Philosophy for children (P4C)

6 September 2011

Philosophy for Children, or P4C, is a teaching methodology that helps develop pupils’ critical thinking and enables them to engage with quite complex global issues.

Think imageP4C emerged during the late 1960s in the United States, at the time of the Vietnam War. The prevailing civil unrest gave rise to heated discussions regarding war and other moral questions, and P4C founder Mathew Lipman—then professor at Columbia University—was disappointed by the level of discussion among his students. He reached the conclusion that students should start learning reasoning and logic at a much younger age.

Lipman went on to develop a new model of learning called “communities of enquiry,” in which teacher and children collaborate with each other to grow in understanding, not only of the material world, but also of the personal and ethical world around them.

The curriculum aims to help students develop good judgment and reasoning skills—seen by Lipman as the ultimate goal of education. However, P4C does not only influence cognitive development. Now in practice in over 60 countries, it has proven to impact emotional, social and moral development as well.

This film clip about P4C is from BBC London News and features Gallions Primary School in Newham, East London.

The P4C approach to teaching thinking

The intention behind P4C is not to introduce another subject in schools, but to use philosophical approaches to enhance students’ overall educational experience, and to get them thinking both creatively and critically. In addition, P4C focuses on teaching children how to apply their thinking skills and to “develop the general disposition to think better.”

It accomplishes this with two key practices. The first is enquiry, which starts and drives the thinking process (going beyond information to seek understanding). The second practice is reflection, which can result in significant changes of thought and action.

A typical session starts with a stimulus, such as a picture or a fictional story that provokes questions about issues such as environmental ethics, the existence of God, bullying, or fighting. Students then choose a philosophical (open-ended) question to discuss as a group, thereby learning to share perspectives, listen to each other, and respect each other’s views while challenging and building upon them.

It goes without saying that thought-provoking materials are crucial. Equally important is the role of teachers, who support the key processes of enquiry and reflection with the language they use to guide the discussion. They can encourage students to form questions, hypotheses, reasons, and examples, and also guide students to read between the lines and detect implications, intentions, connections and potential inconsistencies.

Using P4C to teach the Global Dimension

P4C can be a powerful tool in getting students to think as global citizens. For one thing, it encourages children to question and consider issues of global significance such as identity, diversity, sustainable development, and poverty.

However, more importantly, P4C methodology can be drawn upon to help students develop the necessary self-awareness, values and attitudes to ultimately become active citizens in local, national, global and international communities. With its emphasis on creating an environment that enables children to be heard, respected, and valued, P4C can teach children to listen, reason, cooperate, empathise, and above all, “think” independently about global issues.

This, of course, is no simple matter. Global issues are complex and have no easy answers. Therefore, rather than providing answers, or taking a simplified approach, the teacher’s role is to encourage students to recognize the existence of multiple perspectives while approaching these topics.

Read about more schools using P4C

»Global Dimension case study: Learning about diversity in Reception and Year 1

»Global Dimension case study: Global Citizenship using P4C in Years 2 and 3

Using P4C to work with excluded children

The Cumbria Development Education Centre (CDEC) and Lancashire Global Education Centre teamed up to conduct an innovative project at two Pupil Referral Units: Brookside Short Stay School, and Newbridge House. The idea was to assess the effectiveness of P4C in the Global Citizenship curriculum with children who were excluded from mainstream education.

Eddy Richards, Coordinator at the North West Global Education Network (which funded the project) said that on the whole, the results were positive.

“The children gained confidence and self esteem—for example, one child who was an elective mute began to contribute in sessions, to the astonishment of teachers! They improved some of their critical thinking skills, as well as their ability to participate effectively in group sessions by listening to others, taking turns, and being open minded. There were some changes in attitudes towards some of the topics, such as asylum-seekers, though perhaps not as much as one might ideally hope. Having said that, the benefits in the first aspects mentioned were so large that they have a much better basis for building on in further work. I should emphasise that these children really are ‘hard-to-reach’ and have been excluded from most of the educational process, so their starting points were low.”

Eddy added, “Whilst the students commented that they learnt what a philosophical question was, the teachers observed that after the P4C sessions, the students were better able to gather coherent thoughts, make questions, put forward an opinion, and put thoughts and ideas into well-structured sentences”.

Useful websites

SAPERE is an educational charity whose members are interested in the role of philosophical enquiry in education. The website has a guide to P4C in the UK.
» Visit the SAPERE website

The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children was established by P4C founder Matthew Lipman. It provides information for teachers, and materials for engaging children in philosophical enquiry.
» Visit the IAPC website

Development Education Centres
Many DECs run training courses in P4C. Check our our Calendar for any forthcoming course dates. The following links may also be useful:
» DECSY Introduction to P4C
» Global Link P4C methodology

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