International Society For Philosophers

International Society
For Philosophers


Philosophy for Children

Tim Sprod

Philosophy for Children (P4C) is a program that involves school children in whole class discussion on philosophical issues. It aims to improve children's thinking through introducing them to, and enabling them to investigate, many of the 'big questions'. Using the program, teachers encourage children to think more deeply about the ideas behind their schoolwork in a classroom community of inquiry. Children will then focus reflectively on their own thinking and the skills they use, thus improving them, in the meantime exploring and enhancing their own ideas and those of others in response to philosophical and other puzzles. The joint exploration of ideas leads to more cohesive shared knowledge within the group.

Philosophy for Children is based on the idea that children construct knowledge and reasoning capabilities in a community. The teacher's role is not that of supplying knowledge for children to swallow, but of providing the model of an experienced thinker to the apprentice thinkers of the class and of ensuring the level of thinking is kept high. Children set the agenda for the discussions by asking questions that appeal to them, ensuring that what is discussed is appropriate to their needs and abilities and that student questions are valued. The thinking is done within a rich context, with repeated applications of thinking techniques to diverse contexts as is judged appropriate by the participants. This improves the chances that children will be able to transfer these skills to other situations. The model of discussion allows students to drive the conversation, creating the time for proper exploration of ideas.

The original Philosophy for Children syllabus was written by Matthew Lipman and his associates at Montclair State University in New Jersey, USA. Typically, a unit of the program consists of a lengthy purpose written 'novel' or 'text', presenting a group of children (often, but not always, the characters overlap from text to text) engaged in creating their own Community of Inquiry in and out of school. The texts have philosophical hooks embedded within them; there is a central philosophical theme (or 'spine') to their inquiry, though many other puzzles are also included. This text is backed up by a Manual which highlights the philosophical issues and offers discussion plans, exercises and background notes for the teacher to use as appropriate.

Other trigger material may be used, however, such as picture books, novels, movies, newspaper articles, provided they contain a philosophical 'hook'. Using such material is becoming more common, and there is an increasing array of such material being produced. The great majority of this, in both amount and quality, is Australian produced material.

In the classroom, the teacher sets up a Community of Inquiry. The children sit in a circle so that they can see each other. A section of the text is read around the group, each student reading a paragraph unless they opt to miss out by saying "Pass". Then children's questions about the passage are gathered and written up publicly and the discussion begins. The teacher's role in building the discussion is crucial.

Prior teacher preparation
The Federation of Australasian Philosophy for Children Associations strongly recommends that all teachers who want to use Philosophy for Children in their classroom attend an accredited training course. Training courses are available through your State Philosophy for Children Association. Running a community of inquiry has many continuities with good teaching practice, but there are also some powerful distinctive features that it is difficult to learn without practice and modelling.

The teacher, as discussion leader, must have previously considered the possible lines of development of the discussion arising from the various hooks in the trigger experience, even though they cannot be sure that any particular line will be picked up by the children. This assists them in identifying the potential of remarks that students make, and can suggest the right intercessions to make to help develop them. Of course, as the agenda is set by the students and the actual direction of the discussion arises from its own dynamic, there is still considerable need to 'think on your feet'.

Running the Community of Inquiry
Once the trigger material had been presented, the Community of Inquiry commences. The major features of this method are:

1. Ask the children what they found interesting or puzzling about the story or other experience. Encourage them to make their comments in the form of a question. Gather the children's questions on the board, writing the name of the child who asked each one after the question.

2. Discuss the questions in an order decided by one of a variety of methods — we might vote for the most interesting question, try to group similar questions to see the area of major interest, weed out the questions that have easy answers or which are impossible to answer on the evidence we have and so on.

3. Rules for the discussion can be decided by the community, either in advance or after some experience of the community. In one class, for example, five rules were decided on by the community before the first discussion. They were: be quiet when not speaking to the community, only one speaker at a time, listen to the speaker, don't play about, speak up loudly when you are the speaker.

4. The teacher's role is that of a facilitator. Basically, it is to provoke and model the moves made by experienced thinkers in their own best thinking, avoiding the teacher's common roles as source of knowledge and instant evaluator of student responses (the community takes on these roles). Some of the major techniques here: the use of increased wait times, avoidance of judgmental comments, the exhibition of teacher puzzlement, and the judicious use of questioning that signals the cognitive moves that might usefully be made next and concentrates children's attention on metacognition (thinking about their own thinking).

5. The impact of the physical setting of a circle on the establishment of a community is reinforced by the encouragement of participants to talk to the whole circle, or directly to the person they are answering, rather than always through the teacher. Whilst it can be necessary, especially with a newly established group, to insist on hands being raised before speaking, it is certainly an aim of the teacher to develop turn taking skills, so that the discussion follows a more normal conversation dynamic. Deciding how far to allow a noisy interchange to continue before insisting on one speaker at a time is one of the teacher's major judgments.

6. The teacher is a member of the community and hence has a duty to participate in the discussion. However, traditional roles of teachers mean that any input they make will carry greater weight than the contributions of students. Hence it is important for the teacher to hold back in matters of fact and opinion if there is a good chance that the students may come up with an acceptable answer with suitable encouragement or given time. Lipman often says the teacher should be 'pedagogically strong but philosophically self-effacing'. Of course, there are times when teacher input is just what the discussion needs; deciding when and how to do this form part of the professional judgment of the teacher, guided by knowledge of the group and the prior consideration of the issues involved. It need not, however, always be in the form of a dogmatic statement.

7. The teacher needs to encourage a recognition in the community that many questions are complex and not amenable to simple, quick answers, so time has to be provided for talking around problems. Clarification of what the problem is must be recognised as valuable, even if no answer is found; premature closure of questions is to be avoided. 8. Children must be encouraged to take responsibility for their comments and be prepared to defend, modify or change them as appropriate. The teacher needs to ensure that attacks on positions are not made or seen as attacks on the holders of the positions.

© Tim Sprod 2002

E-mail: tsprod@friends.tas.edu.au