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Free to think: igniting the fire or filling the vessel?

Free speech. We appear to have reached a point where the use of these words or endeavours to discuss this concept can raise suspicion and may lead to a person being categorised negatively by some. 

This shift from free speech being regarded as a core liberal value to one where it is viewed as only championed by those with nefarious motivation, has occurred rapidly and has caused consternation, and some conflict, in many institutions and professional groups (e.g. the British Psychological Society). 

Furthermore, evidence of the role of educational institutions within this debate has been growing. The role of Prevent in schoolswhich aims to stop people being drawn into extremismhas raised concerns within some schools and communities as it may lead to a breakdown of trust and openness between teachers and children and young people (CYP), by silencing both parties who may wish to have an open dialogue about challenging ideas, arguments or beliefs in a supportive classroom environment (O’ Donnell, 2016).

Once assumed the bastions of free speech, or the crucibles of ideas, universities have found themselves needing to grapple with this same issue and have faced criticism for placing restrictions on the range of ideas that can be debated. An analysis of campus censorship at UK universities from 2017-2020 conducted by Civitas (2020) found that 35% of universities in the UK were deemed ‘most restrictive’ and 51% ‘moderately restrictive’ in terms of their curbing of free speech. 

In recent months, a vote on free speech at Cambridge University voted to prioritise the ‘tolerance’ of others’ views rather than the ‘respect’ of others’ views so as to allow controversial or unpopular opinions (still within the law) to be expressed, questioned and debated (Coughlan, 2020).

Additionally, boys from Eton college have publicly raised concerns around what some have viewed as the restriction of ‘freedom of thought and expression’ within the school, following the dismissal of an English teacher over a controversial video about patriarchy, masculinity, and gender roles intended to stimulate debate within a critical thinking class. 

The conflict arising in these examples illustrates the need for reflection on the extent to which we protect free speech within schools, and other educational establishments, and where we place the boundaries around this. 

Our intention here is to consider what we, as psychologists, can add to this debate, in relation to the education of CYP, within a developmental perspective. We contend that the role of free speech is central to the cognitive, moral and socio-emotional development of CYP, and that child and educational psychologists have a role in ensuring this is understood and considered within the discussions and decisions taking place regarding where boundaries and restrictions lie.

Implications for cognitive development

To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.

Frederick Douglas, American abolitionist and writer

‘To Think’ is to consciously reflect. Verbs we may use to describe this process could include: critique, reason, remember, evaluate, question, solve, weigh up, formulate, defend, challenge, evaluate, hypothesise, draw conclusions, and test. Or, indeed, to employ one’s mind rationally and objectively in evaluating a given situation (Facione, 1990; Schmaltz et al., 2017). 

It is clear that even an adult accustomed to engaging in the above descriptions of ‘thinking’ would find the task cognitively challenging, especially in relation to topics with multi-layered levels of reasoning, or with varied lenses of potential analysis. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that children and young people would be able to engage in this type of reflection, formulate, conclude their own opinions, and be able to defend these both logically and ethically, without exposure to external models of critique, opportunities for challenge and defence, and without adult guidance and support. Freedom of speech, exposure to diversity of opinion, and the process of scrutiny and challenge associated with this process is therefore necessary for children and young people to truly think. 

Freedom of speech is necessary for the freedom of thought. 

This is far from a new idea and the advocating of a curriculum and culture in education which promotes critical thinking, of which open and honest debate on a range of ideas is central, has been part of an academic and applied critical thinking movement since the 1960’s (Facione, 1990). Without the process of challenge and reflection, children and young people may become passive recipients of the donated opinions of those who have previously engaged in the process of thought. This could challenge our central notions of what education is. If children are sheltered from embarking on the potentially arduous journey of engaging in thinking, with instead, truth as an already established fact to be imparted, and education functioning as a way to impart that truth, then are we challenging the bedrock of a liberal education? Are we inadvertently filling the vessel, instead of igniting the fire? 

Freedom of thought and freedom of expression are inextricably linked and enshrined together in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child which states that all children and young people must have the right to freedom of thought (Article 14), and expression (Article 13). A right to express who you are is intrinsic to our humanity and represents each individual’s equal value. Without it, our basic drive for self-actualisation, and formation of communities based on truth and justice, cannot be realised, as a removal of this natural right takes away the ability to think and grow.

