The Philosophy for Children programme has great potential benefits for intergenerational dialogue. Michelle Whiteworth, coordinator of Age Concerns’ intergenerational project in North Tyneside, discusses those benefits for pupils — and also the challenges

What is P4C?
Philosophy for Children (P4C) was developed by Professor Matthew Lipman in the US in the 1960s to encourage children to use reason and develop good judgement. P4C consists of structured inquiry: students are put in a situation where thinking is required. Teachers may use a stimulus such as a story or a picture as the basis for open-ended Socratic questioning, challenging the students to think more independently. The class becomes a ‘community of enquiry’, seeking the answers to questions through teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil dialogue. The method can be used with students of all ages, as it has been in this project. For more information about P4C go to

What is intergenerational P4C?
Intergenerational P4C is so unusual that practitioners invariably ask what it ‘looks like’. This is difficult to answer because, at one level, we follow the standard community of enquiry model to be found in any classroom – stimulus, question generation, question selection, large group discussion and final thoughts. My (limited) observation of conventional school-based enquiries suggests that the main differences are ones of mood and emphasis, though whether this springs more from the adult presence or my personal style as a facilitator is less clear.

In 2004, in my current role as coordinator of Age Concern North Tyneside’s intergenerational project LifeLink, I heard how Barrow Age Concern was involved with Philosophy for Children (P4C see box, right) and was impressed by its potential for intergenerational dialogue.

Although P4C was almost unknown in North Tyneside, I persuaded one secondary and two primary schools to try it out. Both were impressed with the impact and invited LifeLink back, as well as seconding their own staff for training. Meanwhile, the local authority had started to promote P4C more widely, especially in the schools involved in the Education Action Zone. More recently (from 2006-08), the four Area Children’s Strategy Groups commissioned LifeLink (using Children’s Fund) to deliver an intergenerational programme, intended to help schools embed P4C. The contract specified delivery of about 10 weekly sessions to three to four different schools every term. Over five terms, LifeLink delivered about 200 sessions, working with 15 schools, 440 pupils and 60 older people.

This pilot was deemed so successful that LifeLink has since been funded for a further year. This work is seen as contributing to the extended schools strategy in the local authority and to Every Child Matters outcomes, especially North Tyneside’s unique addition of ‘be spirited’.

Our approach
Compared with conventional P4C, we place a greater emphasis on warm-up games and team-building exercises, especially in the opening stages, because of bringing two disparate groups together.Although some of our games aim to aid thinking, they increasingly serve a number of purposes, including to get people acquainted, break down barriers, learn through fun, develop skills of group problem solving, communication, teamwork decision making and cooperation, or to select smaller discussion groups. Increasingly, we are being asked to engage young people with poor attention spans who need diversionary activities. We now have a repertoire of games that can be played by people with reduced mobility (most games on the market seem to be designed for youth groups or fit middle-aged managers) and require minimal or low-cost props (typically a pack of cards, shoe laces, and old inner tubes).

I suspect our delivery methods are more varied than conventional P4C. Originally I projected picture books in PowerPoint, and had stimuli enacted by the group partly to make it easier for older people with hearing and visual impairments. However, we quickly came to realise the greater potential for learning in using a range of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic techniques. Increasingly, I have adapted and embellished many of Fisher’s Stories for Thinking (and others) into plays for performance, often with simple props, and pictures I have made in Photoshop. Enacting the stories can prompt more diverse questions; sometimes playing a particular character is the highlight of a child’s experience which is recalled in evaluation even months later.

Discussions are often enriched by an extended age range (up to 90 years old). Some volunteers have provided discussion starters, examples being magic tricks, or artefacts and photos from a Tanzanian village school, which someone had visited as a helper and fundraiser. We are fortunate to have a self-employed clown who gives occasional illustrated storytelling or Punch and Judy shows free and these are, unsurprisingly, nominated as the most popular sessions. And who needs the internet when to hand we have experts on topics such as children in intensive care units (ex-theatre nurse), or the upkeep of donkeys (ex-donkey owner).

I am especially interested in the role of the small group, especially since P4C literature largely concentrates on the large group as the forum for serious thinking. Perhaps because of adult feedback, I am more aware of the richness and complexity of the small group process, where participants are not just learning skills of question construction, but those of negotiation and cooperation – Whose question should be chosen and how? Should questions be combined? Who is to present their case to the large group? Our adults take on various roles, drawing out thoughts on the story, agreeing to put forward the thoughts of shyer children, helping with spelling, supporting children with special needs, coaxing more reluctant participants. Some children only speak in the small group and in one class recently, two autistic children, always silent, finally spoke a few words. Teachers too benefit from increased adult-pupil ratios in their classroom. Freed from lesson preparation and behaviour management, with time to circulate among the small groups (or even to lead one), they often find their views of pupils’ potential under different conditions are transformed.

As adult outsiders, on first name terms (‘because we are not teachers’) and not charged with cramming a quart-sized curriculum into a pint pot, we permit a more playful tone. Generally, older adults tend to be at ease with themselves and humour is a common feature of our sessions. Teachers and older participants think that the fun element helps children learn often without realising it.

The benefits
There are a plethora of learning and wider benefits, some already outlined. The small group is where friendships are forged, akin to those between grandparent and grandchild. Adults and children chat informally, exchanging information and ideas and children enjoy being mentored. It can be an unusual experience for some children to have an adult listen to them, let alone take their views seriously. (One class told us it was nice to have grown-ups who didn’t shout at them and another thanked us for not giving up on them even when their behaviour was less than ideal.) On the other side of the coin, I have dozens of accounts from older people about bumping into children they have worked with and how the positive exchanges make them feel valued members of their community. One person even came on to the project in a deliberate attempt to overcome a violent experience with some young people.

Furthermore, ageing and diversity mean something real when you are sitting next to someone with restricted vision, hearing, or mobility. The children enjoy looking after the older visitors by reserving them a comfortable seat or explaining what’s on the board. Recently, one popular volunteer (aged 86) fell and broke her hip. Every week the children asked about her and cards were exchanged. Conversely, the adults love hearing the pupils’ ideas and perspectives which they say keeps them young. They are much more informed now about special learning and behavioural needs, disadvantaged social backgrounds, and modern educational practice.

The challenges and difficulties
Although the feedback from participants is overwhelmingly positive there are some challenges I am always attentive to. One or two children reported early on that sometimes the older people talked over their heads. I think we have combated this now with our elephant (see the box below) but occasionally I have to guard against adults dominating the large group conversation. This is more likely in the secondary setting (years 9/10) where adult eagerness to end uncomfortable silences can quickly set up a vicious circle whereby students become even more reticent. In the primary setting, an overly adult-centred dialogue usually signals that it’s time to move on to another question.

Ask the elephant
Early feedback indicated that children could be stymied by even apparently simple words but lacked a mechanism to signal this. Thus was born ‘ask the elephant’ (because he never forgets). Immediately our soft toy elephant is held aloft by anyone, it’s like calling time out: dialogue halts, allowing the holder to check the meaning of a word, a statement from another participant or facilitator instructions. Introducing this fun device has destigmatised lack of understanding – the elephant is well used (even fought over).

Recent queries have included: assume, decoy, migraine, democratic, reputation, red herring, leather, transport and comfort zone. The ensuing discussion has challenged the group’s collective powers of description and taken us on unexpected odysseys to explore the meaning of words.

In one final course evaluation, a Year 4 boy used his new-found vocabulary to explain how he had moved outside his comfort zone.

More commonly, we find that some older people are unsure of their role in the small group. Some feel less confident about working with children who appear disengaged (interpreting it as their own lack of expertise); some may construe challenging behaviour as a lack of discipline; while others (only a few) may do too much thinking for the children. Of course, as I continually point out, we are sailing in uncharted waters here, as there is no theoretical guidance from the literature. This is where a partnership with the teacher is useful. In general, I deploy many creative ways of splitting the class up so that children get to work with different adults, but we sometimes subtly ensure that certain children are placed with certain designated older people (perhaps more confident by virtue of a teaching or youth work background).

This is one issue that highlights the ambiguous status of the older people. Treating the older people as participants on the same level as the children (as advocated by some practitioners) would, of course, theoretically dispose of the small group problem. I personally do not think we can discount context and structural inequalities.

Older people must undergo CRB checks, are not subject to educational statements, do not have behavioural difficulties or learning needs, and attend out of choice, unlike the pupils. There is also the question of self-perception and motivation: they come forward to work with and help children rather than purely to participate in philosophical discussions (indeed some are formally registered as volunteers with Age Concern).

It does feel sometimes like a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, I strive to treat the adults equally in respect of community etiquette, voting, large group discussion and the like but perhaps with a lightness of touch, to overcome potential awkwardness. For example, this exchange took place in one session:

Adult (next to me): ‘Can I just say something?’
Facilitator: ‘Have you got your thumb up?’
Adult: ‘Er, no.’
Facilitator: ‘Well, no sorry you can’t.’ (Wink to the community.)

Apparently the adult’s face was a picture and everyone roared with laughter: later, one child referred to this appreciatively and in final thoughts, the adult said she had learned that while children should sometimes be seen but not heard, this could also apply to grown-ups.

However, I have to be sensitive when, for example, an adult is talking when they shouldn’t, not because they are different from the children but because, often, a sensory impairment has prevented them picking up facilitator cues or instructions.

On the other hand, it is usually understood that the adults are there to help the children create questions in the small group rather than ask their own. By experience, we’ve found that if too much adult influence creeps into a question, it either doesn’t get voted for or the dialogue dries up quickly.

Our difficulties with the small group process have diminished with time and in the last year, I have started running training sessions where we can explore these issues. As the pool of experienced participants has grown, I find myself increasingly treating the older people as a team of helpers, to be consulted and invited for feedback, in recognition that they are donating their time, life experience and expertise. There is also a growing camaraderie as more of them work with each other in different schools. Where I have sometimes found the relationship most tricky is when retired professionals (possibly from an ‘older school’) have had different expectations about acceptable behaviour, or standards of discipline. Occasionally, too, I sense that they could run the session better – certainly that’s what I used to imagine when I had an ex-deputy head among my ranks!

Recruiting volunteers
It is a myth commonly held among the general population that there exists a large pool of readily available older people with masses of time on their hands for voluntary work. In fact, recruiting people over 50 for a project like mine goes through many filters. Assuming people get to know about the project (and incidentally, my literature deliberately does not mention philosophy), they have to want to volunteer, want to volunteer with children, have the time, have the confidence, be in reasonable health, and live in the right area or be prepared and able to travel, (ie to be a driver or on the right bus route). This eliminates large numbers of people – the unwilling, those with poor health or sensory difficulties or partners in poor health, and those who lack sufficient confidence to come into a school. The latter category includes many who had bad experiences at school, and who often live in the poorer areas precisely where we most need volunteers.

Thus I’m constantly on the go, contacting schools and publicising the project to the hundreds of groups in the borough – lunch clubs, social and activity groups, sheltered housing, local history groups, anywhere in fact that older people might be. An additional complication is that the majority of older people’s activity groups tend to meet when I am delivering my programme – early afternoon. This is not the kind of project that can be easily explained in a leaflet or poster: it needs face-to-face interaction, preferably over a period of time. (Many potential recruits also ask if they can observe a session first, which is tricky for all sorts of reasons). Sadly, direct recruitment though the schools, apart from three school governors, has been unsuccessful, whereas church congregations have proved more fertile ground. I cannot let up as there is continual natural wastage from the project through illness (of the volunteers themselves or their dependants) or other calls on their time.

Although this is a short-term supervised group project, new recruits have to undergo CRB checks, which can be a scramble to complete in time (bearing in mind they may only be signing up for one 10-week series, details of which may only have been finalised weeks before). Fortunately, the schools have been sensible in recognising existing CRB checks or allowing people to start as long as the check is in process, otherwise we might have few older participants at all. I also find that having a pot to reimburse expenses helps with recruitment. Last year alone I spent over £1,000 transporting non-drivers across the borough by taxi, either because of mobility difficulties or poor transport.

So, that’s it in a nutshell – intergenerational Philosophy for Children, as practised by Age Concern in North Tyneside. Facilitating this is not always easy but I find that the benefits far outweigh the effort.