By Cassie Finley (University of Iowa)

Traditionally, philosophy has had different pedagogies between the K-12 and higher education levels. Insofar as there is a “typical” approach to teaching undergraduate philosophy classes, the aims and methods generally revolve around lectures (with some discussion) and ensuring students gain philosophical content-knowledge as a means for fostering critical thinking skills through analyzing, reconstructing, and objecting to, different philosophical arguments. Meanwhile, Philosophy for Children (P4C) emphasizes student-based inquiry. The instructor presents a story, thought experiment, or some other stimulus, and then the students explore one another’s questions about the story as a group–engaging in a philosophical dialogue with the instructor acting as facilitator. Students actively participate in philosophical discussions in P4C, enabling them to “do philosophy” rather than passively receive philosophical knowledge, which in turn means the focus on dialogue is primarily limited to interactions among students, rather than between instructor and students.

My experience with teaching and doing philosophy in pre-college and college classrooms has taken a different route. My first experiences with pre-college philosophy have been through the Iowa Lyceum–a free, week-long philosophy summer program during which introduces high school students to philosophy through a combination of discussions, activities, games, and professors’ presentations. The philosophical pedagogy underpinning the Lyceum focuses on encouraging dialogue and the development of good habits for thinking through engaging with philosophical texts, theories, and discussions. Because of the incredible experiences I’ve had with the Lyceum, I’ve also modeled my undergraduate philosophy classes after the Lyceum; by having students focus on engaging with various philosophical texts, theories, and fellow classmates through, and for the sake of, dialogue and the development of good habits of thinking. 

As it turns out, teaching with a focus on dialogue and developing good habits of thinking are each established pedagogies: dialogic teaching and teaching for intellectual virtues, respectively. Much like P4C, dialogic teaching focuses on shared thinking, dialogue, and open-ended inquiry. However, they differ in the aims and role of the instructor: while P4C (and many other pedagogies) use dialogue, dialogic teaching takes dialogue as the aim of teaching. Because dialogue is the goal, dialogic teaching puts a greater emphasis on helping students to engage in dialogues not only with one another (as is the focus of P4C), but with larger historical, cultural, political, ideological, and contemporary conversations. This broader sense of dialogical engagement means the instructor has a larger role in helping their students practice better ways of engaging in dialogues, which requires introducing relevant (often historical) content and terminology to better equip students to engage in those conversations.

Meanwhile, educating for intellectual virtues emerged from work in epistemology and philosophy of education. Intellectual virtues, much like moral virtues, are developed excellences of a person’s character. Examples of intellectual virtues include curiosity, inquisitiveness, intellectual courage, open-mindedness, intellectual humility, interpretative charity, and so on. Educating for intellectual virtues, then, aims at helping students to practice and develop these intellectual dispositions. This approach–like P4C and dialogic teaching–values inquiry, community, deepening understanding of the world, and dialogue. That being said, most of the “Core Practices” of intellectual virtue education diverge from P4C and dialogic teaching. An important part of intellectual virtue education, unlike P4C and dialogic teaching, is that students should learn about the virtues. After all, if we want students to work on (e.g.) being open-minded, they need to know what it means to be open-minded, why it’s better to be open-minded than close-minded, etc. The other Core Practices revolve around the role of the instructor in facilitating the development of intellectual virtues; the instructor should:

  • Create opportunities for practicing virtues through assignments, activities, classwork, etc.
  • Incorporate virtue-based feedback into the class through praising or offering constructive suggestions to students using virtue-language and virtue-based assessments
  • Model intellectual virtues to their students by, for example, admitting when they do not know the answer to something (intellectual humility), clarifying that they understood a student’s point (interpretative charity), and so on. 

All three of these approaches (P4C, dialogic teaching, and educating for intellectual virtues) have similar goals and starting-points: 

  • Students need a supportive, safe, respectful community aimed at inclusivity 
  • Education should move beyond memorization, problem-solving, & shallow content-knowledge, instead looking to develop deeper understandings of the discussions at hand
  • Dialogue is central to the educational process. 

Given their shared aims, I’ve been experimenting with ways of combining these approaches in my teaching. In order to establish an inclusive, collaborative, supportive community aimed at inquiry and deeper understanding in my philosophy classes, I frame doing philosophy in terms of engaging in virtuous dialogues, which combines educating for intellectual virtues and dialogic teaching as a single metaphilosophical pedagogy. 

Teaching philosophy for virtuous dialogues means building philosophy classes around opportunities for students to reflect on, to practice, and to develop the sorts of virtues necessary for having a good dialogue–curiosity, careful listening, attentiveness, interpretative charity, understanding, patience, thoughtfulness, and so on. At the same time, this combined approach means communicating what it is to do philosophy in terms of dialogues; engaging with a text is engaging in a dialogue with a past thinker. Thinking about potential objections to your position is engaging in a dialogue with an imagined interlocutor. Researching for a paper topic is getting caught up on the dialogue before joining in. Writing a philosophy paper is a dialogue between the author as they write and their imagined intended reader. 

More specifically, I draw the following from each pedagogical approach:


  • Doing philosophy, as opposed to learning about specific philosophical content, is the central aim and method of teaching philosophy.
  • The instructor engages in a philosophical dialogue with their students. That means the virtues of philosophical dialogues apply to both instructor and students equally..

Educating for Intellectual Virtues

  • Making use of the Core Practices
  • Virtue-language as guidance for students and instructor alike in how to engage in a philosophical dialogue with one another–by interpreting one another and philosophical ideas charitably, being open-minded towards others’ viewpoints, and so on. 

Dialogic Teaching

  • The aim of teaching philosophy is for students to engage in philosophically virtuous dialogues, meaning instructors should use philosophical content as a means for helping students cultivate the virtues required for engaging in philosophical dialogues. 

Virtue dialogue pedagogy could be used in K-12 or undergraduate philosophy classes, since it uses philosophical content as a means for getting students to engage in philosophical dialogues. Using a virtue dialogue pedagogy, the particular philosophical content is flexible for different ages, and even discussions of virtues can be adjusted to the appropriate age level (consider the middle school built on the educating for intellectual virtues model). When I started teaching middle school philosophy classes this past fall, I used this virtue dialogue approach. I have been using philosophical theories/content in games, activities, and discussions to encourage students to engage in dialogue and develop intellectual virtues. In turn, my middle school students regularly use philosophical language introduced in class (such as necessary and sufficient conditions, epistemic vs. metaphysical distinctions, etc.) when discussing philosophy and often begin by referring to, or asking clarifying questions about, other students’ ideas before sharing their own thoughts–just as someone would do in a dialogue. 

Teaching philosophy to middle, high school, and undergraduate students in largely the same ways (with, of course, some variations in content, depth, expectations, and speed) means simultaneously moving away from the specific P4C structure for middle and high school students and from the content-oriented focus of most undergraduate philosophy classes. But as I have become increasingly involved with teaching philosophy at middle, high school, and undergraduate levels, teaching philosophy at the K-12 level compared to the undergraduate level has seemed to be much more congruous than expected. That being said, I can’t yet speak to its viability with primary/elementary school students. I would be curious to hear if anyone has tried something like a virtue dialogue approach alongside P4C with younger children. What, if any, are the potential sacrifices of bringing the pedagogies underpinning P4C and teaching philosophy in higher education towards one another?

Resources / Further Reading

On Intellectual Virtue Education

Heather Battaly’s “Responsibilist Virtues in Reliabilist Classrooms” (paper / YouTube lecture)

Jason Baehr’s Deep in Thought: A Practical Guide for Teaching for Intellectual Virtues

On Dialogic Teaching

Robin Christopher’s “Dialogic Teaching” and similar resources

Rupert Wegerif’s Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age

On P4C

Jana Mohr Lone’s “Philosophy with children

Michael Pritchard’s Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on “Philosophy for Children

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