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Philosophy For Children (P4C)

What is Philosophy for Children, what is a 'Community of Enquiry' and how can they develop creative and critical thinking skills? Revised Howard

Philosophy For Children (P4C) does not refer to teaching children traditional philosophy, rather, it is a pedagogic approach developed by Mat Lipman that centres on teaching thinking skills and the ability to question and reason. It is a student-led, enquiry based approach to learning.

Lipman, a Philosophy professor at the time, developed P4C in the 1970s.  He was concerned with the Deweyan notion of creating an education for a healthy democracy –an education that would develop a critical citizenry with respect and empathy for others in the community. For further information on the background and theoretical underpinnings of P4C see Sutcliffe: Philosophy for Children.

Whilst P4C includes a whole curriculum developed by Lipman an his associates, it is at essence a strict yet simple model of learning – ‘Community of Enquiry’, that can be used in any subject – from arts, ethics to maths or sciences. In this model, a group of children are given a stimulus, such as a story or scientific problem – and they are asked to generate questions from it about anything problematic, puzzling or interesting, thus deciding the framework of the ‘Enquiry’.  The group then reasons together out loud – putting forward ideas, responding to and building on the ideas of others and generating further questions until they are satisfied with how they have dealt with the problem. They are asked to reflect on the answers that arise and their learning.  The content of the discussion is considered to be less important than the quality of the reasoning, and the role of the teacher is to develop higher level of reasoning, through using guiding questions, for example encouraging use of examples, reasons, criteria.

Lipman calls this model ‘Community of Enquiry’, and the community or ‘groupwork’ aspect is considered of equal importance to the philosophical enquiry. Through vocalising their thinking together, and using the language of enquiry students learn how to think ‘reasonably’.  In Lipman’s view – reasoning is a discursive, group activity.  Critically, students also engage in important social and co-operative experiences that develop listening, empathy, respect, friendship and the ability to truly work and think co-operatively.  In fact, Lipman talks of the 4C’s of P4C – the development of Critical, Creative, Co-operative and Caring thinking skills. 

To get an idea of how the Community of Enquiry model works, see transcripts of the model being used accompanied by a discussion of the transcripts and how to use the model by Lipman, in the article Simple Gifts.

Research has clearly shown that P4C improves cognitive abilities of participants, developing general thinking and reasoning skills that lead to higher levels of attainment across the curriculum.  Furthermore P4C has been found to have great success in improving motivation (read Radical Encouragement) by improving levels of understanding, confidence and student ownership of learning.   A further asset of the P4C approach is that it develops learning-to -learn skills – through it’s ‘thinking out loud’ approach and emphasis on questioning and reflection.

For those interested in using P4C as a model for creating a more child-directed curriculum, see Gavin White: Creating a P4C Inspired Curriculum.  For a more sceptical response to P4C and some of its drawbacks, read Richard Fox: Can Children Really Be Philosophical – and for a response to this article see Karen Murris: Are Children Natural Philosophers.  For further information about P4C training and conferences, in the UK see SAPERE – the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry in Education and Dialogue Works.

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