What’s the point of Philosophy for Children?

As is customary, this blogpost was inspired by a discussion I had on Twitter the other day. The thread is here if you’re interested, but in short the question “What’s the point of P4C” was posed, and I replied “I don’t think I could fit my reply into a hundred tweets”. Well, it doesn’t quite meet the 14000 characters mark, but here is my answer.

What is P4C?

In case you aren’t familiar with the approach, here’s a quick potted history. There are essentially two ways in which one can learn philosophy: a) to study what philosophers have written (philosophy as a noun: a canon of texts to be consumed and understood); and b) to ask philosophical questions, and then discuss them at length (philosophy as a verb: a set of processes to be followed, modelled and learned). Obviously these things are not mutually exclusive, but fundamentally P4C is about the latter: philosophy as a verb.

The approach was developed in the 1970s by Matthew Lipman, a professor from Columbia University who became increasingly frustrated at the lack of critical thinking skills evident in his Philosophy undergrads. Lipman figured you need to start young, and he came up with a methodology for teaching children how to think and reason for themselves; in short, circle time lessons focused on the development of critical thinking skills. He also wrote a series of short novels to introduce children to a series of philosophical conundrums, and to model the kinds of critical thinking that children would then go on to develop for themselves. These texts were read together as a class, and used as a stimulus for class discussions.

Over the years, the approach has evolved and Lipman’s books are not widely used as the stimulus for discussions these days, mainly because they are out of print and second hand copies are eye-wateringly expensive. But the aim of the approach remains the same; for Lipman, it was “not to turn children into philosophers or decision makers, but to help them become more thoughtful, more reflective, more considerate, and more reasonable individuals. Children who have been helped to become more judicious not only have a better sense of when to act but also of when not to act” (Lipman, 1980, p.15).

My journey through P4C

About 10 years ago I attended a Gifted and Talented conference where there were two talks about P4C – one by a classically trained philosopher who had become passionate advocate and practitioner of the approach, and one by a primary headteacher who was even more zealous in his advocacy of the approach. At the end of the morning, I scored a note to self into my pad in large letters:

“YOU HAVE TO GET TRAINED IN P4C!!!”

As is so often the case with training courses, when I returned to work the next day I promptly forgot everything I’d heard, until I stumbled across my notes a year or so later. I arranged for a training session to take place in my hometown, and my love affair with P4C spluttered into life.

I was trained by SAPERE, an organisation that trains teachers in how to run philosophical enquiries as a sequence of stages that you go through in the course of a lesson. I won’t go into it now, but there’s a nice summary of the lesson structure here. Before long, I came to view this structure as just one way of running a philosophical enquiry, and a fairly rigid one at that. I soon adapted the approach in a number of ways, and I am now much more flexible in how I run philosophical enquiry sessions. However I still regularly use P4C in my practice, and I also provide training for others in a flexible approach to philosophical enquiry.

So, what is the point of philosophical enquiry?

What does research tell us?

There has been quite a bit of research into the impact of philosophical enquiry in schools. A randomised, controlled study from Scotland reported that 16 months of weekly philosophical enquiry sessions “led not only to significant gains in measured verbal cognitive ability but also generalization to non-verbal and quantitative reasoning ability, consistent across schools and largely irrespective of pupil gender and ability” (Topping & Trickey, 2007a). This study also reported that “the highest quartile of pre-test ability showed the smallest gains” – in other words, the attainment gap closed – and that “controls did not gain in any aspect”.

Furthermore, in a follow-up study two years later – once the students had progressed on to secondary school – the researchers found that the significant cognitive ability gains in the P4C group were maintained when they were retested two years later, while “the control group showed an insignificant but persistent deterioration in scores” (Topping & Trickey, 2007b). The researchers concluded that “given the pattern of sample attrition, the group difference seems likely to be underestimated. The study provides evidence of maintained cognitive gains from collaborative philosophical inquiry, transferred across contexts.”

A recent randomised controlled trial conducted by the EEF also reported that P4C led to gains in reading and maths (Gorard et al, 2015), although this was not the most robust study and alternative interpretations of the data are possible (despite randomisation, the P4C group had far lower prior attainment than the control group).

Some people question the very concept here – why should philosophical enquiry help boost maths scores? But the cognitive gains in verbal, non-verbal and quantitative reasoning suggest a possible mechanism for such ‘far transfer’, since cognitive attainments test scores are widely accepted to be a powerful predictor of subsequent academic success. If philosophical enquiry helps children learn to think and reason more clearly in ways that are detectable using cognitive attainment tests, then it’s not too big a stretch to expect these gains to then translate maths or reading.

Philosophical enquiry has also formed a central part of my own Masters and Doctoral research. My Masters dissertation looked at philosophical enquiry as an approach to teaching PSHCE, while my PhD – a 5-year evaluation of a complex Learning to Learn intervention, which included philosophical enquiry as one of several components – revealed gains in cognitive functioning (verbal, nonverbal and quantitative reasoning) as well as subject learning – especially among disadvantaged young people (Mannion & Mercer, 2016).

What have I learned through experience?

Philosophical enquiry is absolutely my favourite thing to do as a teacher. It has been a central component of my practice for the last 7 years, and I still run weekly enquiry sessions at the Self Managed Learning College, where I currently work part-time.

Anecdotally – and I make no apology for this – I have seen first-hand how transformative this approach is in terms of helping students develop their confidence and find their voice. It provides young people with the opportunity to discuss and explore things that are just not up for discussion in any other part of the curriculum. Some of the most memorable enquiries have been on the following questions – always written and chosen by the children:

  • Are ghosts real?
  • Is anything inherently good or evil, or do humans make it so?
  • Could the world be a simulation?
  • Is religion a force for good in the world?
  • Do animals have language?
  • Is life a war between all the animals?
  • Are dreams real?

One thing that’s really interesting when you work with a group over a long period is to observe how group interactions become more sophisticated over time – how they learn to disagree with one another without being offensive (year 7s often start by saying “no offence, but…” before going on to say something offensive); how they learn to active listen to one another, rather than just waiting to say what’s in their head; how they build on the ideas of others and assimilate new speech patterns; how they learn to be more concise when making a point, or to bite their tongue altogether; how they learn to give reasons for their thinking without being prompted; how they learn to run a philosophical enquiry session with minimal input from me… it really is a joy to behold.

My favourite moments are when students change their minds about something within the space of a lesson, and sometimes within the space of a single sentence. I recall an incredible moment in a discussion on the morality of shoplifting when a year 7 boy – a lively character who expressed challenging behaviours at times – paused mid-sentence, started again, stopped again and then said “I both agree and disagree with myself”, before embarking on a fulsome explanation of his newly complex stance.

Interestingly, students often reported that through philosophy they felt more confident about standing up to bullies. I attribute this to them “finding their voice”, another common theme in their learning journals. This links to something that only recently occurred to me, in a discussion about philosophical enquiry.

The reason I think this approach is so powerful is that it opens up a space in which, whatever the topic of discussion, we are really fundamentally thinking about two fundamental questions: what is the nature of truth, and how should I live my life? Philosophical enquiry stirs young people from ‘passive consumption’ mode and enables them to learn from themselves and from one another. In so doing, the young people become both more fully themselves and more fully integrated into the world around them. These are not things that you can “just tell them”.

Finally, I’m pretty sure my adventures in teaching philosophical enquiry have made me a better parent. I frequently draw upon my experience and training conversations with my son that enable him to explore ideas from different perspectives, and me to view the world through fresh eyes. And that really is priceless.

If you’re interested in being trained in a flexible approach to running philosophical enquiry lessons, see below for details. We offer 4 free places to hosting schools.

References

Gorard, S., Siddiqui, N. & See, B. H. (2015). Philosophy for Children: SAPERE, Evaluation Report and Executive Summary. EEF.

Lipman, M. (1988) Philosophy Goes to School. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Mannion, J., & Mercer, N. (2016). Learning to learn: improving attainment, closing the gap at Key Stage 3. The Curriculum Journal 27 (2), 246-271.

Topping, K.J. & Trickey, S. (2007a) Collaborative philosophical inquiry for school-children: Cognitive gains at 2-year follow-up. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 787-796.

Topping, K. J., & Trickey, S. (2007b). Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Cognitive effects at 10-12 years. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 271-288.

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