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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, 

February 2018.

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.


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 in Action (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 is available for free on the OPTA website under content > textbooks.

Teachers of Philosophy

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.

UPDATE 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 year.

Preparation for University

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' Association (OPTA). It organizes an annual conference largely devoted to workshops on both substantive and pedagogical philosophical matters and draws on university philosophy professors to initiate its workshops and to give keynote addresses. The first was delivered by Ian Hacking in 2003. OPTA is recognized by the 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 school 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 English-speaking world.

Factors for Success

Success in the Ontario venture had at least the following preconditions (or at least facilitating conditions):

Strong and organized non-governmental support. 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 sources.

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.

Champions. 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.

Perseverance. 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.