When we talk, discuss, and debate we are exposed to contrary opinions, we are pushed to defend our own opinions, and challenge others, in a process which can expose ignorance, bias, and malevolence. Within this process of debate and challenge, the rational basis for opinions, the layers of reasoning, and the biases of arguments are also exposed to those listening, watching, or reading. The learning process of having your opinions tested, being exposed to new information, or accepting there are multiple, nuanced but rational positions on many contentious issues, should be an ongoing lifelong pursuit, but if children and young people are not exposed to this approach within schools, how do we expect them to achieve this?

Implications for moral development

Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace

Oscar Wilde – Irish poet and writer

Justice is arguably the most important moral concept in the history of western philosophy. It has been debated from Plato’s Republic, to the current movements for social justice, in attempts to establish principles of a fair and just society. 

Justice is intuitive and developmental (Piaget, 1965; Kohlberg, 1984); however, to reach higher-order moral reasoning (the decision-making process by which what is right and wrong is established; Kohlberg & Mayer 1972), children need opportunities to explore ideas and the reasoning for the principles they are asked to accept. As noted, this is unlikely to take place in isolation, and therefore requires discussion and exposure to a diversity of positions which, through challenge, scrutiny and defence, reveals the reasoning for the principles we can then collectively adopt and share. A lack of such exposure to ideas and their scrutiny leads to under-developed moral reasoning abilities for the individual and, ultimately, to a potential problem for society, where CYP may lack the understanding and commitment to the very principles they are asked to uphold (Gibbs et al. 1995; Goldstein et al., 1998; Kohlberg 1984; Rest & Narváez, 1994).

Delays in the development of moral reasoning have been found widely in disaffected young people in many studies and meta-analyses (Gibbs et al., 2007). These findings follow from theories of moral development that emphasise the social and cognitive reasoning aspects of morality. Multiple studies show that immature moral reasoning can lead to anti-social and often criminal behaviours which have negative outcomes for the individual and for society as a whole (Gibbs et al., 2007). Immature moral reasoning has been linked to lack of opportunity for exposure to the perceptions and reasoning of others. Without these opportunities, children cannot work towards a moral truth they understand and commit to. 

Moral reasoning interventions have demonstrated that exposure to open debate on moral issues within peer groups raises the moral reasoning ability levels of all those involved, including those presenting with problem behaviours and those without (Glick et al., 2010; Gundersen & Svartdal, 2007). Moral reasoning research shows that children with low moral reasoning levels can often state moral values but cannot explain why they are important. The exposure to a diversity of opinions through debate reveals the reasoning for the principles and, in doing so, builds understanding, and therefore the potential for alternative behavioural choices and better futures for some vulnerable CYP.  Importantly, Rest (1983), emphasising the link between moral reasoning and moral behaviour, suggests that moral character is the most evolved component of moral behaviour, defining it as a “courageous persistence in spite of fatigue or temptations to take the easy way out“.

Implications for socio-emotional development and wellbeing

One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous or honest.

Maya Angelou, American poet

The development and expansion of concepts and terms within mental health discourses in recent years (e.g. feeling ‘unsafe’, needing ‘safe spaces’ and the need for ‘trigger warnings’) have been used in relation to exposure to views that one disagrees with, or that challenge perceived mainstream conceptualisations of a given issue, or are considered in some way personally offensive (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2019). The use of such language to describe the negative emotions experienced from exposure to differing viewpoints may be leading to cognitive distortions that could undermine children’s positive socio-emotional development and wellbeing.  

Young people are increasingly using these concepts and terms to close down debate which might stimulate negative emotion (Stevens, 2018). The ‘trigger’ of negative emotion is viewed as so harmful and damaging that individuals must be protected from experiencing this, and we have seen how this is being taken up in universities. The implicit message conveyed to young people is that some emotions are too difficult to be tolerated, and one must therefore be protected from exposure to them. The language (e.g. safety) and protective steps taken in this approach (e.g. no-platforming; disinviting speakers etc.) can easily lead to a distorted view of the world ultimately impacting on their ability to function within its challenges. Lukianoff & Haidt (2019) argue that the increasing prevalence of anxiety we observe in CYP today (e.g. Duffy et al., 2019) may be linked to the propagation of these cycles of anxiety-based avoidance. 

Views which challenge what an individual believes to be right can create emotional responses such as offense, anger, discomfort, or distress. These negative emotions can be used to shut down debate when they are viewed to be unacceptable to provoke in another, even unintentionally, and are equated with a person not feeling ‘safe’. A reduced sense of resilience and a sense of fragility could be nurtured if a belief that exposure to ideas or views that differ to one’s own, or which cause one offense, can lead to a sense of feeling harmed and a feeling of an inability to cope. This sense of fragility could propagate cycles of anxiety and avoidance and a lack of engagement in community, unless all potential sources of offense can be guaranteed to be absent (e.g. safe spaces). These cycles of avoidance can therefore impact an individual’s self-belief in their own resiliency, strength, and courage to engage in a multifaceted world of ideas. 

Necessary limitations on free speech

If we accept the crucial role the right to free speech has in the cognitive, moral, and socio-emotional development of children and young people, and in the formation of a cohesive society built on shared values based on truth and justice, then we would still need to consider to what extent any limitations might be placed on this right.

Whilst we have argued that some tolerance of the negative emotions inevitably arising within free and open debate of ideas is necessary, and even beneficial, it is still generally recognised that there are limits beyond which genuine harm can arise. It is the limits of what constitutes this notion of genuine harm that need to be debated and collectively agreed.

Within the UK, the right to free speech is curtailed under laws which protect the reputation and rights of others, the prevention of disorder or crime, and the protection of health and morals. These restrictions are represented in laws around libel, sedition, incitement, obscenity and intellectual property. In the UK, we also have Hate Speech laws which protect specific groups from threatening, abusive or insulting words and prevents citizens from stirring up hatred against specific groups (e.g. religious or ethnic minority groups). All debate and discussion in schools must obviously fall within the boundaries and limitations of these laws. Beyond these laws is where the debate on the limitations on free speech in school can, must and should take place. We ask the readers to consider the developmental perspective proposed in this article when engaging in this debate. 

Promoting cognitive, moral, and socio-emotional development through exposure to diversity of thought

Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost

Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese American writer

Psychologists and educationalists who work with children and young people, and who wish to promote their critical thinking skills, through freedom of speech and exposure to diversity of opinion, could consider promoting the following approaches within educational establishments:

  • Exposure to conversations based within genuine goodwill, where parties do not engage in ad hominem attacks (i.e. denigrating another’s character because of their views) and instead endeavour to explore the other’s viewpoint with the goal of moving towards a shared understanding of truth. 
  • Make the principles and reasoning for the necessity of diversity of thought explicit to CYP and model them in interactions, across the curriculum, in classroom discussions and in conversations which arise around current and global affairs and moral matters.
  • Set up a debate club – where the principles of free speech are explicit, techniques for reasoned debate are taught and understood, civil exchanges on contentious issues are expected and children and young people take and argue sides which may not align with their personal beliefs in order to fully explore them.
  • Develop an understanding that there are varied rational and ethical positions that can be taken on the same complex issue. Foster a culture where tolerance of other viewpoints is required and valued. Discourage moves towards a culture of viewpoint homogeneity where groupthink and orthodoxy can arise. 
  • Have open, reflective and critical discussions with children and young people around social media and video platform algorithms that tend to provide users with more of what they are interested in and can risk creating echo-chambers where a particular positioning resounds. As aforementioned, encourage children and young people to try to falsify their arguments by seeking out views different to their own. 
  • Set up moral reasoning groups. Discussion of moral dilemmas within peer groups facilitated by an adult who asks questions to deepen the reflection and understanding CYP are exposed to.
  • Create a culture within a school or organisation that demonstrates the belief that people are able to tolerate feelings of discomfort around ideas that do not align with their own and avoid language which reinforces cognitive distortions that children and young people are unsafe and unable to cope with any negative emotion which may arise within a difficult or contentious discussion. Make explicit why the tolerance of some negative emotion is necessary and will support them. Equip schools with the cognitive tools to facilitate this (e.g. identifying all-or-nothing thinking, mind-reading and emotional reasoning in their arguments). 


Civitas (2020). Academic Freedom in our Universities: The best and the worstCivitas.

Coughlan, S. (2020). Cambridge University votes to safeguard free speechBritish Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Duffy, M. E., Twenge, J. M., & Joiner, T. E. (2019). Trends in mood and anxiety symptoms and suicide-related outcomes among US undergraduates, 2007–2018: Evidence from two national surveysJournal of Adolescent Health65(5), 590-598.

Eton Students (2020). “Letter from Boys to Provost about Mr Knowland.”

Facione, P.A. (1990). Critical Thinking: A Statement of Expert Consensus for Purposes of Educational Assessment and Instruction. Research Findings and Recommendations. American Philosophical Association.

Gibbs, J.C., Basinger, K.S., Grime, R.L., & Snarey, J.R. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claimsDevelopmental Review, 27, 443-500.

Gibbs, J. C., Potter, G. B., & Goldstein, A. P. (1995). The EQUIP program: Teaching youth to think and act responsibly through a peer-helping approachResearch Press

Glick, B., Taymans, J. & Bush, J. (2010). Thinking for a Change: Integrated cognitive behavior change program (Rev. ed). National Institute of Corrections, U.S. Department of Justice.

Goldstein, A. P., Glick, B., & Gibbs, J. C. (1998). Aggression replacement training: A comprehensive intervention for aggressive youth (Rev. Ed.). Research Press.

Gundersen, K., & Svartdal, F. (2006). Aggression replacement training in Norway: Outcome evaluation of 11 Norwegian student projectsScandinavian journal of educational research50(1), 63-81.

Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development: Vol.2. The psychology of moral development. Harper and Row.

Kohlberg, L., & Mayer, R. (1972). Development as the aim of educationHarvard educational review42(4), 449-496.

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2019). The coddling of the American mind: How good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure. Penguin Books.

O’Donnell, A. (2016). Securitisation, counterterrorism and the silencing of dissent: The educational implications of prevent. British Journal of Educational Studies, 64(1), 53-76.

Piaget, J. (1965). Moral judgement of the child. Free Press. 

Rest, J.R., & Narváez, D. (Eds.). (1994). Moral Development in the Professions: Psychology and Applied Ethics (1st ed.). Psychology Press.

Rest, J. R. (1983). Morality. In J. Flavell & E. Markman (Eds.), Cognitive development (Vol. IV). In P. Mussen (General ed.), Manual of child psychology. Wiley.

Schmaltz, R. M., Jansen, E., & Wenckowski, N. (2017). Redefining critical thinking: Teaching students to think like scientistsFrontiers in Psychology8, 459.

Stevens, S. (2018). The skeptics are wrong part 2: Speech culture on campus is changing

United Nation’s Children Fund (UNICEF) United Kingdom (UK). (n.d.). A summary of the UN Convention of the Rights of the ChildUNICEF UK

About Claire McGuiggan

Claire is a Principal Educational Psychologist at Telford & Wrekin Council. Her interests are around supporting families, promoting social inclusion for children with SEND, and utilising positive psychology to improve the well-being of all children.

View all posts by Claire McGuiggan

About Peter D'Lima

Peter is an educational psychologist at Birmingham City Council. His interests include belonging, social cohesion, group dynamics, positive psychology, school staff wellbeing and promoting resilience to extremism.

View all posts by Peter D'Lima

3 Comments so far:

  1. Geraldine Rowe says:

    Fabulous article and love your list. A humble starting point might be to develop a classroom culture where children are involved in deliberation and decision-making around what and how they are being taught. It seems in some classrooms that there are plenty of lively discussions around slavery, wealth, politics etc but it is almost taboo to discuss their own experience of the classroom or to question decisions of teachers and school leaders.

  2. […] psychologists Dr Peter D’Lima and Dr Clare McGuiggan have published a blog post on the importance of free speech in “the cognitive, moral and socio-emotional development” of […]

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