Critical thinking, giving your opinion, and listening to others are all things you learn in philosophy class. Every student needs those skills, says Eva-Anne Le Coultre, specialist in philosophical teaching methodology at the UG. That includes the VMBO student, which is why she is strongly committed to making philosophy a subject in pre-vocational education.
Is this it? Eva-Anne Le Coultre was shocked when she visited a VMBO school in North Groningen for the first time. It couldn’t be missed, Google Maps pointed her to this spot. ‘An industrial estate. I thought: there can’t possibly be a school here? But there was. And on another school visit, I ended up in a building that hadn’t been cleaned for a really long time.’
All of this is saying something, according to Le Coultre. VMBO is held in lower esteem than HAVO (senior general secondary education) and VWO (pre-university education) by parents, teachers, and certainly by the actual students. As a teenager, you won’t miss the fact that your school is in an anonymous location on the city’s outskirts. ‘Then you start to think: those grammar school students are in a super nice building in the city centre, and we’re tucked away here – we must be worth less. We’re stupid.’
Perhaps this lack of prestige is also the reason why her subject, philosophy, is barely taught at VMBO level. ‘It’s strange that we split education into thinkers and doers because you can’t have one without the other.’ Le Coultre devised a plan that she submitted to Toukomst, the Groningen National Programme. Or, well, a plan… ‘I only heard on the day of the deadline that anyone could submit a project proposal. That reminded me of a manifesto I had already written, with the approach: philosophy for every student. I modified it slightly and submitted it.’ A year later, in the middle of the pandemic, she learned she would be given two hundred thousand euros to carry out the plan. She worked it out further with the help of a number of colleagues. She thought it would be useful to focus the lessons on VMBO because although philosophy is not a standard subject in HAVO and VWO, it is non-existent at VMBO level.
And yet VMBO students can benefit at least as much from it. ‘One of the most important goals of education is that students learn to think for themselves. That sounds logical, but unfortunately, it is not that self-evident. Students are often in a routine mode at school in which they cram for a test, pass or fail the test, and then forget everything again. They are mainly assessed on knowledge, much less on learning to think for themselves or being open to other arguments. As a society however, we need young people who can do that, people who don’t blindly go along with what everyone else is doing but who think for themselves. Consider, for example, the Dutch childcare benefits scandal, says Le Coultre: there was insufficient critical thinking about exactly what was happening.
'You must learn to ask yourself: how do I know if something is trustworthy?’
The omnipresence of social media also requires young people to learn to think critically, says Le Coultre. ‘An awful lot of nonsense is being spread there, which is dangerous for democracy. You must learn to ask yourself: how do I know if something is trustworthy?’ And then there is the polarization of society, recently, for example, in views on gender issues, the farmers’ protests, and refugee policy. ‘It’s so important that students learn: okay, if you have a different opinion, I don’t have to punch you in the face right away –to put it bluntly. And they need to learn to empathize with someone who is in a different position than they are.’
Le Coultre set up a ‘professional learning community’ (PLC), a group of philosophy and VMBO teachers who developed a series of lessons together. Initially, there was quite a bit of scepticism within the group, particularly among the philosophy teachers: can VMBO students handle philosophy lessons, is it not too abstract or too difficult? No, according to the pilot that has now been carried out. From the PLC, two teacher duos jointly taught eight lessons in the third year of the VMBO theory learning path at schools in Appingedam and Winsum.
‘I was amazed at what you can achieve in such a short time,’ says Le Coultre. ‘The beginning was difficult, especially at the school in Appingedam. Students were not used to listening to each other and heckled each other when someone said something. After that first lesson, we knew: the VMBO teacher has to play a bigger role here; they know the class. Then the two teachers started working together more, and things went better every week.’ The students started to listen more and more to each other. ‘They soon realized that you always have to ask yourself why you think something, it’s not enough to say: “Yeah, that’s just what I think.” During the evaluation they said that what they liked best about the lessons was that they were allowed to express their own opinion. They were not used to doing that.’
The teachers learned that if you want VMBO students to philosophize, present them with an issue that is close to home. ‘The overarching theme of the series of lessons was ‘freedom’. That turned out to be far too abstract and boring to keep talking about. But if the teachers suggested a concrete topic, conversations ensued. There was a lesson on the question: should everyone be allowed to have children? That lesson was hugely successful. Very personal examples were given of children with alcoholic or disabled parents. The fact that the students were so involved taught us that we shouldn’t make things too abstract.’ A survey of the students showed that most thought it would be a good idea if philosophy became an actual subject. ‘Obviously, there are students who don’t care for it, but you also have them at HAVO and VWO.’
If it’s up to Le Coultre, that school subject will be a reality. She still has 150,000 euros left over from the Toukomst subsidy, a good foundation for developing an entire school year of lessons. She is currently working on an application to be allowed to do so. Philosophy seems to have momentum in the Netherlands. ‘There is increasing interest in the subject, also from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. If they also want to allocate money for philosophy then things will really take off. If you see what the effect of eight lessons was, just imagine what would be possible in a year.’
Eva Anne le Coultre will receive her PhD on 13 July for the thesis
Space to think: what we can learn from experienced philosophy teachers. She is a specialist in philosophical teaching methodology at the UG, where she obtained her Master’s degree in philosophy in 2001. Since 2021 she has been project leader of the Philosophy pilot for VMBO, which was started with a subsidy from Toukomst. After teaching philosophy at the Willem Lodewijk Gymnasium for nine years, she now trains philosophy teachers. In her doctoral research she examined how philosophy teachers get their students thinking.
This article has been taken from our alumni magazine Broerstraat 5. Text Dorien Vrieling, Photograph Reyer Boxem
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