The following is a contribution to the JREF’s ongoing blog series on skepticism and education. If you are an educator and would like to contribute to this series, please contact Bob Blaskiewicz.


In the Year 6 classroom at Stanmore Public School in Sydney, the teacher, Dan Smith, is always right. Well, nearly always. Because once a week when the students move all the chairs into a big circle and gather for an hour of philosophy, their teacher is the first to admit that he does not have all the answers…

- Radio National Philosopher’s Zone Teaching Children To Be Philosophers, 6th December, 2008.


My Experiences With Philosophy For Children:  As a resource writer, high school and now university-level teacher, I owe a lot to the Philosophy for Children methodology – known as “P4C”. What makes my experience particularly interesting is that P4C hails from the USA and I am an Australian – it is more popular overseas than in its place of origin. In April, 2004, I attended a Level 2 training course in Philosophy for Children, which gave me the credentials to train teachers in the Level 1 P4C course. It was hosted at a monastery, the St Clements Retreat Centre located in a remote country town called Galong, in New South Wales.

I joined fifteen other teachers for lectures and workshops run by professionals in the field likeA_P4C_teacher_training_session_in_Perth_K_Sturgess Phillip Cam (Associate Professor in the School of History and Philosophy at the University of NSW), Catherine Geraghty-Slavica (SOPHY), and sessions by a special guest overseas presenter – Ann Margaret Sharp. She was the Associate Director of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children and a Professor of Education at Montclair State College. She was also the co-author (with Matthew Lipman and Frederick S. Oscanyan) of Philosophy in the Classroom (Temple), Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, Kio and Gus, Elfie and many more in the Philosophy for Children series. She was almost childlike with her enthusiasm – eagerly unpacking concepts and debating with a cheerful laugh – it was a little difficult to connect this person as being the author of many of the books and manuals that led us to sign up in the first place! Dr Sharp is considered one of the founders of the worldwide Philosophy for Children movement, an approach to philosophy teaching that relies on a self-correcting community of inquiry, rather than the authority of the teacher, to provoke and guide philosophic discussion.

This is a major transfer of responsibility to the students, and is considered an innovation with implications for the teaching of philosophy, which is still providing resources and models for philosophy teaching across all ages. Since that time, I have worked with other P4C teachers with providing workshops, attending lectures nationally with the Australasian Federation for Philosophy for Children, writing resources and teaching the method to students at secondary and tertiary level. It’s a methodology that garners a lot of interest, and yet faces many of the challenges that a lot of good programs and initiatives do when it comes to promoting and sustaining their existence.  

The Intellectual Tradition Of Philosophy For Children:  The P4C method draws primarily from the pragmatist tradition – Pierce, James, Mead and especially Dewey. The Community for Inquiry (aka CoI) includes Vygotsky’s theory of the internalization of social behavior and, naturally, draws upon the Socratic method with its community approach, with pupils sharing their views on questions drawn from stimulus materials. Its creator, Matthew Lipman, discerned a lack of thinking and reasoning abilities in college students in the 1960s, when teaching at Columbia and so he decided to engage upper primary students in philosophical discussion using the CoI:

“…when I advocated philosophy in the schools, I was not talking about the traditional academic philosophy taught in the graduate schools of the university. What I was talking about was a philosophy redesigned and reconstructed so as to make it available and acceptable and enticing to children. Moreover, the pedagogy by which the subject was to be presented would have to be just as drastically redesigned as the subject itself.” (Lipman, 1991).

He joined Ann Margaret Sharp at Montclair State College in 1964, where they founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). In 1967, he wrote the first of a series of books: Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery (which is indeed a play on “Aristotle”, not an allusion to Harry Potter!) and its Teachers’ Manual, written with Ann Margaret Sharp and other contributors. The text has a strong sense of structuring throughout, emphasizing critical, creative and caring thinking. Subsequent stories, with their accompanying manuals, were written for older students and then younger ones – such as Elfie and The Doll Hospital. Thus began the IAPC Curriculum in P4C. This Curriculum has an important historical legacy and exemplar for what was to follow; stories were written as children’s “windows” into philosophy, with the manuals acting as the teacher’s window. Lipman’s scholarship lent the required philosophical richness to the stories, and modeled dialogue among children, rather than the adult voice being the prime narrator.

“...there is some truth in the Piagetian tradition which it would be perilous to ignore. Children do not benefit from being bombarded with ‘adult’ words and theories which mean little to them, and they (pretty much like the rest of us) are unlikely to grasp concepts which cannot be instantiated or illustrated within the realms of their own experience. On the other hand, abstract concepts to do with conservation, causality, the mind, reality, personhood and truth may be within the grasp of young children provided that they can find pathways to and from their own more concrete experiences.” (Splitter & Sharp, 1995).

To think is to inquire, in Dewey’s proposal; and it’s interesting that that Dewey had Science rather than Philosophy teaching in mind when he thought about inquiry-based teaching and learning. While Philosophy cannot claim to be the only discipline to promote thinking in education, it is a discipline self-consciously devoted to thinking, and it has developed an abundance of tools and techniques aimed at improving the quality of thought. As Dewey and Lipman demonstrate with their work, there is a world of difference in outcome to be expected from an education that emphasises the memorisation of knowledge and one that treats such knowledge as material with which to think. Nothing is more likely to develop an inquiring outlook than philosophical inquiry, and there is nothing like learning to inquiry philosophically, for developing a capacity to think for oneself. Though engaging in collaborative inquiry, students can be taught to listen to other people with whom they may not agree. They can be taught to hear each other out, and to broaden the outlook in their own thinking. As children grow up, they grow to consider other’s points of view - and not to think that those who disagree with them about matters of value and conduct must be either ignorant or vicious – thus paving the way for active engagement in community life.  

Philosophy For Children Internationally – Why Doesn't Everyone Do It?:  Why is Philosophy for Children not known worldwide, let alone in its place of origin, the USA? There’s several reasons that I can think of: firstly, the lack of a large body of definite research data that demonstrates the effectiveness of philosophy in schools. Some research conducted in Scotland at Durham University in 2006, Sunderland and Newcastle Universities in 2005, and a number of smaller research efforts before that time, indicated outcomes such as a drop in schoolyard conflict and bullying, increased participation and engagement, increased use of open-ended questioning by teachers and possible improvements in results in standardised tests. However, despite campaigns like the one launched in 2011 by a group of philosophers and authors in the UK, including AC Grayling and Robin Ince, philosophy is not a core subject in primary or secondary schools and is primarily taught by solo teachers, some departments and some individual schools. Teachers need to be trained in the methodology, and who is willing to pay for classes or travel to join classes held in other cities and often other states? While schools should to be willing to take it up and incorporate it for all students (which avoids issues with it only benefiting some children – something that the Ethics classes in New South Wales faced), it’s no easy feat finding teachers in general, especially those in their early years of training and teaching, who can fit in sessions and then create a thinking culture within the school. Curriculums are already stretched to fit in new technologies, and with the ever-present need to improve literacy and numeracy skills – it’s little wonder that Lipman’s ideas have faltered, despite the regular rallying to “get teaching about thinking in schools”. While enthusiastic outsiders are keen, the perspective from inside educational systems can be less than optimistic - which leads me to believe that there should be more support for those educators who are currently working to instigate changes from within. Over the years I have conducted a number of interviews with Philosophy for Children practitioners for vodcasts and podcasts, including presenting at a P4C conference on the use of podcasts in education. I recently interviewed Dr Sue Knight, Adjunct Lecturer at the School of Education, University of South Australia and the former co-editor of Critical and Creative Thinking: The Australasian Journal of Philosophy in Education, for the Token Skeptic podcast:

Dr Knight: You've got to have trained teachers for start, and you've got to have schools which are prepared to let you take up a certain amount of time a week, which isn't often easy, either. One PhD student I had did a fantastic study integrating ethical inquiry into the social and environmental education curriculum. It was a very strong study, and her results were excellent, but - to tell you the truth, I think that's the way to go. That's my bet, anyway. That would be the best chance. Instead of saying, “We want Philosophy for Children classes,” I think we should probably be trying to show people how to raise philosophical questions within the curriculum areas that already exist.

Kylie Sturgess: In an already crowded curriculum, having people just turn up with the equivalent of torches and pitchforks, saying, “We want this, and we want this now, et cetera...”

Dr Knight: Yes. There's a whole army of people doing that constantly: “We need to have this. We need to have that.” We saw that with the Australian National Curriculum [currently undergoing changes], with people from different groups with different goals… quite sincerely believing that what they were asking for was essential. It depends on how strong your lobby is, and your lobbying group.

…I think that what our department has decided is we have to do something about the ethical behaviors element in the National Curriculum, because that's the one the teachers are really panicking about. We've got two very interesting women in the department who are responsible for implementing the capabilities here, and they have asked me to help them in a project.

We've started work on that a few weeks ago, and we're trying to build an inquiry into unit plans in Maths, and History, and everything else. It's ethical inquiry, not general philosophical inquiry, but I'm now thinking that might have more hope of succeeding than other things that I've tried, because we've got the department behind us on it, and it'll be up on their website, and they'll be recommending that teachers use the material. So, maybe.

For more information on the status of Philosophy for Schools in Australia, head to the Token Skeptic podcast episode #131 – On Philosophy in Schools.    


Links and References Cam, Philip. (1995), Thinking Together: Philosophical Inquiry for the Classroom. Australian English Teaching Association & Hale and Iremonger. Lipman, M. (1980). Philosophy in the classroom (2nd ed.). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in education. New York: Cambridge University Press. Splitter, Laurance J. and Ann Margaret Sharp. (1995), Teaching for Better Thinking: The Classroom Community of Enquiry. Melbourne, Acer. FAPSA – Federation for Australian Philosophy in Schools Australasia. Primary Ethics – Ethics Classes in Australia, which uses P4C methodology IAPC (Institute for Advancement of Philosophy with Children) Montclair State University. New Zealand Philosophy for Children site Philosophy for Children on the World Wide Web SAPERE – Philosophy for Children in the UK.


Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast, and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and CSICOP’s Curiouser and Curiouser online column. She holds Masters degrees in gifted and talented education and wrote her thesis on the educational measurement of paranormal beliefs. She is the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012 and presented at the Sixth World Skeptics Congress in Berlin on pseudoscience in education. In addition, Kylie Sturgess is an award-winning secular activist, a member of the James Randi Educational Foundation Education Advisory Panel and writes at The Token Skeptic at FreeThought Blogs.