mean they should do this with their EA hat on. Peter Singer could do this as "the world's most famous living ethicist" as opposed to as "the godfather of EA". Similarly we wouldn't need EAs to say "please include these EA ideas in the curriculum", we could just have them say "the ethics of eating meat is a huge issue that should be included". In short EA doesn't have to explicitly come into this at all.

The inclusion of EA ideas into curricula was only one of my points anyway and it may not be absolutely necessary. As I mentioned, explicit EA outreach is probably better done at undergraduate level. Before uni, the most important thing is just philosophical learning.

Yes, I'd definitely guess that there'd be ways to do this, or versions of this, which wouldn't lead to people seeing this push as associated with EA. And that would reduce some risks. 

(I didn't mean to imply my points should push against doing any version of this idea, just that they push against some versions of the idea, or push for particularly great caution regarding those versions of the idea. Also, it's possible that association with EA would actually be net positive by raising EA's profile or associating it with something concrete that many people end up liking; I'm just unsure, and think we should be cautious there.)

But counteracting those risks won't necessarily counteract the other sort of risk I mentioned, which is that rushing somewhat means a less good version of this is implemented than what could've been implemented, and once it's implemented it's extremely hard to change. So that's a separate reason to consider things like piloting and doing further research before pushing for widespread rollouts, even if the version of this that's being done isn't perceived as associated with EA at all.

(And that's not a critique of your post, as your post isn't a public campaign but rather a post to the EA Forum sharing an idea and soliciting input, which is definitely within the category of things I'd suggest at this stage.)

OK thanks that all makes sense. I would love for there to further research and investigation. For example some philosophers/education practitioners in the movement could have a look at the philosophy course I mention to see if it's something that is worth supporting in addition to your suggestions in another comment.

Hi Jack, thanks for writing this. I read this post when it was published a few months ago, so I may not remember everything written in this post.

I have another related proposal: moral science (~ ethics) education for primary and middle school students. Moral science is often taught to students till 8th grade (atleast it was taught in my school). So, moral science education in schools is already tractable.

I would classify this under broadly promoting positive moral values. The current set of moral values are far from ideal, and EAs could have an impact by changing the curriculum used in moral science education in primary and middle school. In particular some moral values like concern for animals, consequentialism, caring for future generations, cosmopolitanism and liberalism seem particularly neglected and important (source: 33:33 of this video by Will MacASkill).

One of the biggest reasons to work on "broadly promoting positive moral values" would be that it isn't very tractable to influence society's moral values (the other being that it might be undesirable). But, as I've argued above, this intervention seems somewhat tractable.

For an idea of what 8th grade moral science looks like see this, this and this.