Troubleshooting in Philosophy for Children

A ‘Community of Enquiry’

Professor Matthew Lipman (1922-2010) believed that children were just as capable of engaging in philosophy as adults and despaired at the scarcity of philosophical thinking in classrooms. He founded Philosophy for Children, now used as an unpatented umbrella term for a model of learning used in over 60 countries worldwide. P4C aims to make children more critical, curious, creative and reflective.

Lipman’s vision is represented in the classroom through an activity known as a ‘Community of Enquiry’, whereby learners work together to increase their understanding of the world. Let’s imagine you are watching a History lesson, with a class experienced with such an approach. The pupils are watching a depiction of the murder of Thomas Becket. The teacher then asks them to pick out key themes from the story. Brief pair-work leads to ‘faith’, ‘tragedy’, ‘death’ and ‘defiance’, among many others. ‘Okay’, says the teacher. ‘Now let’s make some questions from these themes. Interesting questions. Questions that will prompt discussion.’ Within minutes, pupils come up with a range, and vote on which one will be discussed. The chosen question: ‘Is it worth dying for your faith?’ The teacher allows pupils to discuss in small groups before facilitating class dialogue. Before long, pupils realise they need to address another question first: ‘What is faith?’So, within fifteen minutes of reading the story of Becket’s murder, the pupils are exploring a concept that has been a pillar of people’s lives for millennia. As a Community of Enquiry.

P4C can be timetabled as an independent subject. Many teachers employ enquiries into existing lessons, too. There is a great deal of literature on its benefits, but I have found some of the most noticeable:

  • It immediately adds an ‘organic’ element. Pupils drive the discussion by forming and voting for questions.
  • It provides a platform for pupils to confidently explore fundamental concepts they would not normally question.
  • It empowers the children to express and clarify their opinion and develops their resilience when it is examined by others.
  • It encourages teamwork and requires pupils to work together. This builds their empathy, sensitivity and co-operation.
  • It allows them to reflect upon their progress in relation to several higher-order thinking skills.

Overcoming Problems

As interesting as discussions may be, engagement can be an issue. Communities of Enquiry generally lack the staples that subliminally keep pupils focussed: desks, seating plans, books, pens, grades and exams, to name a few. If you do have P4C timetabled as a lesson, or use it regularly within existing lessons, how can you keep over two-dozen pupils engaged? Here are a few tips:

  • Provide a basic structure – Have set routines for the start of the enquiry, perhaps by using a timer. Present a ‘Big Picture’ laying out the chronology of enquiries you plan to facilitate this term. Give each pupil a folder in which to store any sheets of self-assessment or written answers.
  • Communicate aims – Don’t start an enquiry without a key skill for the group to work on, or at least provide time for each pupil to choose one. Make sure pupils expect to be held accountable to these at the end.
  • Nuture intrinsic motivation by linking the use of P4V to their wider education. I believe Philosophy lessons will make pupils better learners and I communicate this in the first lesson. This is reinforced when we outline the qualities of a great learner and tick them off when demonstrated.
  • Differentiate – One barrier to engagement in P4C is confusion. Generate flow by providing worked examples of themes / philosophical questions.
  • Limit the group discussion – An inescapable problem with a group discussion is that only one pupil can speak at a time. Attention can drift. Every now and then, let the current question be discussed in partners for a minute, before opening up the floor again.

I believe we are all familiar with ending a class discussion with hands still raised. The sheer numbers in most classes mean every pupil cannot say everything they wanted to. How can you get around this?

  • Create a display with the week’s enquiry question in the middle, and provide paper / post-its / pens / whiteboards for pupils to write their answers (and interrogate the answers of others!).
  • Post-key questions on a VLE form – we use Edmodo, for example. Pupils can then continue the discussion on line.

Pupils will often with to see / hear / read more of the stimulus. By its very nature, it will be interesting. Generally, it will also be short. You may wish to post a full version of it to the VLE.

A Community of Enquiry is unparalleled in its ability to engage pupils in deep collaborative thinking. It is not without some problems, especially with full classes. I hope these solutions helps.

See more of this article (free) by clicking here to access within the UKEd Magazine.

Tom Bigglestone is a Head of RE and teacher of Philosophy at a North London girls school. He is on Twitter @the_tank.

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