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What is “Philosophy for Children”?

This is itself an important philosophical question, not easy to answer; but let us say that philosophy, among other things, is self-conscious inquiry into the meaning of puzzling and contestable concepts. In ancient times philosophy was known as a search for wisdom or meaning, and many of the concepts philosophers have thought about for thousands of years are ones we use to structure our daily experience. “What is justice?” “What is beauty?” “How can I be sure of what I know?” “What is the right thing to do?” “What is real?”Philosophy is also known for the cultivation of excellent thinking. One of the most ancient branches of philosophy is logic, which includes informal logic, or “critical thinking.” But philosophy is not only an intellectual pursuit. Philosophers have tried to improve their thinking in order to better explore the philosophical dimensions of experience, such as the ethical, political and aesthetic dimensions, and in order to improve their judgments and actions within these dimensions. Philosophy helps us learn to recognize, for instance, the ethical problems and possibilities in our experience, to think through them carefully, to make sound ethical judgments and to take appropriate action. This is why for thousands of years people have practiced philosophy, not only in universities but also in business offices, reading clubs and coffee houses.

Why Philosophy for Children?

  • I wonder if ghosts are real or unreal.
  • When Dad tells me to be good, what does he mean?
  • What makes someone a best friend?
  • What do people mean when they say they love me?
  • That’s not fair!
  • Why is time so slow sometimes?
  • I think my doll is a person, not just a thing.
  • Mom said I didn’t have a good reason. What did she mean?
  • My parents say I should tell the truth.
  • Where did grandpa go when he died?

roseeeThe last thirty years’ experience in doing philosophy with children and adolescents has shown us that they are not only capable of doing philosophy but need and appreciate it for the same reasons that adults do. Children think constantly, and reflect on their thoughts. They acquire knowledge and try to use what they know. And they want their experience to be meaningful: to be valuable, interesting, just and beautiful. Philosophy offers children the chance to explore ordinary but puzzling concepts, to improve their thinking, to make more sense of their world and to discover for themselves what is to be valued and cherished in that world.

The advent of Philosophy for Children also coincides with the recognition that emerged in the third quarter of the 20th century that children are capable of thinking critically and creatively, and that a major aim of education should be to help children become more reasonable-the “fourth R”. And as reading and writing are taught to children through the discipline of literature, why not make reasoning and judgment available to them through the discipline of philosophy? However, these benefits don’t come from learning about the history of philosophy or philosophers. Rather, as with reading, writing and arithmetic, the benefits of philosophy come through the doing-through active engagement in rigorous philosophical inquiry.

Philosophy also includes the discipline of ethics and Philosophy for Children has proven to be an ideal program for values education. Children’s experience is replete with ethical concerns and issues, though they may be only dimly aware of this. And through television, the internet and other media, children today are exposed to ideas and images which not so long ago would have been reserved for adults. Like adults, children often perceive the world as a jumble of alternative possibilities. Rather than dictate a set of prescribed values to children, Philosophy for Children seeks to help them strengthen their own capacity to appraise and respond to these beckoning alternatives; to self-correct their habits of thought, feeling and action through sustained ethical inquiry. Moreover, Philosophy for Children’s egalitarian nature, commitment to varying viewpoints and insistence on the inherent value of all participants helps foster empathy and pro-social behavior as an essential basis for values education.

What is a Typical Philosophy for Children Session Like?

medmo-einstein-explain-questioningStudents begin philosophy sessions by reading aloud or acting out a philosophical story-typically, one that depicts fictional children discovering and exploring philosophical issues and applying their reasoning to life situations. Students next identify the issues in the story that they are interested to discuss, collaborating in the construction of the agenda or lesson plan. For the remainder of the session, and for the next few or several sessions, they deliberate upon these issues as a community of philosophical inquiry. These inquiries may culminate in action projects or works of art, but in any case they should culminate in the participants’ self-correction of their previous beliefs, feelings or values.

One very important element of Philosophy for Children is stimulus materials that provoke and support the students’ philosophical work. The P4C curriculum for use in grades 3-8, consisting of novels for students and manuals for teachers. But the most effective stimulus materials may be ineffectual without the central practice of Philosophy for Children: the community of inquiry. Participating in a community of inquiry, such as a live online class, engages young people in important cognitive moves such as creating hypotheses, clarifying their terms, asking for and giving good reasons, offering examples and counter examples, questioning each other’s assumptions, drawing inferences, and following the inquiry where it leads. But inquiry is also a social enterprise, which requires students to share their own perspectives, listen to one another, read faces, challenge and build on one another’s thinking, look for missing perspectives and reconstruct their own ideas. This kind of meaningful classroom dialogue is something most students find irresistible: they can’t help joining in, contributing their own reflections. In this way, cognitive and social skillfulness are acquired naturally and in context, rather than in isolated drills.

Children who are new to philosophy need the help of an experienced moderator. The P4C moderator sees her/himself as a co-inquirer with the children, as interested as they are in exploring philosophical concepts, improving judgment and discovering meaning. However, when it comes to the procedures of inquiry, the facilitator both guides the children and models for them-by asking open-ended questions, posing alternative views, seeking clarification, questioning reasons, and by demonstrating self-correcting behavior. It is through this kind of modeling that the children eventually internalize the procedures of inquiry. P4C moderators are taught to neither impose authoritative views on their students nor attempt to validate every student’s opinion in a relativistic fashion. They view their role as helping children to understand and use the tools of philosophical inquiry so that children can construct and re-construct their own answers to philosophical questions. The children should see the moderator as someone who respects them as persons, takes what they have to say seriously, doesn’t think s/he knows everything, models self-correction and really loves ideas.

The objective of such philosophy sessions is neither to find final answers to the questions that are raised, nor to reach complete agreement among the classmates. On the other hand, a genuine dialogue ‘moves forward’ in some sense that distinguishes it from mere lively conversation. Philosophy for Children seeks two kinds of objectives: progress in coping with the philosophical questions-which might include adapted beliefs, new hypotheses for experiment or even clarification of the question-and growth in the cognitive and social procedures of inquiry. With these objectives in mind, participants in the community of inquiry typically take stock of their own progress with questions such as:

  • Have we begun to deal with this question?
  • What do we understand now about the question/concept that we didn’t understand before?
  • Are we giving each other reasons for our views?
  • Are we listening to each other?
  • Are we able to stick to the point?
  • Are we able to build on each other’s ideas?
  • Who is doing the talking?
  • Do we correct each other with sensitivity?
  • Are we becoming more tentative about what we claim to know?
  • Do we trust each other?

The most enthusiastic proponents of Philosophy for Children are the children, who find philosophy not only thought-provoking but fun. Parents and teachers likewise enjoy doing philosophy with their children. They appreciate this ancient discipline as a way to help their children and themselves to sharpen their thinking, encounter new ideas, decide what they believe, and get to know others through shared inquiry.

What is the Curriculum?

 The curriculum is designed to engage students in exploring the philosophical dimensions of their experience, with particular attention to logical, ethical and aesthetic dimensions. The curriculum consists of novels for students about 80 pages in length and is written in informal language, without technical terminology.

Copyright © 2003 by the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children

Philosophy is one of the most ancient and prestigious of the disciplines, and until recently it was thought to be too difficult and uninteresting for children (and indeed, for many adults). Yet, consider how many perennial philosophical issues are typically encountered by children as young as four or five: