Students begin philosophy sessions by reading aloud or acting out a philosophical story-typically, one that depicts fictional children discovering and exploring philosophical issues and applying their reasoning to life situations. Students next identify the issues in the story that they are interested to discuss, collaborating in the construction of the agenda or lesson plan. For the remainder of the session, and for the next few or several sessions, they deliberate upon these issues as a community of philosophical inquiry. These inquiries may culminate in action projects or works of art, but in any case they should culminate in the participants’ self-correction of their previous beliefs, feelings or values.
One very important element of Philosophy for Children is stimulus materials that provoke and support the students’ philosophical work. The P4C curriculum for use in grades 3-8, consisting of novels for students and manuals for teachers. But the most effective stimulus materials may be ineffectual without the central practice of Philosophy for Children: the community of inquiry. Participating in a community of inquiry, such as a live online class, engages young people in important cognitive moves such as creating hypotheses, clarifying their terms, asking for and giving good reasons, offering examples and counter examples, questioning each other’s assumptions, drawing inferences, and following the inquiry where it leads. But inquiry is also a social enterprise, which requires students to share their own perspectives, listen to one another, read faces, challenge and build on one another’s thinking, look for missing perspectives and reconstruct their own ideas. This kind of meaningful classroom dialogue is something most students find irresistible: they can’t help joining in, contributing their own reflections. In this way, cognitive and social skillfulness are acquired naturally and in context, rather than in isolated drills.
Children who are new to philosophy need the help of an experienced moderator. The P4C moderator sees her/himself as a co-inquirer with the children, as interested as they are in exploring philosophical concepts, improving judgment and discovering meaning. However, when it comes to the procedures of inquiry, the facilitator both guides the children and models for them-by asking open-ended questions, posing alternative views, seeking clarification, questioning reasons, and by demonstrating self-correcting behavior. It is through this kind of modeling that the children eventually internalize the procedures of inquiry. P4C moderators are taught to neither impose authoritative views on their students nor attempt to validate every student’s opinion in a relativistic fashion. They view their role as helping children to understand and use the tools of philosophical inquiry so that children can construct and re-construct their own answers to philosophical questions. The children should see the moderator as someone who respects them as persons, takes what they have to say seriously, doesn’t think s/he knows everything, models self-correction and really loves ideas.
The objective of such philosophy sessions is neither to find final answers to the questions that are raised, nor to reach complete agreement among the classmates. On the other hand, a genuine dialogue ‘moves forward’ in some sense that distinguishes it from mere lively conversation. Philosophy for Children seeks two kinds of objectives: progress in coping with the philosophical questions-which might include adapted beliefs, new hypotheses for experiment or even clarification of the question-and growth in the cognitive and social procedures of inquiry. With these objectives in mind, participants in the community of inquiry typically take stock of their own progress with questions such as:
- Have we begun to deal with this question?
- What do we understand now about the question/concept that we didn’t understand before?
- Are we giving each other reasons for our views?
- Are we listening to each other?
- Are we able to stick to the point?
- Are we able to build on each other’s ideas?
- Who is doing the talking?
- Do we correct each other with sensitivity?
- Are we becoming more tentative about what we claim to know?
- Do we trust each other?
The most enthusiastic proponents of Philosophy for Children are the children, who find philosophy not only thought-provoking but fun. Parents and teachers likewise enjoy doing philosophy with their children. They appreciate this ancient discipline as a way to help their children and themselves to sharpen their thinking, encounter new ideas, decide what they believe, and get to know others through shared inquiry.4