In the 1970s, Professor Matthew Lipman advocated the introduction of philosophy into schools as a way to convert the classroom into a ‘community of enquiry’ ((Lipman, 2003), p. 15) and develop children’s ability to reason. Philosophy for Children (P4C) provides a way to develop skills in critical thinking, discussion and problem-solving. This article discusses the impact of P4C on enquiry and discussion, both in the classroom and at home.
A study by Topping and Tricky (Topping and Tricky, 2007), in which eight schools introduced P4C into upper Key Stage 2 classes for 16 months, found significant gains in verbal cognitive ability and reasoning. A more recent large-scale study by Gorard et al. (2015), involving Key Stage 2 pupils across 48 schools, concluded that through the implementation of P4C, pupils made further progress in attainment and cognitive ability tests. Examination of this in practice in the classroom with Key Stage 1 pupils has been less extensive, however.
Trialling the P4C approach
I carried out a trial of P4C with my Year 2 class (ages 6–7), introducing it through the implementation of a weekly session following a format suggested by Stanley (Stanley , 2004), designed specifically to engage early years and primary-aged children. In response to a stimulus for discussion, such as a story, painting or piece of music, the pupils generated questions, with one then selected for discussion.
I tracked pupils’ grades over the two terms of the implementation and conducted group interviews with all pupils to discuss how they thought their skills had developed. Questions asked, based on a skills-building structure outlined by Stanley (Stanley , 2004), included whether they were enjoying the sessions, as well as specific skills-based questions, such as whether listening to the ideas of others helped them to think of their own ideas, or whether they could link their ideas with ideas from other children.
Collecting quantitative data in the form of grades was not particularly illuminating here; over the course of two terms, the pupils made progress at the rate I would have expected them to. There were too many variables to try to unpick what would have contributed to this.
However, through recording the sessions, I was able to observe them without juggling facilitating and observing, meaning I could compare the observations over the time of the implementation of P4C. Within the first session, children appeared to find it difficult to generate questions about the stimulus. Most of the questions were factually based and were directly linked to the stimulus. For example, in response to the book If I Were a Spider (Bowkett, 2004), the children asked questions such as:
‘Where does the spider live?’
‘Does he have any friends?’
‘What can the spider eat?’
‘How do spiders make their webs?’
We progressed to looking at different question types, such as open and philosophical questions. Stanley (2004) notes that differentiating between question types and asking a wider range of questions is the first step in developing metacognitive skills.
As the sessions progressed, a deeper level of questioning began to emerge. For example, in session seven, when I introduced the painting The Goldfish Bowl by Henry Matisse, the children began asking ‘bigger’ questions. These included descriptive questions such as:
‘What kind of fish are they?’
‘Why don’t fish blink?’
But among them were a range of a newer, deeper questions:
‘Are fish afraid of sharks?’
‘Are fish happy in the sea?’
The development of questions encouraged the children to explore, through their discussion, whether fish have feelings or have the ability to feel afraid or happy, and the implications of having feelings or not. Another layer of questioning developed from this:
‘Is it right to have a fish in a bowl?’
‘Is it right to keep animals in a zoo?’
As the discussions progressed, lessconfident children were more willing and engaged, wanting to participate and have their ideas heard. Through observing the children, I found that:
- Children were more consistent in following on from each other’s ideas
- Children made connections through agreeing and disagreeing with their peers
- The children became more confident and accurate at identifying the skills that they were using during the session
- Some children were able to evaluate their own thinking processes by summarising what they had thought at the beginning of the session, then identifying when and why there had been a shift in their own thoughts
- Through the reflective process, some pupils were able to evaluate their stance on the issues discussed.
Questions generated by the children during class discussions were set as homework for discussion with an adult, followed by questionnaires and interviews of the parents. These demonstrated that children enjoyed taking part in discussions at home with parents and siblings, with one parent stating that ‘it usually ends up as a big family discussion with us all saying what we think and why’. Pupils were all discussing issues beyond the homework given, including in-depth debates on religion, relationships and the environment. Parents believed that family conversations had become more challenging and interesting as a result. It was apparent that one of the main gains from the sessions was that the children had become much more critically aware of the wider natural environment, which Fisher (Fisher, 2003) and Lipman (Lipman, 2003) believe is an important aspect of developing reasoning, critical thinking and metacognitive skills.
Although there is limited quantitative evidence to demonstrate the impact of P4C over the course of this short trial, the qualitative data suggests that pupils’ skills in questioning and reasoning improved. The class had begun to demonstrate many of the characteristics of critical thinking described by Lipman (2003), even at this early age:
- Organising thoughts and articulating them concisely and coherently
- Listening carefully to others people’s ideas
- Recognising that real-world problems have more than one solution
- Questioning their own views and attempting to understand the assumptions and implications of these views
- Ability to represent differing viewpoints.
Finally, the level and impact of parental engagement with their children’s learning was an important and interesting aspect of this work, which I had not predicted at the outset.