As of January 2018, approximately 24,000 students in grades 11 and 12,
in some 420 Ontario high schools, study philosophy. This is the largest
number of students in a single jurisdiction in the English-speaking
The Ontario Philosophy Teachers' Association (OPTA) is the official
subject association for philosophy teachers in Ontario public and
Catholic high schools. OPTA is recognized as such by the Ontario
Ministry of Education, the Ontario College of Teachers, and the
Curriculum Forum of the Ontario Federation of Teachers.
OPTA is a not-for-profit educational organization run by volunteers.
There is no annual membership fee and no membership identification is
issued. The source of all operating funds is the fee charged for
attendance at the annual conference.
Philosophy is a teachable subject in Ontario high schools. This means
that certification to teach the subject is provided by the Ontario
College of Teachers only when a high school teacher completes the
teacher-training in philosophy pedagogy provided by a Ministry-approved
university Faculty of Education. Pre-requisites and entrance
requirements may vary with the institution. For more information, visit
It is important to remember that philosophy is a senior elective
subject. Although a teacher may be qualified to teach philosophy, it may
not be an available subject. The assignment of elective subjects
depends entirely on enrollment and the discretion of the principal.
Enrollment in senior elective subjects can vary widely from year to
PHILOSOPHY IN ONTARIO SECONDARY SCHOOLS
ITS NATURE AND HOW IT WAS SECURED
The following is an account of how Philosophy became a
Ministry-approved and widely offered subject in Ontario high schools.
Prepared by Frank Cunningham, Emeritus Professor of
Philosophy, University of Toronto, and executive member of the Ontario
Philosophy Teachers Association (OPTA).
WHAT EXISTS NOW
As of the 2016-2017 academic year, two courses are offered in approximately 400 Ontario
secondary schools: public, Catholic, and independent. Philosophy: The Big Questions
is offered in grade 11 and targets students who will likely enter the world of work or go to a community college.
Philosophy: Questions and Theories
is offered in grade 12 to students bound for college and university. These courses
were introduced into the schools in 2000. A predecessor, Philosophy
, was offered in 1994 in the since discontinued grade 13.
The two current courses are sanctioned by the Ontario Ministry of Education,
the Ontario College of Teachers, and the Curriculum Forum of the Ontario
Teachers' Federation (OTF). They were written by Ministry-struck committees in
accordance with its prescribed outcomes. The original curriculum was
implemented in 2000 and was revised in 2013.
Exact enrolment statistics for the current academic year are not available. The most
recent, dated June 2014, lists 440 Ontario high schools with philosophy
classes. About 10% are francophone. There is no break-down for grades 11 or 12
and no student enrolment totals. But the subject association for philosophy,
the Ontario Philosophy Teachers Association (OPTA) estimates that there are now
nearly 25,000 enrolments. Noteworthy is that these students are spread
throughout the province and in small towns as well as the large cities. Student
and parent reception has been very positive and demand for the courses often
exceeds the resources for their delivery.
NATURE OF THE COURSES
During the campaign to introduce these courses
it became apparent that had they been focussed exclusively on critical thinking
and/or on values education, they would have gained relatively quick approval by
the Ministry. However, after much examination of this question it was decided
at the meetings of those proposing the courses that while a course should
include these things, it should be within the framework of a general treatment
of philosophy: theory of knowledge, ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy,
philosophy of religion and metaphysics, philosophy of human nature.
The current course outcomes, or
"Expectations" as the Ministry calls them, reflect this decision. Similarly,
they reflect the decision to organize the courses around questions and themes
(What are good and evil? What is justice? What is a person? What is a
meaningful life? etc.) rather than historically or by philosophical school.
Classroom experience has supported this approach. Students express great
interest in the major questions of philosophy, and the thematic approach lends
itself to lively class discussion.
Another decision was that the
courses should not be mandatory. Reports from jurisdictions, such as the CEGEPs
in Quebec, where philosophy is required of all students, suggested that this
tends to create more history-of-ideas type courses than those that elicit class
engagement with philosophical issues. Optional courses also admit of more active
student discussion than 'captive audience' mandatory courses.
Finally, the courses introduced
in 2000 allowed much more discretion in selecting from a menu of possible
focuses than is found in most other secondary school courses. This was done partly to accommodate the
differing interests and backgrounds of potential teachers and partly to
encourage closer work on a few topics, where critical thinking, writing, and
other such transferable skills can be nurtured, as opposed to broad surveys
which make it difficult to go into any topic in depth.
In 2013 the Ministry implemented a systematic review and
revision of all its secondary school courses including philosophy. A main bone
of contention in the review process was over how much discretion should remain
in the courses. Most teachers of philosophy wanted to retain more room for
discretion than did the Ministry. There were also disagreements over the
addition of suggested assignments, called "Teacher Prompts," many of which were
seen as too advanced for a secondary school course. The result was a compromise.
The current grade 12 course is more prescriptive than its predecessor, but the
weight is still on wide discretion, and it is made clear that the Prompts are
no more than suggestions to teachers. The grade 11 course is retained almost
intact. The original courses and the 2013 revised courses are available on the LINKS
page of this website.
Currently there are three textbooks
dedicated to the courses and keyed to the guidelines: Philosophy 12: Questions and Theories
(McGraw Hill Ryerson); Philosophy: The Big Questions
(Canadian Scholars Press, out on print); and Philosophy
(Fitzhenry and Whiteside). These texts are Ministry approved, but
it is not required that they be used, and most teachers use first year
university texts or put together collections of readings from a variety of
sources. The electronic version of The Big Questions
text is available for free under the GRADE 11 tab on the
RESOURCES page in this site.
TEACHERS OF THE COURSES
From their introduction in 1994 until the
present, the courses have been taught by teachers most of whom had taken some
philosophy in university, but who had majored in some other subject, their
actual teaching subject. The reason for this is that until 2009 philosophy did
not count in Ontario as what the Ministry calls a "teachable subject."
The teachables are all the subjects in the high school
curriculum for which there are corresponding pedagogy courses offered by
university faculties of education. Successful completion of these courses leads
to a Bachelor of Education degree and accreditation by the Ontario College of
Teachers, both of which are essential to any teacher candidate hoping to work
in an Ontario public or Catholic school. Until 2009, such courses in philosophy
pedagogy were not available. With the designation of philosophy as a teachable subject, one can now
anticipate more philosophy graduates becoming secondary school teachers. They
would still, however, be well advised to acquire credentials in other subjects
as well, since almost no school has sufficient enrolment in philosophy to need
someone to teach only that subject, and not all schools of
education offer courses in the pedagogy of teaching philosophy.
PREPARATION FOR UNIVERSITY STUDY
There has been no systematic tracking of effects of taking the course for students who continue to study
philosophy in university. Anecdotal evidence indicates that there is a range of
the quality of philosophy instruction depending on who is teaching a course.
For this reason, and because of the variety of emphases selected by
instructors, university departments have not counted the course for exemption
from, for instance, an introductory course prerequisite. This situation might
change now that the courses are teachable. Many students come out of secondary
school courses very well prepared and go on to major in philosophy or at least
take several university courses as a result of their experience.
HISTORY OF THE CAMPAIGN
The success in gaining approval for the grade
13 course was the culmination of a 20-year campaign. In the 1970's the
philosophy department at the University of Toronto took some runs at the
project, but without success. A key player in the eventually successful
campaign starting in the early 1990's was Professor Christopher Olsen (now
retired), in the then Department of History and Philosophy at the Ontario
Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). He and his group of graduate
students organized the Ontario High School Philosophy Project which included a
website dedicated to secondary school philosophy. Another early advocate, Ian
Winchester, left OISE a few years after introduction of the course to take up
the post of Dean of Education at Calgary. In addition to developing a sample
curriculum on which the grade 13 course was based, the Project hosted a meeting
in the early 1980's of high school teachers, some parents, and some university
professors of philosophy. The unexpectedly high turn-out for this meeting and
the enthusiasm of the participants launched the major campaign.
Central to the campaign were three meetings of representatives of university philosophy departments from
nearly all the universities in Ontario, who discussed and debated both the
desirability of pursuing the endeavour and what philosophy in secondary school
instruction should be. Having agreed to pursue the campaign, a committee of
chairs of Ontario University Philosophy Departments became one of the advocates
for the course.
Simultaneously, a committee largely comprised of secondary school
teachers from all regions of the Province
was struck, which in 1999 became the Ontario Philosophy Teachers'
(OPTA). It organizes an annual conference largely devoted to workshops
substantive and pedagogical philosophical matters and draws on
philosophy professors to initiate its workshops and to give keynote
The first was delivered by Ian Hacking in 2003. OPTA is recognized by
Ministry, the OCT and the OTF as the official subject association for
philosophy in the schools, and as such advises the Ministry on pertinent
matters and acts as an interest group for the discipline. Two university
professors of philosophy - Frank Cunningham, University of Toronto and
David Jopling, York University - sit on its executive. Its president
is Kenneth Peglar, now retired, who taught philosophy at the secondary
level for 12 years.
