Philosophical Inquiry in the Classroom

Every teacher has a wish list of the things they really want for their students. Such a list might include: deeper and more critical thinking; the ability to articulate and…

Every teacher has a wish list of the things they really want for their students.

Such a list might include: deeper and more critical thinking; the ability to articulate and explore complex questions; being able to meet and exceed national standards –without their teacher having to “teach to the standards”; a stronger sense of community, and better relationships with peers; enhanced self responsibility and self esteem; greater engagement in learning.

What would you say to something that had been proven internationally to meet all of these aspirations and takes only 40 minutes a week?

That develops a range of skills that students themselves transfer to all areas of study, and life?  And has been recently been shown to be especially effective for disadvantaged students?

Meet “Philosophy for Children” (P4C) – an approach to thinking together, which has been around for decades. It does all of the above and more, and most students – from Year 1 to Year 13 – just love it.  It allows them to explore “big ideas” on their own terms. It empowers them as independent thinkers. It gives them a voice.

Begun by U.S. philosopher Matthew Lipman in the 60s, P4C is now happening in 60 countries.  The heart of P4C is the community of inquiry, which creates a collaborative, caring and rigorous environment in which students explore their own questions, which are raised in response to philosophically rich stimulus materials.

The subject matter is vast, and centres on those common, central and contestable concepts that we use to make sense of human experience: fairness, truth, reality, knowledge, evidence, freedom, justice, goodness, rights, mind, identity, love, friendship, rules, responsibility, action, logic, language, reason, existence, possibility, beauty, meaning, self, time, God, infinity, human nature, thought . . .

As questions about such concepts cannot be settled solely by science, or appeals to tradition or authority, discussion is genuinely open. Inquiring philosophically is not just swapping opinions, but exploring, and building on, and carefully examining each other’s ideas, in the search for the best answer each person can come to.

This combination of open-ended inquiry, and developing the thinking skills to do it well, is exciting and empowering for children.  Much international research has been done on the impact of P4C. In the U.K. in 2015 the Education Endowment Foundation looked at 3000 children who engaged in philosphical inquiry once a week, and discovered that these children made gains in reading and maths equivalent to two extra months of instruction! And the greatest gains were made by disadvantaged children.

A commonly quoted meta-study of P4C, by Trickey and Topping (2007), shows significant improvements in critical reasoning, reading, mathematics, concentration, collaboration, self esteem, participation, persistence, communication and interpersonal relationships, and a reduction in bullying.  (Note the Key Competencies in this list!)

New Zealand teachers achieve results that mirror the international research.  Katrina Wilson, teacher of Year 7 and 8 at The Terrace School, in Alexandra, reports: “I see a willingness to share their thoughts and ideas in all areas of the classroom programme.

It is exciting to see the less outgoing children contributing to discussion even knowing that others may disagree with their ideas. And in maths, my class’s scores from the ‘Problem Solving Challenge’ have improved greatly. The children are thinking on a deeper level and seem to have more ‘thinking stamina’. The children are so excited about the improvements in these results!”

Malcolm Milner, Principal at Balmoral School in Auckland says that P4C harnesses children’s wondering and teaches them, within a structured environment, “how to question, how to reason, how to clarify and justify their view of the world.”

The ERO commented very favourably on the impact of P4C in this school.  Toby Stokes is Principal of Crofton Downs School in Wellington, where three years ago a commitment was made to have all teachers trained, and to timetable P4C in. “Since then we have gone from strength to strength.  What inspires me the most are the conversations I hear children having that are supported by the reasoning and communicative skills taught within the the P4C programme”.

Philosophy for Children New Zealand (P4CNZ), founded in 1996, is a small organisation made up of teachers and philosophers, and is an associate of the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations.

It provides professional development workshops for teachers around the country, and the teachers who attend are consistently stimulated and inspired. “The best PD I have been to for years!” is a common comment.  Let’s give the last word to a child (she has given us permission to quote her).  This shows something of the power of P4C, and how it might even change the world…

After watching a session with a Year 3 and 4 class, one workshop participant asked, “How do you feel when someone disagrees with you?” Morag’s hand shot up. “Curious!” she replied.

Bio: Dr Vanya Kovach is the Coordinator and Professional Development Leader for Philosophy for Children New Zealand (P4CNZ).  She also teaches philosophy at the University of Auckland (where a P4C course taught by her has just been introduced, for graduate level study in Education). Vanya has many hundreds of hours of experience in the classroom, with students from Year 1 to Year 13, and has delivered workshops in P4C for 20 years, in New Zealand and Australia. She is currently chair of the Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Associations. Vanya is a community-oriented philosopher, with a passion for philosophy in schools and professional ethics, and she has a special commitment to promoting and developing the kind of philosophizing done in a collaborative community of inquiry.  Email Vanya at  v.kovach@auckland.ac.nz or visit P4C’s website.