Aussie students put ethics and philosophy back into schools

David McClure

A knowledge of ethics and philosophy has never been more important in this technological age. But most Australian schools don’t dedicate any time to the teaching of philosophy, leading many people to be ill-equipped to deal with some of the modern dilemmas facing individuals every single day.

This can be due to a lack of resources and a lack of knowledge among teachers of how to impart this knowledge.

Two Year 12 students from Sydney are on a mission to change this, and have already earned their stripes by winning the People’s Choice at the Australian Information Industry Association 2022 iAwards late last year.

They have set out to prove that philosophy is an important every day skill that should be taught in all schools, and one that is practical and can be enjoyable.

Students Kai Macann and Daniel Mawston are the founders of Terra Symposium, which offers interactive ethics workshops for secondary schools and training modules for teachers in philosophy.

In this episode of the Commercial Disco podcast, the two entrepreneurs talk to InnovationAus’ James Riley about their ambitions for the program, and what it’s like building a startup out of school.

The company began as a lockdown board game project that quickly morphed into teaching modules, after the pair were sat next to each other in science class thanks to the alphabetical closeness of their last names.

“It’s something that many schools would like to teach, but they have no idea how to,” Mr Macann said.

“It’s something that is put on the shelf and only elite schools can really provide it to their students, which is ridiculous because philosophy is a skill that we all need for the next century,” he said..

“Students hear the word philosophy and immediately think of dry books – it’s something they roll their eyes at and think that it’s not for them. But it’s something we strive to prove is an everyday skill that we need to have just as human beings.”

There have been recent studies into the benefits of teaching philosophy in primary and secondary schools.

A study involving more than 3,500 primary school students from 48 schools found that providing philosophy education can provide a range of benefits.

The study found that maths and reading scores improved by an average of two months following philosophy classes, while those from disadvantaged backgrounds saw their reading skills improve by four months, and maths skills by three months.

Mr Macann and Mr Mawston have an aim to fully commercialise the company by next year, providing a “massive repository” of modules for teachers looking to teach philosophy in their schools.

The students have seen first-hand how teachers are struggling to provide philosophical education in the classroom.

“In Year 8 English we were learning how to write a good and complex character, and our teacher tried to give us an introduction to ethics. But I think they were very afraid of actually teaching us ethics properly – what if the long words frighten the 13-year-olds?” Mr Macann said.

“Throughout the next years we did subjects like history which cover the ethical themes of political tensions – and all other classes are inherently going to cover philosophical themes.

“But there’s no actual structure that teaches the teachers how to teach, despite the fact there has been research in the past decade into the benefits of philosophy, especially in secondary education.”

Terra Symposium took out the AIIA People’s Choice Award at the 2022 iAwards, a ringing endorsement of what the young entrepreneurs have been trying to achieve.

“If we ever needed proof that this is something people are looking for and it’s what they want, there couldn’t have been a clearer signal,” Mr Mawston said.

Philosophy is an important skill that can help young Australians deal with the many challenges and dilemmas that new technology is posing, including with the rise of misinformation and disinformation, and the increased use of social media.

Merely opening up Twitter can present a range of philosophical issues, including how we interact with strangers online, and what sources we deem to be trustworthy.

“Everyday life is now inherently philosophical,” Mr Mawston said.

“If we get students to recognise how to spot an ethical conundrum and teach them how to deal with it in practical terms, then that is a massive step forward in their future.

The best thing we can do for today’s generation is to future-proof their education to make sure they have the philosophical inquiry skills to deal with what’s thrown at them.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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