Young philosophers have winning thoughts

Pupils from a Somerset school have debated their way to victory in a national philosophy competition

A team of young philosophers from Wells Cathedral School in Somerset has won the second UK Philosothon Trophy for a consecutive year at the annual Philosothon competition held for schools across the country at King’s College Taunton.

The Philosothon is an inter-schools competition based on philosophical dialogue, with emphasis on individual debate. Students are given topic questions and stimulus reading materials in advance to enable them to prepare, and each candidate is marked by an academic philosopher on their contribution, including how they help analyse, evaluate, refine and conclude arguments.

This year’s tasks, created by Julie Arliss of Academy Conferences, who spearheaded the Philosothon movement in the UK, included ‘What is art?’, ‘Is the purpose of life to be happy?’, ‘What is the point in education?’ and ‘What makes you, you?’

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. The modern education system divides knowledge into separate subject areas. Although this enables content to be delivered efficiently it does not create much space to explore the connections between subjects.

Philosothon tasks are designed to help students start pulling together the threads between subject areas to see how each area of knowledge influences one to the other. Students have to bring all their understanding as well as their social skills to the table to make progress together.

Father Mark Smith, head of philosophy and religion at King’s College Taunton, who hosted the event to promote higher order thinking among secondary school students, adds: “It was interesting to watch the way in which, over supper time, the kids didn’t stay in their own huddle, but spread out throughout the hall with new acquaintances to continue discussions which they had started in the preceding community.

“The whole atmosphere was so different from a debating contest, or the like, and every member of our team wants to do it again as soon as they possibly can.”

The Wells Cathedral School team comprised 11 pupils ranging in age from 14 to 18. All six of the younger pupils study religion, philosophy and ethics (RPE) at Wells, where every pupil takes RPE to GCSE level as part of the broad academic syllabus. The five older pupils in the team currently study philosophy and ethics at AS- or A-level, enjoying a varied curriculum, from ancient philosophy right up to modern-day complex ethical issues in business, medicine and the environment.

The students from Wells Cathedral School were awarded the overall trophy: a bronze sculpture of Rodin’s Thinker; and also came away with two other prizes: the best year 9 philosopher award for student Susanna Mackay and the best year 11 philosopher award for student Marianne Sutton.

Wells head of religion, philosophy and ethics, Eleanor Smith, said: “The Philosothon is a unique challenge and experience for our young philosophers, it allows students to build on knowledge from across the disciplines and on the dialogue presented by other students. We’re thrilled that our students have, yet again, won the trophy, showing themselves able to critically engage with philosophically challenging concepts with students from other schools, to the highest standard.”

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