Small must think big

21st January 2005 at 00:00
Is war ever right? What is a friend? Opponents of philosophy for children deny them the chance to confront such profound questions, writes Will Ord

Two weeks ago, Jill Parkin wrote an article (TES, January 7)) on the importance of storytelling, and en route, criticised Philosophy for Children, and a primary resource called But Why? featuring "Philosophy Bear".

Stories get children thinking for free, it was argued, so why bother spending money on a purposeless subject like philosophy to help enquire into them, especially in a crowded curriculum? Those greedy publishers must be behind it! Indeed, why philosophise at all when "for most of us the answer is 42 and get on with your life"?

Apart from the fact that consumers actually have a choice of whether they buy a publisher's product or not, Ms Parkin's article grossly misrepresented Philosophy for Children (or "P4C"). It is no surprise that the resource book and the role of Philosophy Bear was therefore not understood or appreciated.

So let's get the facts and concepts about P4C straight.

First of all, Philosophy for Children is not the same as the academic subject "philosophy". It is an approach to teaching and learning - a process - that emphasises the importance of thinking skills, speaking and listening, collaborative learning, emotional literacy and values education.

At its heart lies the activity of philosophising: the art of creating thoughtful questions and enquiring into them skilfully with others. Furthermore, the questions are raised by the children, not the teacher, so that enquiries are motivated by genuine curiosity and not imposed by adult agendas.

This makes P4C very popular with children and adults alike; after 35 years of development, P4C is now practised in 60 countries.

Is it a waste of time? Quite the opposite. Research last year (see www.sapere. net) showed that average IQ scores, test results, behaviour and self-esteem all improved very significantly with just one hour a week of philosophy over a year when compared to control groups. Add to this the reams of research, teachers' testimonies, the growing appreciation of thinking skills and emotional literacy in education (KS3, the primary strategy, Excellence and Enjoyment etc.), and there's not much doubt about P4C's pedigree or practical effectiveness. Just ask our 1,000 members or any of the many thousands of pupils who practise it.

Is there time to do it? Certainly. P4C is a skills-based approach to education, and highlights the importance of "learning to learn". As such, it can be used with any age, any ability and through any subject so there's no need for extra time-tabling. On the contrary, P4C makes school time much more efficient because it helps children develop their ability to learn.

Research clearly establishes that the achievement of children who learn in this way is significantly greater and swifter than pupils who are simply "instructed". This is why the terms such as "facilitation" and "building a community of enquiry" are not empty jargon, but labels for profoundly important classroom practice.

Why bother with philosophy? Both teachers and children who try P4C find that it's fun, meaningful, liberating, natural, and challenging. "What is fair?", "What is a good friend?", "Who is responsible for the poor?", "Is war ever right?", "Do natural disasters prove that God doesn't exist?" - the answers to these sorts of philosophical questions are not 42, Ms Parkin, they are an essential part of "getting on with life". They are the stuff of our relationships, feelings, thoughts and actions, and pupils need the time, guidance and structure to find their own thoughtful responses to them.

The development of meaning, ideas, creative and critical thinking does not happen by listening to stories alone. And even if these benefits of P4C didn't occur, it would be worth doing if only as an antidote to the cynicism, poor reasoning, abuse of facts, or confused concepts that all too often degrades public discourse and misrepresents important issues or ideas. Storytelling is certainly affordable, but it is good thinking that is beyond price.

Letters 25

Will Ord is chair of SAPERE, the education charity supporting Philosophy for Children (P4C )in the UK. More details at

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