A Philosothon is an annual competition wherein students explore important philosophical and ethical issues demonstrating rigor and clarity of thought. Philosothons are currently being held in most Australian states, New Zealand, Singapore, the UK and other countries. These events have grown in number over the past eight years from a local competition involving eight schools in Perth Western Australia to now involve many thousands of students in hundreds of schools around the world. An essential component of a Philosothon is the pedagogical model for teaching Philosophy to young people called Community of Inquiry. The first Australasian Philosothon was held at Cranbrook School, Sydney in 2011.
In 2007, Hale School in Perth Western Australia initiated a project to promote higher order thinking among secondary school students. The Head of Philosophy, Values and Religion, Mr Matthew Wills and the Head of Gifted and Talented Leanne Rucks came up with the idea to hold the event. The intention was to provide young people with an opportunity to reflect on philosophical and ethical issues deeply while developing vital critical thinking and communication skills. Thus was born the Philosothon, sometimes described as a friendly ‘competition’ between schools in which students participate in graded philosophical discussions.
At the first Philosothon nine teams of five high school students from around Perth came together at Hale School. Students are divided into four "Communities of Inquiry" which ran for 30 minutes each. All four students representing each school participated in each discussion with the reserve able to replace them on a maximum of two occasions. Students remained in year level groups for the first two Communities of Inquiry and then for the final two discussions students were mixed up at random. Marks were assigned to individual students by university lecturers in Philosophy and these were collated to work out team scores and individual scores on the evening. All students received a certificate to honor their selection by their school and at the end a trophy was awarded to the winning school, medallions to the winning students and encouragement awards to the ‘most promising’ philosophers.
Following the success of the first Philosothon it was decided to promote the event more broadly to other schools around the country and later around the world. In 2009 workshops were conducted in each Australian state for teachers on how to run a Community of Inquiry and how to run a Philosothon. These workshops were well attended and within a few years other Australian states were conducting their own Philosothons in each major capital city. In 2013 twenty two schools participated in the Sydney Philosothon and ten schools in the Victorian Philosothon which was hosted by the Victorian Association for Philosophy in Schools (VAPS) and Ballarat Grammar School. St Laurence's College in Queensland hosts the Brisbane Philosothon and this year eighteen teams participated. In Western Australia thirty schools will take part in the 2013 Hale School Philosothon. Guilford Young College in Tasmania hosted the first Tasmanian Philosothon in 2013. Regional Philosothons have also been established in various locations such as Bishop Druitt College in Coffs Harbor New South Wales and St Luke's College in Karartha Western Australia.
In 2013/14 seminars were also held in various countries including Israel, Holland, Norway, Finland and the UK. These seminars were well attended by teachers from various sectors and many indicated that Philosothons would soon start in these countries. Heythrop College, which is part of the University of London and King's College, Taunton are now coordinating Philosothons in the UK.
Recently Primary school Philosothons have been conducted in various Art Galleries in some Australian states. There are thirty schools participating in the John XXIII Primary School Philosothon which was held in June 2014. Primary school Philosothons have been conducted in various locations in the UK.
In 2015 Hale School handed over the responsibility of hosting the Philosothon to the Association for Philosophy in Schools (APIS) in WA. Schools were invited to offer to apply to host the event for three years and following this Perth College will be hosting the event from 2015-2018.
The rationale for the Philosothon methodology is based on empirical evidence that teaching children reasoning skills early in life greatly improves other cognitive and academic skills and greatly assists learning in general. Over 74 studies have produced evidence of positive cognitive and social outcomes arising from the Community of Inquiry approach, even when used only in small doses. An extensive analysis of the benefits of COI can be found in a recently published article by Millett and Tapper in Educational Philosophy and Theory (2011) titled ‘Benefits of Collaborative Philosophical Inquiry in Schools’. 
The concept of a Philosothon was first introduced at a time when a new Philosophy and Ethics curriculum was being introduced for upper secondary students in Western Australia. A vital part of this new curriculum is the use of a Community of Inquiry (COI) pedagogy, which derives from Professor Matthew Lipman—the founder of the Philosophy for Children movement (P4C) – and which aims at encouraging children to think more reasonably and make wiser decisions. A Community of Inquiry challenges the standard model of education as knowledge transmission. In the latter case, knowledge is unambiguous, unequivocal and un-mysterious, divided into non-overlapping disciplines, and teachers are seen as authoritative sources of knowledge. In the COI model education is the outcome of participation in a teacher-guided round table discussion. A COI attempts to stir students to think about questions that are ambiguous and mysterious, where disciplines are overlapping and knowledge is therefore problematic, and where teachers have to concede fallibility. In learning to handle such questions, students must learn to be reflective, reasonable and judicious.
Students are given the topic questions in advance and some stimulus reading materials. Examples of topic questions from recent Philosothons are these:
- Is it moral to fake kindness? (Moral Philosophy)
- Does strong religious belief provide an evolutionary advantage? (Metaphysical)
- Does a flourishing economy depend on delusion? (Epistemology)
- Is Mathematics a Divine language? (Metaphysical)
- What is the good life? How can we know? (Moral Philosophy)
- Do men and woman have different natures? (Metaphysical)
- Do you have free will? (Metaphysical)
- Does the universe have a purpose? (Metaphysical)
- Is it our duty to give to charity? (Moral Philosophy)
- Should you always listen to the opinions of others? (Epistemology)
- How free should speech be? (Political Philosophy)
Students, teachers and parents gather on a particular evening each year for the event. The students participate in a series of Communities of Inquiry which are facilitated by teachers or Phd. philosophy students from the local universities. While participating in this process students are scored by Philosophy lecturers also from local universities. The scores are then collated, ranked and later in the evening awards are given to students at each age level and encouragement awards to the most promising male and female philosopher. Also a magnificent trophy is awarded to the winning school.
Criticisms and responses
Some might say, and have said, that Philosophy cannot be undertaken in the context of a competition. They believe that by ranking individuals the process of developing a Community of Inquiry is fundamentally compromised. However, others have responded that many students forget they are involved in a competition and engage in the exact sort of investigation and collaboration we would hope to see in Philosophy. Others have suggested that the same process is undertaken in any academic institution, tertiary or secondary where students are ranked against criteria. The only difference is that one of the more important criteria in a COI is collaboration. The following quote is interesting from a report on the Sydney Philosothon.
"Everyone was working together to come up with the most intellectually sustainable understanding that they could. Another extraordinary thing was that although the Philosothon was a competition it hardly felt competitive at all. Students almost forgot that they were being judged against each other. The ‘prize’ for the students was just being in the discussions and being able to thrash out these things. A medal for winning was just the icing on the cake. Everybody walked out feeling like the proverbial winner." —Michael Parker Acting Headmaster Cranbrook School
In 2009 the co-founder of the Philosothon concept, Mr Matthew Wills was awarded a Winston Churchill Fellowship to travel to the US and research similar competitions there with a view towards establishing a national Philosothon in Australia. The NationalUS Ethics Bowl is well established and it was thought that by meeting with key people in the US vital wisdom would be gained in the setting up of our own national Philosothon competition in Australasia. In December 2009/Jan 2010 he travelled around the US for 6 weeks, attending an Ethics Bowl and speaking to key people about what they had done to establish the National Ethics Bowls Important contacts were made and further impetus was found to establish a national competition back in Australia.
In July 2011 Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA) decided to host the first National Philosothon at Cranbrook School. Each Australian state sent three teams (those schools that won the 2010 Philosothon in each state) and so twelve schools in total arrived in Sydney to participate in the inaugural event. The three days consisted of speakers, games and Communities of Inquiries. Again university academics awarded points to students on the basis of their ability to construct an argument collaboratively on interesting philosophical and ethical issues. Encouragement awards were sponsored by the Australaian Association of Philosophy. There was an overwhelming sense that we had participated in something important and seminal. After the Philosothon the following feedback was received from students: “It was great to talk to such thoughtful people!” “I learnt so much and everyone was so friendly!” “I Loved Everything!” and “A fantastic Experience”.
