By Dustin Webster, Co-Director Penn’s Project for Philosophy for the Young

A philosophy for children (p4c) session based in the Community of Inquiry format developed by Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp follows a familiar formula: students are exposed to a ‘stimulus’, i.e. a story, video, activity etc., which is used as the basis for raising philosophical questions. Then they engage in a dialogue about those questions. These three components–stimulus, questions, and dialogue–are the main steps that today are commonly used by practitioners for the community of inquiry. There has always been some debate around the second and third components. Should the students raise their own questions, or is it ok for the facilitator to provide questions? How forceful or prominent a role the facilitator should play during the dialogue? In manuals and books on p4c you’ll often find both of these questions are directly addressed.  However, when it comes to the first component, the stimulus, it’s frequently said that “the stimulus can be anything!” 

To an extent, this is true. Although the method was developed using philosophical novels authored by Lipman, from a practical perspective, very successful sessions can be had using all kinds of books, videos, music, artwork, even games and activities, as a stimulus. Children’s capacity to wonder seems unbounded, and the most surprising things can inspire them to ask deeply philosophical questions. Yet it is also true that not all questions are philosophical questions, and not all stimuli will inspire questions that are ripe for philosophical discussion. Although the exact nature of ‘philosophy’ as a discipline is debated, it can at least be said that there is a general body of content made up of scholarship, ideas, and theories that differentiate it (more or less) from other fields of study. In doing philosophy with young people, teaching and engaging with this content can be the deliberate aim, much like a college level philosophy course. In the community of inquiry, such direct teaching is generally not the focus. Instead, the content takes the form of the topics of inquiry, which is why the stimulus is so important. A stimulus can be chosen that, with the help of more intentional facilitation, leads to more or less direct engagement with established philosophical theories. This has led me to wonder, what is it exactly that we are doing when we say that we are doing philosophy with children, and more specifically, does it make a difference what the stimulus for a session is? In other words, does the content of p4c matter?

I’ve had this nagging concern about content vs. methodology since I first developed a year-long Kindergarten philosophy curriculum a few years ago. I based it on the Lipman-Sharp methodology, and for these very young children, tried to build a progression into the lessons as they develop the skills engaged and in p4c–skills such as active listening, connecting one’s own comments to those of the other participants, and the patience to engage in an extended dialogue. I loosely followed themes connecting the various lesson plans based in classic areas of philosophy–ethics, epistemology, aesthetics, etc. But at a certain point, I found myself choosing stimuli almost at random. “Hey, this storybook has to do with art. This will be great for a session on aesthetics.” I started to wonder, in a unit intended to be a general philosophy curriculum for kindergarten, how much did it matter which topics and themes were covered? What was the goal–to teach students how to think philosophically, or to teach them how to think philosophically about philosophical things?

One answer might be that although this distinction exists, it is not a dilemma. Sessions and p4c curricula can be structured to focus more heavily on either content or method. In practice, this is often how things work out. At Penn’s Project for Philosophy for the Young, at the University of Pennsylvania, we have run both kinds of initiatives, from clubs and activities focused more on method, to credited classes in high school focused more on content. Generally, I think that for most pre-college philosophy, the idea tends to be that the goal is to engage young people in a practice and method. This is an accessible approach that builds on aspects of the methods of philosophy that come naturally. It is what drives the idea that ‘everyone can do philosophy/is a philosopher.’ But going too far in this direction brings up the question of what is the difference between the practice of philosophy and just being a very good critical thinker? Maybe everyone can develop philosophical intellectual virtues, but then what should we make of ‘philosophical expertise’? The vast content of philosophy, the theories, ideas, and scholarship that professional philosophers devote many years of study to, can be undervalued or even ignored.

As one of those professional philosophers, when I think about what I have to offer or where the expertise that I bring lies, I always come back to method. It is true that on many topics I can reference ideas and theories from philosophy that are (hopefully) enlightening, but what is more valuable is that way I’ve been trained to think–how I have learned to approach and unpack a question or idea. Sometimes I think that doing philosophy is like looking through a microscope. Anyone can peer through the eyepiece, and with a little guidance they can focus the instrument and view the subject in greater detail and with more clarity. In this way, it’s true that everyone is a philosopher. But it’s also true that understanding what one is looking at can be difficult. The body of content knowledge that one trained in philosophy brings is what allows her to better discern and interpret the images being presented.

Maybe the answer is something like, method comes first and content can come later. There is no doubt that we can engage in philosophical thinking without any background in the content of philosophy, and I do believe that for children, this is what’s most important. Still, I worry that to lean too far into this idea is to dismiss a huge part of what philosophy is–the body of philosophical knowledge and scholarship that already exists. In my Kindergarten curriculum, should I choose a stimulus for a lesson that invites the students to think about and examine their intuitions on lying and truth telling in an open way, or should I choose something and provide scaffolding to guide them to established ways of philosophizing about this topic? I don’t know what the best balance is, but an initial way forward is to acknowledge that these two different aspects of philosophy bring different value, and to be deliberate about which we are focusing on with children.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments