Introducing Philosophy for Children
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P4C and the New Zealand Curriculum
Think of doing philosophy with children. What picture does this conjure up? Should we imagine classes slaving over the works of Plato or listening to a lecture on educational philosophy? Think again.
Whether it is truth or beauty, friendship or fairness, what’s right or what’s real, philosophy deals with so many things that children love to discuss. Set these ideas and concerns in stories and novels written for children. Add to this the procedures of classroom inquiry based upon the philosophical tools of reasoning and imaginative exploration. Top it off with a teacher whose role is to develop and challenge the students thinking. This is the starting point for philosophy for children.
“The students become accustomed to asking each other for reasons and opinions, to listening carefully to each other, to building on each other's ideas”
- Dr. Matthew Lipman
Traditionally, philosophy is the discipline primarily concerned with logical, critical and reflective thinking, the development of reasoning competence and the analysis of meaning. Philosophy is thinking dedicated to the improvement of thinking. It is both open-ended and rigorous.
Philosophy taps children’s natural curiosity and sense of wonder. It engages them in the search for meaning and enriches and extends their understanding. It strengthens thinking and reasoning skills and builds self-esteem. It helps to develop the qualities that make for good judgment in everyday life.
Developed more than thirty years ago by Dr. Matthew Lipman a philosophy professor at Montclair State College in New Jersey, Philosophy for Children is an international educational programme taught widely in many countries. At last count, Philosophy for Children was represented in some thirty countries around the world - ranging from Austria to Iceland, Bulgaria to Brazil and Canada to Taiwan - with philosophical conversations among children taking place in sixteen languages.
What is so special about Philosophy for Children?
Philosophy for Children is often described as a thinking skills programme or a course in critical and creative thinking. While it is true that philosophy for children does improve students’ critical and creative thinking skills, calling it a “thinking skills” programme does not do it justice. It does much more as well.
Philosophy for children builds on the students’ own wonder and curiosity about ideas that are vitally important to them. The subject matter of Philosophy for Children is those common, central and contestable concepts that underpin both our experience of human life and all academic disciplines. Examples of such concepts are:
Truth, reality, knowledge, evidence, freedom, justice, goodness, rights, mind, identity, love, friendship, rules, responsibility, action, logic, language, fairness, reason, existence, possibility, beauty, meaning, self, time, God, infinity, human nature, thought.
The central pedagogical tool and guiding ideal of Philosophy for Children is the community of inquiry. In the community of inquiry, students work together to generate and then answer their own questions about the philosophical issues contained in purpose written materials or a wide range of other resources. Thinking in the community of inquiry is critical, creative, collaborative and caring.
“In philosophy you learn how to think, not what to think”
- A student
In the community of inquiry students learn to respect, listen to and understand a diverse range of views. The process of philosophical exploration in this environment encourages students to take increased responsibility for their own learning processes and to develop as independent and self-correcting learners. Students develop the confidence and intellectual courage to put forward their own views in a group. Participation in the community of inquiry develops higher order thinking skills in the context of meaningful discussion.
“Philosophy also enables and empowers teachers. As they become more experienced in the practice of teaching Philosophy, teachers are excited by how it inspires their teaching practice and affects their own thinking and learning processes.” - Amy Eberhardt, Wairau Valley School
What does it involve?
Philosophy for children achieves these aims by giving students the opportunity to think for themselves about ideas and concepts that they themselves select as the ones which are interesting and worthwhile pursuing.
Examples might be:
What has a mind?
How should we treat our friends?
Should we always think for ourselves?
What would a fair society be like?
Do we own our bodies?
What does it mean to know something?
What counts as a good reason for something?
A typical session consists of a group reading of a source text, followed by the gathering of students’ questions that have been stimulated by the reading. These questions form the agenda for discussion. Each reading usually generates enough questions for several subsequent discussions in the community of inquiry. The students’ collaborative inquiry can be facilitated by the use of appropriate discussion plans and exercises, which function to maintain focus and encourage depth of discussion. Purpose written texts are just one possible source material. Other written material, images and recordings can also be used to stimulated philosophical inquiry. Drawing and drama can also be used as a springboard for discussion.
Discussion in the community of inquiry is not just a process of swapping opinions. Classroom discussion is aimed at the construction of the best answer to the questions raised. This best answer is not provided or validated by the teacher. Instead, the class has the responsibility for both constructing and evaluating the range of possible responses to a question. Philosophy for children is not based on the assumption that there are no right or wrong answers. Instead, it is based on the belief that, even if final answers are difficult to come by, some answers can reasonably be judged better - more defensible - than others.
Philosophy for Children emphasizes a conversation and dialogue based process of inquiry. As all participants share their own ideas so each individual must consider many different perspectives. Many students have the experience of seeing that what they thought was obvious is not obvious to people who have different perspectives. This encourages tolerance of others ideas, and increases students ability to work together.
Philosophy for children improves critical, creative and rigorous thinking. Participants develop their higher order thinking skills and the attitudes and dispositions necessary for good thinking. They improve their communication skills and their abilities to work with others.
Specifically these include:
Evaluating reasons and arguments
Exploring and analysing concepts
Identifying underlying suppositions and assumptions
Refining and modifying arguments in response to criticism
Recognizing implications: theoretical and practical
Finding examples and counter examples
Finding analogies and disanalogies
Seeing broader perspectives
Formulating and testing criteria
Sticking to the point
Listening to others
Treating others’ views with respect
Building on others’ ideas
Being willing to offer criticism
Being willing to accept and respond to criticism
Becoming committed to inquiry
Developing intellectual courage
Ethical values are integrated into philosophy for children in two ways. First, the ethos of the community of inquiry both requires and develops a range of ethical values that are essential to participation in a society in which there exists a plurality of values. These “democratic” values include tolerance, respect for others, taking all ideas seriously, caring for the procedures that govern collaborative inquiry, and willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints. Secondly, ethical questions are often the subject of inquiry. Ethics is a central area in philosophy and many of the purpose written materials stimulate philosophical exploration of concepts such as good, bad, fairness, rules, rights, duty, friendship, and empathy.
The issue of values education has given rise to two contrasting concerns. First, some people fear that “values education” is likely to be authoritarian and didactic and therefore, in the long term, ineffective. Second, others fear that if children are encouraged to make up their own minds about ethical values, there will be little agreement about core values, and that children will adopt a relativist position on values, according to which all choices for action are equally “good” and all immune from criticism. Ethical inquiry in philosophy for children avoids both these perceived dangers. Exploring ethical questions in the community of inquiry does require students to make up their own minds, through dialogue with others, but the rigorous nature of the inquiry, and the emphasis on assessing reasons for positions means that, in practice, a community is very unlikely to come to the conclusion that “anything goes”. In fact, students in the community of inquiry typically recreate for themselves - and own - a stable set of core ethical values which have withstood the test of careful evaluation.
Outcomes of Participation
Higher order thinking skills
Excitement and motivation
Increased reading comprehension
Maths and science achievement
Increased co-operative skills
Better relationships with peers and parents
Personal development and self-esteem
Transfer of skills to other areas of study
Skills learnt in the community of inquiry are transferable. Philosophy for children enables students to make bridges between the various things they learn, thus making the curriculum more meaningful to them. Both the co-operative skills and the thinking skills developed in Philosophy for Children contribute to improved social interactions and greater social responsibility.
How could P4C fit into my school?
Philosophy classes is best practiced as a regular part of the teaching week, though it can also be run as a special program with students of any age and ability. For example, in the primary school, one session per week can devoted to doing philosophy for children, at first with the purpose written materials, and then with carefully selected children’s literature or materials from other parts of the curriculum. Some teachers choose to do philosophy within their literacy programme. In the senior school, philosophy can take place within English, social studies, technology – almost any subject! Sessions can be based on stories or exercises from existing philosophy for children materials, or, once the class and the teacher are familiar with the processes of philosophical inquiry, on newspaper or magazine articles, political cartoons, movies, songs and on any current social issue.
While all students benefit from engaging in philosophical inquiry, and nearly all students enjoy it immensely, two groups of students are likely to find it especially appealing and useful. Those students who seem to not perform well in the traditional school situation can respond very well to participation in the community of inquiry. Since participation is primarily oral, it can be an excellent opportunity for extension of students who have difficulties with reading and writing. Because the subject matter of philosophy includes questions that we all wonder about, students who have difficulty seeing the relevance of school subjects often become interested in the deep ideas explored in the community of inquiry. The atmosphere of care and safety generated in a good community of inquiry provides a space in which less confident students can try out ideas with the guarantee that they will be listened to. Cognitive skills acquired through participation in the community of inquiry can then be transferred to other areas of study. Secondly, many gifted students find the chance to engage in philosophical exploration extremely stimulating. They respond especially well to the intellectual challenge of engaging with ideas that are common and central to our lives, but are ultimately contestable.
”Philosophy in the classroom includes everyone. Students from non-English-speaking backgrounds will sit quietly for weeks or even months, soaking up the wonderful language modelling that is occurring, then stun you with their contribution and understanding.
Gifted students will find that providing the answer and moving quickly on to the next thing does not work, and that they are required to slow down and really think things through. They learn also that students who do not succeed at school with traditional subjects can be brilliant at Philosophy; that we are all good at something.
A significant positive impact has been observed on students who may not be succeeding with their schooling in the traditional sense, that is, students with identified learning difficulties. These students often prove themselves to be excellent higher-order thinkers.” - Amy Eberhardt, Wairua Valley School
P4C and the New Zealand Curriculum
(With thanks to Amy Eberhardt, Wairau Valley School and Mary Rea, Balmoral School).
Philosophy for Children and the Key Competencies - one unlocks the other!
Participation in philosophical communities of inquiry develops skills of self-management, through the implementation of core rules for collaborative inquiry, such as:
- We listen to each other;
- We think about and build on each other's ideas;
- We respect everyone's ideas;
- There may be no single right answer.
These rules provide an environment that is safe, tolerant and both socially and academically disciplined, and participants experience the benefits of managing their behaviour in the quality of the inquiry that results.
Students of all ages improve their critical thinking skills, logic, metacognition and reasoning. The explicit use of the thinking skills listed above is essential to philosophical inquiry, making it rigorous and satisfying, and taking discussion beyond mere conversation. Students’ intellectual curiosity is stimulated by the concepts and questions that are at the heart of philosophy, and the consistent practice of reflection develops responsibility for the quality of thinking.
Participating and contributing.
Philosophical exploration in the community of inquiry is a practice which engages both students and teachers, stimulating the desire to participate in meaningful discussion, and rewarding them with clarified values, examined ideas and views and an enthusiasm for lifelong learning. Skills of confident expression of ideas, and clarity in thinking, enable students to contribute effectively to other communities and prepares them for active citizenship.
Relating to others.
Doing philosophy in a community of inquiry gives all students a 'voice' as well as teaching them appropriate ways to express themselves and to have their contributions heard. The voices of all students are encouraged and included in classroom dialogue. A range of co-operative skills, such as those listed above, create a space in which students can interact with both gentleness and rigor. This in turn allows students to hear, appreciate and challenge each other's thoughts and perspectives, and often leads to a new valuing of classmates.
Using language, symbols and text.
Engaging students in philosophical discussions improves oral language, comprehension, and social skills. Vocabulary is extended both by the explicit use of thinking skills and by the wide variety of questions and issues which are addressed by the community. Use of philosophy journals also develops thoughtful writing, and precision of expression. The language of reasoning creates bridges between students, and between students, parents, teachers and the wider community, that can allow the growth of an intergenerational community of inquiry.