Ariel Sykes provides ongoing workshops and training for educators new and experienced in Philosophy for Children. Check out her PLATO workshops here and other services here. She is available for individual coaching and as a visiting teacher upon request.

When I work with educators looking to improve their Philosophy for Children facilitation practices, I first seek to understand their pedagogical practice. It is important to understand how an educator understands what P4C is (and is not), what her immediate and long term goals are, and the facilitation strategies she uses to get there. Dissonance between the (a) what, (b) why, and (c) how of her P4C practice are likely the source of the frustration. Once I sort through this, I can engage in observation, coaching, and modeling to improve her facilitation strategies. I am a big fan of mentorship and co-teaching models; an extra set of trusted eyes can make the difference in one’s growth!

What is Philosophy for Children?

Macro – LevelMicro – Level – TeacherMicro – Level – Student
What does P4C look like in your classroom?
How is it different from other types of dialogue practices that you use?
How do you, as the teacher, differentiate between different types of talk for your students?
Do you have visual aids or other ways of physically structuring “philosophy time”? 
Do the students understand the different expectations around P4C time and other types of conversations held in class?

A philosophy for children session (which can be held with any age person, not just K-12 students) is a philosophical engagement among participants around a contestable and meaningful question. It is dialogic and student centered, where the participants own the content and pathways of the discussion. The practice reinforces strong reasoning and judgment, through the act of doing philosophy, not solely learning about philosophy or philosophers.

While P4C practices vary, I believe they have these stages in common (with some aspects taking up more time and space): (a) stimulus, (b) question / questioning, (c) inquiry with others (generate possible answers, test / evaluate, narrow possible answers), (d) arriving at a judgment (tentative answer or theory on question), (e) reflection (on how the inquiry process went), and (f) action (apply insights / emerging theory to one’s life. Ideally, inquiries are sustained over time, where the stage of (f) action creates another moment of (a) stimulus, and the cycle begins again. The facilitator is there to support the group in a way that ensures that they honor the rules of the engagement and so that they can make progress (that is not predetermined or facilitator prescribed) in individual and collective understanding of the central question under consideration. In my experience, P4C facilitators often hyper-focus on their role as “facilitator” in the (c) inquiry stage. But, it is important to realize that we facilitate in all stages of the engagement and that we should be spending time reflecting on our practice in these areas as well. [1] 

Why do we use P4C practices and create spaces for philosophical dialogue in our classrooms?

Macro – LevelMicro – Level – TeacherMicro – Level – Student
Why do you use P4C?
What value does P4C add to your teaching practices and classroom experience that would otherwise be missing?
How do you, as the teacher, capture the importance of P4C for others (families, administration, students)?
What short-term and long-term outcomes do you expect to see from exposing your students to P4C?
What are the students’ self-reported attitudes about engaging in P4C lessons?
Do students ask to engage in more P4C sessions? If so, when and why?

Children already have philosophical experience; they engage with the world around them in critical and creative ways, attempting to make meaning of their ideas and experiences. They, like adults, are capable of philosophical thinking and talking about their philosophical ideas with one another. I engage in P4C because I found my schooling experience lacking in authentic, student-centered, and purpose-filled conversations and learning opportunities. I value P4C because everyone, regardless of age, needs to experience productive conversations, where disagreements and different points of view are welcome (and required!).

I find that many educators engage in P4C as a form of civics education: the form of P4C conversations and questions that they invite help build habits of democratic interaction. Who doesn’t want people who can: (a) listen to each other with care and empathy,  (b) help others articulate their ideas and questions, (c) evaluate ideas rigorously and respectfully, (d) substantively build on the ideas of others and (f) be comfortable with changing one’s mind or expressing intellectual humility? [2]

How should we go about facilitating P4C sessions? 

Macro – LevelMicro – Level – TeacherMicro – Level – Student
How would you describe your facilitation style? What does it look and feel like?
How is your facilitation of P4C different from ways you facilitate talk in your classroom?
What are the core commitments that guide your P4C facilitation? Do you have any “do’s” or “don’ts”?
How do you know when you have facilitated a P4C session well or poorly?
Do the students understand your role as a facilitator in their P4C sessions? How might they describe your role?
If you work with the same group over time, do students take up some of the facilitation themselves? How do they/you assess and support this?

