P4C - An introduction

  • 10th August 2015
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I used to think that philosophy was for people who would rather prevaricate than take action or for those who don’t care much how they look and seem to resist getting a proper job. Then I was introduced to Philosophy for Children.  Now I don’t want to sound as if I had some sort of evangelical moment but I am convinced of the virtues of philosophy and believe it would be wise to promote philosophical thinking in our schools.  

Philosophy is unlike other subjects in two important respects. Firstly, philosophical issues underlie the other subjects. For example, questions about fairness are at the core of geography; evidence is central to science; etc.  Secondly, philosophy is specifically concerned with good thinking. Of course, good thinking is an art rather than the straightforward application of a set of tools. Yet, just as the most accomplished chef learned the art of cooking through the practice of following recipes accurately, so it is with thinking. Philosophy can introduce our children to a ‘recipe’ for good thinking.

Philosophy for Children

The Philosophy for Children project (P4C) was founded in the late 1960s. Since then P4C has proved to be an extremely positive approach to teaching and learning. P4C offers the best set of strategies I know of for developing the art of good thinking with children.

The Basics of P4C

Philosophical inquiry with children begins when you find something that has no obvious answer. Philosophical questions can be created from almost any thought provoking, philosophical concept worth investigating. Some concepts that children would do well to understand include: beauty, art, justice, fairness, freedom, community, truth, morality, power, faith and tolerance.  These concepts are introduced to the group via question stems e.g.:

  •  Is it possible to be normal and different at the same time?
  •  What is the difference between being a friend and being friendly?

Children’s responses are then used to create Cognitive Conflict i.e. setting up a conflict of opinions within an individual’s mind to encourage that person, and the group, to reflect on what it is they actually think. This in turn leads to greater engagement and a more energetic search for a resolution.

Critical thinking

During P4C sessions children either express received ideas or they weigh up pros and cons and make a reasoned judgement. If it is the latter then they are engaging in critical thinking and their comments are persuasive, have a conclusion and are supported by at least one reason.

To help children learn that many questions do not have one ‘right’ answer, I would advocate leaving at least some philosophical questions unanswered, even after a long and fruitful inquiry. P4C is akin to sailing into a headwind – you need to tack from side to side whilst always striving to make progress towards your destination.  This will also help children learn how to manage uncertainty.

A phrase that I think captures the spirit of inquiry nicely is: ‘Not all of our questions answered, but all of our answers questioned.’