“It’s absolutely gripping”… The power of Philosophy for Children

by Dr James Mannion

This is the final post in a series of six extracts from Fear is the Mind Killer: Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils.

The feedback we have received so far has been pretty phenomenal. You can read all the very kind things people have said about it here. And you can buy it here (John Catt) or here (Amazon).

Here are all the posts in this series:

This post is about the importance of philosophical enquiry.



The origins of Philosophy for Children (P4C) can be traced to the global period of student unrest in 1968 when Matthew Lipman, a Philosophy professor at Columbia University, became concerned by the lack of critical thinking and reasoning evident among his students and colleagues:

‘There was so much rigidity among both students and the university administration, so little communication, so little recourse to reason. I was beginning to have serious doubts about the value of teaching philosophy. It didn’t seem to have any impact on what people did. I began to think that the problem I was seeing in the university couldn’t be solved there, that thinking was something that had to be taught much earlier, so that by the time a student graduated from high school, skilful, independent thinking would have become a habit.’ [1]

Lipman began to make enquiries as to how to thinking skills might be better developed through the school system.

‘But I didn’t want to teach children logic in the way we taught (or pretended to teach) college students logic… Someone suggested to me that I somehow present logic in the form of a children’s story. The possibility intrigued me: a story… of the discovery by a group of children of how their own thought processes work, and how more effective thought processes could be distinguished from less effective ones.’ [2]

The following year, Lipman wrote a children’s book, Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery (Aristotle… geddit?), and began using it as a stimulus for extended philosophical discussions among fifth grade (Year 6) students, which took place twice a week for nine weeks. The impact of this intervention was evaluated in a controlled study involving pre- and post-intervention measures of logic and logical reasoning ability. According to Lipman, the intervention led to an ‘increase of 27 months in mental age of the pilot study group at the end of the 9-week program. I could hardly believe we’d made such an impact on the kids in the study.’ [3]

Encouraged by these early experiences, Lipman wrote a range of books and teacher manuals to cater for students ranging from age 6 to 16. In 1974 he established the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair University, New Jersey, which is still going strong. Since then, the use P4C of has grown significantly, and the approach is now practiced in more than 60 countries worldwide.

Over the last 50 years, the impact of P4C has been studied extensively, and there is a wealth of evidence that the approach is associated with significant gains across a range of academic, cognitive and affective (attitudinal/emotional) domains. Several early studies found that children taking part in twice-weekly P4C sessions significantly outperformed students in control groups in measures of formal and informal reasoning. [4], [5], [6] Intriguingly, another early study found that students receiving P4C performed significantly better than control students in maths and reading comprehension. [7] This was a surprising finding because P4C sessions do not involve maths or reading, suggesting that the thinking and reasoning skills developed through P4C were able to transfer to other areas of the curriculum – an early example of ‘far transfer’, as we discussed earlier.

This finding that P4C develops transferable knowledge and skills has been repeated on several occasions since. For example, a systematic review of controlled studies spanning 30 years found that P4C led to significant gains in logical reasoning, reading, maths, self-esteem and turn-taking. [8] More recent studies of P4C have found evidence of lasting cognitive gains, improved maths and reading comprehension, improved interactive behaviour and enhanced self-esteem. [9], [10], [11], [12] There is also evidence that P4C benefits teachers as well as students, leading to greater use of open-ended questioning and encouraging teachers to critically engage with their practice. [13], [14] This certainly chimes with our own experience as teachers who have run hundreds of P4C inquiries over the years.

So if it’s evidence of impact you’re after, P4C has it in spades. But by far the strongest rationale for P4C comes from seeing it in action. It’s absolutely gripping. Happily, there are now dozens of videos online of P4C in action, with even very young children engaging in thought-provoking extended discussions. Just type ‘P4C’ into YouTube – you’ll soon see what we mean. [15]


What does it look like in practice?


‘The aim of P4C is for children to become “more thoughtful, more reflective, more considerate and more reasonable individuals”. Most of these skills and the dispositions to use them are learned best through language, by creating a “community of enquiry”, where children engage in dialogue as a co-operative venture’.

Robert Fisher (1990) [16]

Running a philosophical enquiry lesson is very different from teaching subject knowledge, and it can take a bit of practice to get good at it. The first thing to do is to get trained in the approach. In the UK, the main training provider is the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE, Latin for ‘to be wise’), and there are equivalent bodies in several countries. In the UK It takes two days to do the Level 1 course, which is all you need to get started. You can also host a training event at your school, which is a good idea if you want to get a few people trained at once. We don’t recommend trying to run a P4C session until you have been properly trained in the approach. However, we will briefly outline what a P4C lesson typically looks like.

Nowadays, people tend not to use the original Lipman texts. Instead, most P4C sessions begin with some kind of a stimulus – a short piece of writing, a poem, a photograph, a news article, an object, or a piece of music perhaps. Following this, the children generate questions for discussion, which they then vote on. Before you can do this however, you need to do some work with your pupils on what kinds of questions lend themselves to philosophical discussion. To do this, many practitioners of P4C refer to the ‘question quadrant’ (see below). [17]

The question quadrant

Let’s say the stimulus for discussion is a hyper-realistic painting of the sky (if you’re not familiar, look up hyper-realistic paintings online – they’re amazing!) There are many questions that could arise from a stimulus such as this. Often, children tend initially to ask closed questions that seek to clarify understanding about the stimulus – ‘Is it a painting or a photo?’, or ‘Who is the artist?’, for example. These are perfectly reasonable questions to ask, but they don’t lend themselves to extended philosophical discussion.

Alternatively, they might ask more open, speculative questions – questions that they might use their imagination to answer. For example, ‘What feeling is the artist trying convey?’, or ‘Why would you want to paint something that looks like a photograph?’ As a basis for discussion, these are better than closed questions, but they are still focused on the stimulus. In P4C lessons, what we really want is for pupils to look beyond the stimulus to explore the ‘big ideas’ that lurk behind it. Nature, beauty, perception, consciousness, the idea of something being fake, deceptive or artificial, the nature of reality – all that good stuff.

Sometimes, children ask questions that sound big and profound at face value – ‘Why is the sky blue?’, for example. This is an improvement in the sense that it goes beyond the stimulus to enquire about the broader concepts of ‘sky’ and ‘colour’. However, it is a closed question in that you can look up the answer in a book, or online. Scientists can answer this question, but it soon becomes quite technical and again, it doesn’t really lend itself to extended discussion. [18]

In a P4C lesson, what we really want is for pupils to ask questions that sit in the lower right quadrant in the figure above – open-ended questions that are about general ideas, inspired by the stimulus but not directly related to it. For example, they might ask ‘Does the sky even exist?’, or ‘Is a photograph more real than a photorealistic painting?’, or ‘Can something that is fake be as beautiful as something that is real?’ These are questions that lend themselves to extended discussion, partly because the answers depend on what we mean when we use words like ‘exist’ and ‘real’ and ‘beautiful’.

Once your pupils have learned how to ask the kinds of questions that lend themselves to extended, philosophical discussion – and it doesn’t take long to teach them – you’re good to go. There is no single way to run a philosophical enquiry lesson. However, most practitioners of P4C get the class to sit in a circle (this is actually kind of important, as we will discuss later in this chapter) and follow a variation on the following 10-step procedure:

  1. Some kind of settling activity – e.g. a guided visualisation to calm the pupils down – or you might play a short game if they need waking up a bit.
  2. Present the stimulus – give some quiet time for reflection and discuss it – make sure everyone understands what it is and what it’s not.
  3. Identify the big ideas that sit behind the stimulus.
  4. Generate philosophical questions inspired by the stimulus.
  5. Share the questions and make sure everyone understands what they mean.
  6. Vote on the question most people want to discuss. This can take a bit of time, e.g. you might want to group some questions together on the way to choosing one.
  7. First words – whoever wrote the question explains why they chose it. It’s a good idea to go around the circle to ask everyone for their initial thoughts – they can pass if they wish.
  8. Build and challenge – through skilful questioning, the teacher/facilitator can encourage pupils to deepen the collective understanding (e.g. ‘Can you provide an example?’ or ‘Why do you think that?’), and also to challenge ideas (e.g. ‘Can anyone think of an instance where that might not be true?’ or ‘Are there any hidden assumptions here that we haven’t considered?’)
  9. Construct an answer – see if you can get to a point where the group agrees on the wording of an answer.
  10. Final words – give everyone an opportunity to make a final comment, either about the question or about the inquiry itself. Again, they can pass if they so choose. [19]

The list above makes it look simple, and in some ways it is. But there is more to P4C than meets the eye. Running a philosophical enquiry is very different from teaching a lesson, and to get good at it requires considerable planning, discussion and reflection, repeated over time. As Fisher (1990) pointed out:

‘Productive discussion does not of course just happen. There are practical problems to face. Children often find it difficult to take turns in a debate. It is not always easy to persuade them to follow a line of argument through, or once they have developed their own idea to listen to the ideas of others. The success of a discussion depends on the teacher’s skill in facilitating dialogue.’ [20]

It is also worth emphasising that apart from the choice of stimulus, which is normally made by the teacher or another member of the group in advance, decisions about how the enquiry proceeds are consensual: ‘without that presumption, there is no “Community of Enquiry”’. [21] For this reason, the teacher/facilitator should strive to be the neutral chair of discussion. However, this question of neutrality can give rise to some misunderstanding. The teacher is not expected to relinquish the need to manage behaviour, nor to provide some degree of quality control over the discussion. Instead, you are required, ‘albeit in a subtle manner, relentlessly to feed rationality into the discussion’. [22]

It’s also useful if the teacher knows a thing or two about critical thinking. P4C works best once the children have become adept at identifying assumptions, building arguments and counterarguments, and recognising logical fallacies. At Sea View, the teaching of critical thinking was the central aim of the Year 9 taught course, and the P4C enquiries really moved up a gear at this point. If we had our time again, we would have introduced the teaching of critical thinking skills earlier. We will return to the thorny matter of teaching children how to think critically – and whether this is even possible – later in this chapter. [23]

And here ends this series of excerpts from Fear is the Mind Killer – Why Learning to Learn deserves lesson time – and how to make it work for your pupils. If you would like to buy a copy of the book, you can do so here (John Catt) and here (Amazon).

Please comment below if you have any questions, or contact the authors via Twitter (@RethinkingJames and @Rethinking_Kate). We hope you enjoy the book and we look forward to hearing your thoughts!



[1] Cited in Chance, P. (1986). Thinking in the classroom: A survey of programs. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, p41.

[2] Lipman, M. (1973). Philosophy for Children. Montclair, NJ: Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children, p3.

[3] ibid., p20.

[4] Karras, R. (1979) Final evaluation of the pilot programme in philosophical reasoning in Lexington elementary schools, Thinking, 1(3/4), 26–32.

[5] Shipman, V. (1983). Evaluation Replication of the Philosophy for Children Program – Final Report, Thinking 5 (1), 45-57

[6] Iorio, J., Weinstein, M. & Martin, J. (1984). A review of District 24’s Philosophy for Children Program. Thinking 5(2): 28-35.

[7] Educational testing service (New Jersey) (1978): Pompton Lakes and Newark 1976-78. A complete abstract in Lipman, M: Philosophy goes to school. p. 219-224.

[8] Trickey S. & Topping, K. J. (2004) ‘Philosophy for Children: A systematic review’, Research Papers in Education, 19(3):363-278.

[9] Gorard, S, Siddiqui, N & See, B H (2015). Philosophy for Children: SAPERE, Evaluation Report and Executive Summary. London: Education Endowment Foundation.

[10] Topping, K. J. & Trickey, S. (2007). Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Cognitive gains at two-year follow-up. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(4), pp.787-796.

[11] Topping, K. J. & Trickey, S. (2007). Impact of philosophical enquiry on school students’ interactive behaviour. Thinking skills and creativity, 2, pp.73-84.

[12] Trickey, S. & Topping, K. J. (2006). Collaborative philosophical enquiry for school children: Socio-emotional effects at 10-12 years. School Psychology International, 27(5), pp.599-614.

[13] ibid.

[14] Gregson, M., Spedding, P., Moseley, D., Baumfield, V. (2008) Evaluation of the Northumberland Raising Aspirations in Society (NRAIS) Project. Project Report, University of Sunderland Press, Sunderland.

[15] See also https://www.sapere.org.uk/about-us/p4c-videos.aspx.

[16] Fisher, R. (1990). Teaching children to think. England: Nelson Thornes.

[17] e.g. see Buckley, J. (2012) Pocket P4C: Getting Started with Philosophy for Children. One Slice Books.

[18] In case you’re interested, the NASA website has an excellent, child-friendly explanation of why the sky is blue. See https://spaceplace.nasa.gov/blue-sky/en/.

[19] For an extended version of a 10-step procedure similar to this one, see Nottingham, J. (2016). Encouraging Learning: A P4C guide for parents. Available at: https://p4c.com/philosophize-with-your-children/2/.

[20] Fisher, R. (1990). Teaching children to think. England: Nelson Thornes.

[21] SAPERE (2009). Information Pack: An explanation of Philosophy for Children with examples of practice, evaluations and research. SAPERE: Charity no. 1037019.

[22] Lane, N.R. & Lane, S.A. (1986) Rationality, Self-Esteem and Autonomy through Collaborative Enquiry. Oxford Review of Education, 12(3), 263-275.

[23] Spoiler: it is, but some people think it isn’t.

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