Finding philsophy lessons in child-friendly places

Thursday is World Philosophy Day, a good time to get children asking the big questions

If you're a teacher and you're planning to do philosophy with your class then resist the temptation to reference weighty tomes written by dead Greeks or unpronounceable Germans. That's the advice of teacher-trainer Dr Mary Roche, who has 20 years experience in the field. "The first resource that people need is an open mind," she says. "To become a critical thinker is as much a way of being as it is about developing skills." What else do you need?

Chose a story to spark discussion
With primary-school children, Roche recommends using "a good quality picture book to act as stimuli for discussion. Choose one that does not yield up its meaning too easily and allows for multiple perspectives and deep engagement.

“The teacher reads the picture book aloud allowing time for engagement with the images as well as the written text. Then she asks: what might that story be about? Any child can begin and the discussion proceeds around until all children have had an opportunity to contribute or pass.”

Arrange a democratic forum
Under the Philosophy for Children (P4C) model, pioneered by Matthew Lipman in the US and adapted 30 years ago by Joe Dunne and Philomena Donnelly into "thinking time" for Irish schools, the children engage in an open-ended, "Socratic" dialogue. Conversation passes from one child to the next, the transfer formalised through a tip or passing an object around a circle.


The teacher must wait his or her turn and so is on an equal footing in the debate.

Let the students take over
"The children might begin by examining the 'message' of the book; the ideology which can be overt or covert," Roche continues. "But they are doing so at their own level and pace. The teacher needs to take off the mantle of the expert, become a participant in the group and be open to listening and learning.

“The teacher should refrain from interrupting. If the discussion wanders off the point she can ask a question to try to put it back on track when it comes to her turn. But teachers shouldn’t be striving to bring the discussion around to where they want it to go.

“It’s not about looking for consensus. It’s about encouraging children to think for themselves, to dig deep beneath the surface of a story and offer their points of view for others to agree with, disagree with, partially agree with.”

No one is forced to speak
It is important not to pressurise the class; it can take some time for some children to be comfortable hearing themselves express their own opinions. "In the beginning, they can be jealous of other kids who have big words or are more outspoken," says Josephine Russell. "I would always say, 'We are like a football team, where you have the striker who scores the goals but everyone is just as important on the team'. There is also value in silence, and listening is as important as speaking."

Don't turn it into a competition
"Thinking time is an act of trust," says Donnelly, who notes that while Lipman emphasises consensus, her focus is more on participation.

“The best analogy is play. I would see loads of educational value in play but if you mention it to some people they say ‘Play is just a very pleasant waste of time’. The wonderful thing about play is it’s child centred.”

Be alert to the dissenting voice
One story Roche has used in class is Yellow Bird, Black Spider by Dosh and Mike Archer (Bloomsbury), which explores the theme of individuality through the eyes of an unconventional bird who is being nagged by a spider about its behaviour.

She recalled one group of eight year-olds who said they empathised with the bird’s desire to “do your own thing” and be free. “I said, ‘Okay, then, when I drive up to a red light I want to go through it because I want to be free’. They said, ‘No, you can’t do that: that might hurt other people’. ‘So doing your own thing and being free is only okay at certain times?’

“The conversation continued with many agreeing that the yellow bird had the right to be himself and live life his way. Then one child said, ‘But doesn’t the spider have a right to be himself too?’ and that opened up a question of the contest of two rights. It took an eight year-old to bring that to my attention.”

Timetable it
School timetables are packed but philosophy can be worked into literacy and oral language classes, or alternatively RE (religious education) or SPHE (social, personal and health education), says Roche.

“What I recommend is when you sit down to plan the year ahead you block out your lessons. So, for example, I might choose a story for an English lesson about scaredy squirrel making a friend, which also covers the topic of friendship in SPHE and possibly RE. That allows me to free up time for the discussions.”

Fail, fail better
Practitioners at secondary level have adopted a similar format, using a story, or even a passage of philosophical text, depending on the age group, to spark a discussion about ideas. As teaching aids, Donnelly recommends books such as Robert Fisher's Teaching Children to Think (Nelson Thormes) and David White's Philosophy for Kids (Prufrock Press).

Roche left the primary sector in 2008 and now works as a lecturer in St Patrick's College, Thurles, Co Tipperary, where she does a P4C module with undergraduates. She is now producing her own resource on how to use picturebooks "as stepping stones to philosophising" to be published mid-2014 by Routledge. She warns, however, "I do see people saying 'Just give me a bunch of resources that I can go and teach'. But that is not being open-minded enough to think up your own questions. The bottom line is, it's about mindset. It comes back to what John Dewey called the 'reflective practitioner': you have to be whole-hearted, open-minded and reflective."

. . . and tips for parents
If your school doesn't offer philosophy don't worry, says UCC lecturer Vittorio Bufacchi. "I do it with my kids every day at home. If you watch a film such as Cinderella, you can ask 'Why is she feeling this way?', 'Where is her beauty?' Those are the hardest questions," he says.

He has two children, aged seven and eight, and they “don’t need to know theories about symmetry and beauty to tackle those sorts of questions”.

Robert Fisher, a UK author in "thinking and creativity" and a P4C advocate, suggests children have four needs: emotional, physical, social and reasoning. To promote the latter, he suggests: encourage children to build on their ideas; try to get them to see the implications of what they say and make them aware of their own assumptions and encourage them to find reasons to justify their beliefs.

As with adults, movies and books can provide the spark for conversation. Take Harry Potter: As one P4C textbook points out, it throws up "questions in ethics (Is power more important than good?); epistemology (How can we know ghosts and trolls?); and metaphysics (How do spells work?)", among other fields.

“We have made philosophy into a discipline but it’s really about thinking and reasoning, just starting to spark conversation. Then you just become more sophisticated in the questions you ask,” says Bufacchi.

Philosophy resources
Educational Action Research in Ireland,; the UK Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education,; – includes downloadable resources for the classroom; European Foundation for the Advancement of Doing Philosophy with Children,