As you work to improve your P4C facilitation practices, it is important to remember not to be robotic or overly prescriptive. Philosophical dialogue is emergent and unpredictable because it is centered on participant voices and interests. This means a P4C facilitator must balance being adaptive and responsive with being rigorous and pedagogically grounded. Resist the urge to use facilitation “shortcuts” or “tools” without fully understanding their purpose, benefits and shortcomings. The best piece of advice I ever received as a facilitator was: Remember, the moves we make as a facilitator depends on what is currently happening and needed within the discussion. Only interject when doing so will serve the group and help advance the inquiry towards its goal. What might this look like in practice?

  • Let the students talk and develop their own positions. Do not tell them what to think and don’t force them to a particular thought-path through a guiding question.
  • [Ask or] encourage participants to ask follow up questions to push our thinking about key ideas. Don’t be the one to ask all the follow up questions or the questions that challenge an idea.
  • Pause and check for clarity as needed. If you or anyone else seems lost, slow down.
  • Provide summaries of the main points emerging from the discussion, so that the group can build on ideas and make progress. 
  • If there seems to be consensus, push the group to think from different perspectives or focus on evaluating a previously articulated position more closely
  • Uphold the conversation norms and speaking rules for the session. Make accountability as group-owned as possible.

All P4C practitioners should be able to articulate the core principles that guide their facilitation practice. When we think about self-assessing our practice as P4C facilitators, it can be helpful to have a framework [3]. There are plenty of tools out there, but you can also build one for yourself using your answers to the (a) what, (b) why, and (c) how questions that are modeled in this article. So, for example in the table below:

Centered on Contestable & Meaningful QuestionAuthentic & Productive ConversationsStudent Generated QuestionsTracking of Positions / Ideas 
Is the central question philosophical in nature?
Is the central question one that the group finds meaningful and worthy of extended dialogue time?
What tools / structures do I use to ensure P4C sessions are grounded in contestable and meaningful questions?
Is the P4C session one where participants can share their own ideas with others?
Are participants engaging in conversations that matter to them and help them navigate / understand themselves and the world?
What tools / structures are in place to ensure there is a sense of progress being made during each session?
Are students invited to generate and vote on the philosophical question for discussion?
Is the facilitator periodically summarizing, paraphrasing, and distilling the central ideas emerging from the discussion?
What tools / structures are in place to help the facilitator track the ideas in the discussion?

Additional Notes and Reading Suggestions: 

[1] My conceptualization of the P4C engagement as an “Arc of Inquiry” is informed by Maughn Gregory’s article: Framework for Facilitating Classroom Dialogue 

[2] Many people have explored the value of P4C interventions on student outcomes, but here is a good overview of the research literature as of 2004 by Trickey and Topping: Philosophy for Children: A Systematic Review. I also recommend Jana Mohr Lone’s book on what children can contribute to philosophy and the value of really listening to them (as evoked in P4C practices): Seen and Not Heard: Why Children’s Voices Matter.

[3] I suggest the following two articles as helpful frameworks for facilitation. Understanding the different ways that a facilitator can intervene, through “moves” can help us choose select moves to focus on improving and activating during a P4C session. David Kennedy’s Facilitator’s Toolbox of Moves and Joe Oyler’s article on Teacher Contributions to Argumentation.

Thank you to my original mentor, who started me on this Philosophy for Children Journey: Thomas Wartenberg at Mount Holyoke College. Thank you also to the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children who I credit for my growth as a P4C facilitator. It was in particular, the observations, co-teaching, and debrief conversations with Joe Oyler that pushed me to be the reflective and pedagogically mindful facilitator that I am today. Thank you also to Alina Rezntiskaya, who invited me to join the Argument Literacy research work she was conducting. It was through this experience that I learned how to coach facilitators by leveraging rigorous observation and dialogue evaluation protocols.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments