Skip to main content

Philosophy with children: what’s the point?

Teachers and children can learn to live better by embracing philosophy in the classroom, says this academic

Philosophy for children: what’s the point?

Teachers and children can learn to live better by embracing philosophy in the classroom, says this academic

In 1970s USA, Matthew Lipman was concerned by the lack of criticality demonstrated by his new undergraduate students of academic philosophy – so he created a philosophy curriculum for children. Since then, Lipman’s Philosophy for Children programme and a wide range of other approaches to philosophy with children have been adopted around the world, including within Scotland. 

Philosophy with children entails practical philosophy – it is different from academic philosophy. Academic philosophy might be seen as the study of the history of ideas, what’s usually done in university philosophy departments, and is now often studied in Scottish schools with pupils sitting Higher philosophy or studying RMPS (religious, moral and philosophical studies).

This, of course, has its place; but philosophy with children is not that – instead, it is about doing philosophy. Very simply put, it’s engaging in structured, collaborative dialogue about ideas generated by a group or community of participants, and the dialogue is philosophical in nature. Research evidence over the past 18 years at the University of Strathclyde has consistently shown the benefits of encouraging philosophy with children.

Practical philosophy can be integrated into and across the curriculum. Sessions usually begin by reading a stimulus such as a poem, short story or news item that has some philosophical potential. The participants ask questions prompted by the stimulus and then discuss one of these. The dialogue is structured, involving the participants in making connections with something that has been said previously in the dialogue by agreeing or disagreeing and offering reasons for that agreement or disagreement. Everyday language is used, so philosophy with children (which we often abbreviate to PwC) is accessible to all.

Philosophy for children

Indeed, philosophy – specifically an approach we call “community of philosophical inquiry” (CoPI) – has been used to support children who are often considered to be marginalised. Our research supports claims that the self-regulation of children with autism and/or social-emotional behavioural difficulties improves after participation in CoPI.

The same is true of our work with young people in secure accommodation. Teachers report that children and young people who can be disruptive in other class contexts enjoy and thrive during philosophical dialogues, learning that they will be listened to and that their views will be taken seriously. Also, teachers often highlight that children and young people who are shy or reluctant speakers in class participate fully in CoPI dialogues. In fact, many teachers use CoPI, or other PwC approaches, as a way to enhance talking and listening in the classroom. This is particularly helpful given the difficulty in creating activities to develop listening skills, and it avoids an over-reliance on presentations as a vehicle to develop talk.

Talking and listening extends beyond the curriculum. PwC supports children’s rights by offering them a tool with which to share their views and opinions in matters that affect them. In looking for an approach to support the work of Rights Respecting Schools or of education for citizenship, CoPI and PwC may hold some of the answers. Our research has shown that children’s reason-giving was seen to improve after only 10 weeks of CoPI; significant at a time when the promotion of thinking skills is a focus. This, too, offers a solution to the thorny problem of what might be done in place of religious observance in schools. Through CoPI, participants are able to engage with the world and explore their place in the world and their relationships with the environment and people they encounter. 

The benefits of PwC are not all directed at the pupils. Teachers have said that they have been rejuvenated by adopting a more philosophical approach in the classroom, by allowing children to take ownership of their learning by directing dialogue and raising questions to be explored. They find their practice has become more creative and open, and enjoy hearing children’s views that they otherwise wouldn’t have heard in the rush towards achieving set outcomes. The ethos of the classroom is more positive, they say, as a consequence of adopting practical philosophy. 

There is a case, then, that doing philosophy might help both teachers and pupils to live well, that their wellbeing might be enhanced through doing philosophy. The examined life is, indeed, worth living.

Dr Claire Cassidy is course leader of the postgraduate certificate in philosophy with children at the University of Strathclyde. She can be contacted at claire.cassidy@strath.ac.uk

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you