Hanneke Jones looks at the Philosophy for Children method of introducing thinking skills. This method of learning, developed by SAPERE, develops cognitive skills and philosophical methods

Philosophy for Children (P4C) has, since its introduction to the UK in the 1990s, developed as a powerful pedagogical approach and met with ever-increasing popularity. Questions and dialogue are central to P4C, which many teachers feel helps to develop their pupils’ thinking skills, their confidence to speak and listen to others, and their respect of other people’s viewpoints. Many teachers also mention the engagement and enjoyment with which their pupils take part in ‘philosophy’ sessions.

P4C was first introduced and developed in the USA by Matthew Lipman in the 1960s, and based on the ideas of John Dewey (1916), who argued for the need to educate pupils for democracy, by engaging pupils’ interest and teaching from real-life contexts, and on Vygotsky’s socio-constructivist ideas. Professor Lipman felt that his undergraduate philosophy students were not able to cope with the depth of thinking required in his courses, and that the political turmoil at the time showed that US society was unable resolve conflicts democratically. He therefore felt that the teaching of philosophy should start much earlier: with children as young as six or seven years old. As a result, Lipman wrote the Philosophy for Children programme, complete with texts, teacher books and session follow-up tasks, which he claims (Lipman, 2003) develops pupils’ critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinking.

In this country the approach was adapted by Karin Murris who introduced picture books, rather than Lipman’s texts, as a stimulus for enquiry sessions (Murris and Haynes, 2000). Since then, the approach has been adapted in many other ways. At schools, P4C is used with pupils ranging from the Foundation Stage to A-level, sometimes with mixed-age, and even mixed-generation groups of participants, and the approach is also used to build community relationships outside schools. Depending on the participant group, the approach is sometimes given a different name, such as ‘Philosophy for Communities’ or ‘Philosophy for Learning’.

Classroom practicalities
In Philosophy for Children, the group develops as a community of enquiry, which engages in the formulation and exploration of questions, and in a collaborative Socratic dialogue about what the answers to those questions might be. Generally, enquiries are carried out as a whole-class activity, although with a large class or at particular times it can be good to split up the class into smaller groups for parts of the enquiry. The objective is not to reach a group consensus, but rather for the participants to engage in collaborative dialogue and to deepen their thinking. Disagreement with others, as long as this is done reasonably and respectfully, is an important part of this process, and is one of the aspects which makes P4C so powerful – where else in the busy curriculum of most schools do we give pupils the opportunity to really explore their differences in a constructive way? In order to establish a community of enquiry it is important that the participants are seated in a circle, so that they can all see each other, and of course some ground rules need to be established. These would normally include the need for only one person to speak at a time, and to listen respectfully to each other. Participants are also encouraged to be open-minded and to be willing to change their mind. In enquiries, the teacher’s role is that of the facilitator, although in experienced communities of enquiry this role can be taken on by one of the group members.

Generally, Philosophy for Children sessions, or enquiries, begin with a stimulus that is presented by the facilitator. This is often a narrative with an intriguing element, but it could also be a poem, a piece of music, a newspaper article – anything that could spark off some philosophical thinking. After this stimulus, the participants are given some time to reflect on this and, often in pairs, to start to formulate some philosophical questions.

For example, if the story of Red Riding Hood was presented as a stimulus, this might lead to such questions as ‘Why do we often behave differently from what we have been told?’, ’Is it right to ask younger people to do what we know might be dangerous?’, although there may well be participants who find such questions as ‘Why did Red Riding Hood wear red clothes?’ the most intriguing! All questions are then considered by the group as a whole, after which one question is chosen by the group as the subject of the philosophical discussion which ensues.

The facilitator’s role is to keep the enquiry ‘on track’ and to ensure that the enquiry is shared by the whole community. This does not mean that everyone needs to talk, but that everyone is engaged in the discussion either as a speaker or listener. At the end of the enquiry, it is often a good idea to give all participants the opportunity to express their final thoughts in a ’round’, and to have a plenary or debrief in which there is time to reflect not just on thoughts and ideas that were developed during the enquiry, but also on the process in which it took place.

Final thoughts
As mentioned above, teachers and pupils enjoy Philosophy for Children for a range of reasons. There is also a growing body of research which has identified positive outcomes of using this approach. P4C is promoted in this country by SAPERE, the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education. You can find a host of resources, as well as details of training courses in P4C, on its website.

Hanneke Jones is a Teaching Fellow at Newcastle University and a P4C Trainer

Further reading

  • Dewey, J (1916) Democracy and Education. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1966 edn), New York: Free Press.
  • Lipman, M (2003), Thinking in Education, Cambridge University Press.
  • Murris, K and Haynes, J ( 2000), Storywise: Thinking Through Stories, Dialogue Work.