Winchester, along with several
other professors of philosophy from the U of T and some high school teachers
constituted the Ministerial guideline writing team for the grade 13 course. The
course Guidelines were published in 1994. When, in 1998, the Provincial
government announced closure of grade 13, it struck a broadly based
consultative group to deliberate about the new curriculum. At its meetings
there was strong, unanimous support both to retain an analogue of the existing
course in the College/University destination in grade 12 and also to design a
course at the grade 11 level in the Open, non-university or college, category. The
Expectations for these courses were written in 1999 and introduced in the
schools in 2000. Cunningham and Jopling were on this Ministry
writing team and received advice from the OPTA executive and from the Committee
of Ontario Philosophy Chairs. These courses remain among the very few secondary
school philosophy offerings with official, government-produced curricula in the
NUTS AND BOLTS OF THE CAMPAIGN
Success in the Ontario venture had at least the
following preconditions (or at least facilitating conditions):
● Strong and organized non-governmental
The main lobbying was done by university philosophy departments, including the philosophers at OISE,
backed up by the organizations of secondary school teachers that became OPTA. Public
consultations organized by the Ministry involving teachers, parents, school
administrators and other stake holders also played a role. While in the first
unsuccessful runs there was opposition from religious groups, in the 1990's
support for philosophy in the schools came from both secular and religious
● Finding and nurturing sympathetic contacts
within the civil service side of the Ministry of Education
. Though less
robust now than in the 1990's the Ministry is still a formidable bureaucracy —
hard to navigate and recalcitrant to change, especially
if initiated from without. A major breakthrough was achieved when the wife of
one of the OPTA activists got a job in the Ontario Government, thus gaining
access to the Ontario government phone directory. This was organized in such a
way that one could identify who actually had discretion and find their
direct-line phone numbers. Perhaps this can be achieved today through the web.
. The campaign was greatly
helped by two champions. One was an Assistant
to the Deputy Minister of Education. He was able to get the project before the
Minister for sign-off. The other was a senior Curriculum Planner in the
Ministry. It would also have been
helpful to have had some champions from among the deans of schools of
education, but we were not able to find anyone to play this role in Ontario.
The lobbyists came at the
Ministry many times and especially after every change in government or in key
personnel in the civil service.
● University Philosophy department involvement
Collectively, through the Committee of Chairs of Ontario Philosophy
Departments, the university philosophers added weight to the campaign and
assurance to the Ministry that there would be cooperation from the university
side in mounting the courses. Individually, departments played important roles
in helping to make the courses successful. In addition to providing speakers
and resource people for the OPTA conferences, philosophy professors have been
making guest appearances in classes and are available for consultation. Some
departments set aside part of their departmental libraries for texts suitable
for use in the courses or for background reading for teachers. The U of T
department works with OPTA to award annual essays prizes for papers written by
high school students. Some departments have invited high school students of
philosophy to visit their universities and sit in on classes. Most departments
have designated a secondary school philosophy "officer" to promote such liaisons.
● Meeting concerns
. Obviously, philosophy
department involvement requires general support among philosophy professors. This
was achieved in great measure by promoting discussion within departments at the
early stages of the campaign, and by the deliberative meetings of chairs or
their designates also from the start.
One initial source of concern was that the courses would be poorly taught. At the beginning, when teachers
who wished to offer the courses had some background in the field, this did not
materialize. It started to be a problem as the courses' popularity meant that
schools were running out of qualified teachers and school principals were obliged
to assign staff who lack training or aptitude. Now that the courses are
teachable, this problem should become much less acute. In retrospect, the
campaign should have been pushing harder for teachability from the beginning.
Another concern was that the
Ministry would insist on inclusion of socially or politically important
material in a way that detracted from the specifically philosophical content of
the courses. There was, indeed, such pressure. It was met, not by rejecting the
idea of inclusion, but by structuring the courses so that it was appropriate.
Because the courses are organized around themes and questions (of justice,
ethics, metaphysics, etc.) instead of historically or by schools it is not
necessary to have separate units on all the schools of the world's philosophies
or all the critical approaches to philosophy based on concerns around social
issues. Instead, examples of leading figures from a variety of schools —
Western and non-Western — and critical approaches such as feminist or
environmentalist, are addressed within appropriate problem-focussed units.
The original 2000 and 2013 revision of the expectations for both grade 11 and 12
courses are available on the LINKS
page of this website.
The Ontario Philosophy Teacher's Association's website
Also, feel free to contact any of the following:
Frank Cunningham, firstname.lastname@example.org
David Jopling, email@example.com
Kenneth Peglar, firstname.lastname@example.org