The 2012 Australasian Philosothon was held at Bond University and AB Paterson College on the Gold Coast. Hale School took out first place and Guildford Grammar School took out second place. The 2013 FAPSA Australasian Philosothon was held in Melbourne, Victoria. The event was hosted by the National Art Gallery of Victoria and Ballarat Grammar's City campus. Raffles Girls School (Singapore) came first and Wesley College (Perth) came second. In 2014 Hale School in Perth Western Australia hosted the forth FAPSA Australasian Philosothon. Thirteen schools participated in this event which was a great success. and in 2015 North Sydney Girls High School will host the 5th Annual FAPSA Australasian Philosothon.
Philosothons have recently been introduced to various countries. In 2013 Mr Wills was awarded an Endeavour Fellowship by the Australian federal Government in order to travel to other countries to speak to educators about the Philosothon concept. He visited the US and the UK in April and then in Dec (13) and January (14) he visited various European countries and Israel to speak to teachers there about Philosothons. Following his visit to the UK in April 2013 Mark Smith & Julie Arliss from the Philosophy of Religion and Ethics Department at King's College, Taunton, UK, have spearheaded the Philosothon movement in the United Kingdom in collaboration with Dr Michael Lacewing from Heythrop College and Lizzy Lewis from Sapere. The first UK Philosothon took place at King's College Taunton in January 2014. Wells Cathedral College won the event. Since then Philosothons have been run annually around the UK including many Primary School Philosothons hosted by the Philosophy Foundation. 
The most recent UK Philosothon was won by Wells Cathedral Callege. 
Primary and Middle School Philosothons
In 2012 an inaugural Primary School Philosothon was held at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV). The event was a huge success. The following response was indicative of the proceedings.
"I was lucky enough to be one of the 5 facilitators on the day and I found it an honour to facilitate my 10 students (from 5 different schools and from years 4, 5 and 6), to listen to them build on each other's ideas and to hear of their extraordinary insights into artworks which I will never view in the same light again." Rosemary Etherton National Art Gallery of Victoria
Each group was allocated a facilitator and an observer. The observer reported to the group at the end of each Inquiry session. The groups explored 3 artworks in the session, one narrative artwork, one portrait and one abstraction. In 2013 the first WA Primary school Philosothon was hosted by John XXIII College at the Art Gallery of WA. Since then Annual Primary School Philosothons have been conducted in Victoria, WA and the UK.
|2011||Christ Church Grammar School (WA)||McKinnon Secondary College (VIC)||Perth College (WA)||Cranbrook School (NSW)|
|2012||Hale School (WA)||Guildford Grammar School (WA)||Bishop Druitt College (NSW)||AB Paterson College (QLD)|
|2013||Raffles Girls' School (Singapore)||Wesley College (WA)||Ballarat Grammar School (VIC)||Ballarat Grammar School (VIC)|
|2014||North Sydney Girls High School (NSW)||Hale School (WA)||Ballarat Grammar School (VIC)||Hale School (WA)|
|2010||Anglican Church Grammar School||A.B.Paterson College||St Laurence’s College||A.B.Paterson College|
|2011||Anglican Church Grammar School||Bishop Druitt College||Palm Beach Currumbin High School||A.B.Paterson College|
|2013 Div A||Anglican Church Grammar School||Brisbane State High School & Kelvin Grove State H.S.||St Laurence's College|
|2013 Div B||Cavendish Rd State High School||Brisbane State High School||St Laurence's College|
|2014 Div A||Anglican Church Grammar School||Brisbane State High School||St Laurence's College||University of Queensland|
|2014 Div B||Anglican Church Grammar School||Cavendish Rd SHS||St Laurence's College||University of Queensland|
|Northern NSW Philosothon||First||First Div A||First Div B||Host|
|2012||Bishop Druitt College||Alstonville High School||Bishop Druitt College|
|2013||Bishop Druitt College||John Paul College||Lindisfarne Anglican School||Bishop Druitt College|
|2014||Bishop Druitt College||Bellingen High School||The Armidale School||Bishop Druitt College|
|United Kingdom Philosothons||First||Second||Third||Host|
|2014||Wells Cathedral School||Bristol Grammar School||Monkton Combe School||King's College, Taunton|
|2015||Wells Cathedral School||Wellington School||Exeter School||King's College, Taunton |
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