Teaching critical thinking through philosophy


Why might an AI future require students to have stronger ethical reasoning and critical thinking skills? How can learning philosophy support the development of thinking skills? Is deep content knowledge needed to support this?

To find out, we talk to Sandra Lynch, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia.

Sandra explains why philosophical thinking is important for an Artificial Intelligence (AI) world, and how schools might approach it.

She works to deepen students' active engagement with ethics and critical thinking skills through the Philosophy in Schools Association of NSW.

Credits: Recording and production by Jennifer Macey (Audiocraft), editing by Andy Maher, and voiceovers by Sally Kohlmayer. This episode was recorded in 2018. The views expressed in Edspressos are those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSW Department of Education.


Image: Sandra Lynch
Edspresso Episode 4: Teaching critical thinking through philosophy, with Sandra Lynch.


Welcome to the Edspresso series from the New South Wales Department of Education. These short podcasts are part of the Education for a Changing World initiative. Join us as we speak to a range of experts about how emerging technology, such as artificial intelligence, are likely to change the world around us and what this might mean for education.

Why might an AI future require students to have stronger ethical reasoning and critical thinking skills? How can learning philosophy in schools support this? And is there value in focusing on these skills in the early years.

We asked Sandra Lynch why philosophical reasoning might be important to preparing young people for an increasingly complex world, and how schools might approach it? Sandra is a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia, who works to deepen students' active engagement with ethics and critical thinking skills, through the Philosophy in Schools Association of New South Wales.

Sandra Lynch:

My name is Sandy Lynch, I'm Professor of Moral Philosophy and the former director of the Institute for Ethics and Society at the University of Notre Dame Australia. Describing philosophy isn't easy. It's difficult to categorise it, partly because it has no particular subject matter. But describing how it can help develop thinking skills, I think it's something much easier because it does have characteristic methods of undertaking its aim, so helping students address problems or concerns or things that they find puzzling.

The way in which we do that is not by studying philosophy per se, but by developing a set of critical thinking skills. It's that approach to philosophy that I and my colleagues in Philosophy in Schools Association is trying to undertake. Our broad aim is to encourage students in the giving reasons, to help them appreciate and to recognise rules that govern argumentation. But also rules that govern sentence structure and the connections between sentences to see whether or not what they are arguing is logical or not.

We also want them to recognise reasonable standards of behaviour and to investigate what those are, and why a civilised society regards a certain kind of standards as reasonable. And to be able to articulate that and to do that really requires them to be offering reasons, to be speculating on other people's reasons or speculating about premises.

And I think this is interesting in the context of artificial intelligence to be predicting what seems to be logically possible and what are the implications of those kinds of possibilities. I would argue that philosophy can help students to ask the sorts of questions that you might want them to be asking about AI.

So, for example, what is artificial intelligence? Is it a system or a machine that thinks like a human being, that acts like a human being? Is it a machine that reasons like a human being, or that acts rationally in the way some human beings do or is the focus on rationality and who works through that to decide, for example, in the ethical context, what does ethical reasoning and good ethical decision making consist in? And that's a philosophical task of figuring out what would that consist in.

And then there is an ethical task - if robots have been made, built in such a way that they can be coercive or that their actions can be lethal, how do we decide whether or not those robots should be able to make weighty or autonomous decisions?

Who makes that decision? The sorts of questions that we would want our students asking if they are really to participate in our democracy, in a really meaningful way, what are the sets of more basic skills, the strategies and the practices that will enhance students' ability to analyse, to synthesise, to categorise? How do you go about that?

These are a set of very specific skills, so things like learning to really actively listen, asking fruitful questions and knowing the difference between a fruitful and relatively fruitless question, in the context of a substantive discussion. Analysing part-whole relationships, learning to be consistent and to clarify statements, drawing out inferences, offering examples or perhaps counterexamples, making distinctions and comparisons, generalisations, recognising implications, using criteria. I could go on, but these are the sorts of skills that allow students to come to deeper understandings.

The other thing that I think is important is undertaking this in a collaborative way, so creating within the classroom, a community of enquiry, so that students are thinking together rather than in an isolated fashion.

We want our students to be able to really grapple with whether or not we should allow robots to make autonomous decisions, and to be able to predict what allowing that might mean for us to be able to predict the consequences. So, there is a kind of, not just critical thinking but creative imaginative thinking here, speculating on possibilities and then interrogating those possibilities. So, I think that's really crucial, students don't need to be of a particular age or to have a deep content knowledge to be able to undertake philosophical enquiry in the classroom much like reading and mathematics.

Reading and mathematics are cognitive processes and they are dependent upon thinking skills. So, if those thinking skills are better developed, then those cognitive processes will be more efficient.

If you want to develop students' sustained interest in these areas, you want to make it relevant to their lives and to their experience and philosophy is much the same. If you can make the stimulus material that you are using relevant to the age and experience of the students, taking into account, of course, curriculum requirements, then you can engage their interest and your aim there is to create questions, create puzzles to leave them wondering, so that they begin to ask questions and their questions, then, become the stimulus for discussion.

So, you ask, what is the difference between listening and hearing? And get them to tease out the criteria there and doing that means that they are making that distinction, so they are thinking and making those distinctions and coming to a deeper understanding.

One might wonder whether students needed a depth of content knowledge, to be able to undertake a philosophical enquiry in the classroom and I'm arguing that no they don't. Because what we are beginning with, in this context, is their own experience and we are getting them to philosophise and to think critically and creatively about that experience.

One of the things that philosophy can do, is help students to understand their own thought processes. Doing that is really valuable because what happens when they engage with their own thought processes, is that they develop a set of skills that can be translated from one key learning area or discipline area in the high school to another.

So, they're developing a reasoning toolbox that they can take from one area to another. I'm not recommending that we have dedicated philosophy lessons - I don't think that that's necessary, I think that we can help teachers to develop their own skills in teaching critical and creative thinking. And then, they will themselves be able to enhance that transference between different key learning areas or different discipline areas.

It's not easy to teach philosophy well, the kinds of critical and creative thinking skills that we are trying to develop take time for teachers to come to terms with themselves, and then to be able to initiate and facilitate in their students. But with practice, the rewards for the students, not to mention the teachers, are really very great, in fact, many teachers say that this kind of philosophical enquiry has really invigorated or reinvigorated their teaching and I think that's something worthwhile to note.

The advice that I would give myself, if I were to go back to myself as a school student, is to have the courage, I would encourage myself not to be afraid to make mistakes, not to be afraid to show my curiosity, asking questions I think is really crucial and holding views tentatively and even expecting or welcoming disagreement.

So, that what you begin to develop is a set of capacities for engaging in reasonable and civil dialogue with others and from my perspective, that's absolutely crucial in our society. That would have been good advice to myself, but I think it's good advice to anybody and particularly, in the context of new technology like artificial intelligence.


Thank you for listening to this episode of the Edspresso series. You can find out more about the Education for a Changing World initiative via the New South Wales Department of Education's website.


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