Practical philosophy with children, young people and adults: what is it and why should we do it?

10th October 2018

Dr Claire Cassidy from the University of Strathclyde’s School of Education gives an introduction to practical philosophy with children, young people and adults and the benefits of using this approach.

What is practical philosophy?

Perhaps it’s easier to start with another question: what is philosophy?  Philosophy, as it is traditionally understood, tends to be thought of as a subject done at universities. It’s about asking questions and thinking in a particular way. Philosophers usually work in universities and ask questions about a whole range of subjects, for example, they may consider what kind of society we should have, or what justice is, or whether people should be allowed to end their own lives if they wish, or whether God exists, or if there is an end to space.

Practical philosophy in some ways is very similar, but it isn’t only done in universities. Practical philosophy can be done, and is done, anywhere. You’ll find people doing philosophy in schools, colleges, secure units, libraries, book shops, prisons, pubs, art galleries; you name it, you can do philosophy there.  And that’s the point, it’s about doing philosophy. It involves talking and thinking about ideas with other people; that’s what makes it practical. It’s not just that, anyone, from three years-old upwards, can engage in practical philosophy. And they often talk about the same things as philosophers in universities.

Where does it come from?

Practical philosophy with children started with Matthew Lipman who was a professor of philosophy in the USA in the 1970s. He was concerned by his students’ lack of critical thinking when they came to university to study philosophy. He was worried that they couldn’t give good reasons for the decisions they made or the ideas and arguments they had. In an attempt to address this problem he designed a programme for use in schools called Philosophy for Children. This is sometimes known as P4C.

There are lots of different ways of doing philosophy, so we generally talk about Philosophy with Children (or PwC) when we don’t mean one approach in particular. People do PwC all over the world.

How does it work?

logoTo explain, let’s use one example. Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI) was developed by Catherine McCall who worked with Matthew Lipman in the early 1990s. She adapted Lipman’s P4C approach to create CoPI.  CoPI works with adults and children in exactly the same way, and no knowledge of academic philosophy is required by participants.

CoPI is something that should be done regularly and done over a period of time so that participants become better at it, and so that they build up a way of working together. It is best done in groups of about fifteen participants, but usually there are more people if this is in a school classroom. To help participants in the dialogue, there is a facilitator or chairperson. A CoPI session usually lasts about an hour, but it depends on the time available. Participants sit in a circle so that they can see one another. They start with a stimulus; this is usually a short story, poem or newspaper article that is read and then they ask questions prompted by the stimulus. The facilitator chooses a question that she thinks will be good to start a philosophical discussion, a discussion where there is a lot of opportunity for agreement and disagreement. Children and adults often ask the same questions, although they don’t always use the same words when they do. Questions asked by children include: what are real numbers? Why did Cinderella do all the housework? Is it wrong to eat humans? Do babies think using language?

There are some rules to a CoPI session and these are the same no matter the age of the participants or where the session takes place. If participants want to contribute to the dialogue then they will raise their hand and wait for the facilitator to call them to speak. They’ll begin their contribution by agreeing and/or disagreeing with something that someone else has said and they must also say why they agree/disagree. They don’t have to give their own opinion when they contribute, so they can try out ideas. They are not allowed to refer to an authority for their reasons. An authority might be a book they’ve read, a TV programme they’ve watched or a person who has told them something; it has to be their own thinking. They cannot use technical language when speaking, so they have to speak in everyday language that everyone will understand. Finally, at the end of the session the participants and facilitator are not looking for everyone to agree or to offer an answer to the initial question that started the dialogue. The end of the session should remain open so that participants continue to think and wonder about the ideas from the discussion.

Why should we do practical philosophy?

There are lots of reasons and there is research evidence to support these.  Here are just a few examples. For some children and young people who have difficulty working with others or who find it hard to listen to people or who become angry or emotional easily, there is some research to show that doing CoPI has helped. The findings from the research suggest that the CoPI rules have supported participants so that they are better at waiting for their turn to speak, that they can listen to others and that they are better able to manage their emotions or that they don’t mind being disagreed with. In fact, some children and young people reported that they like being disagreed with. The research also shows that CoPI helps participants to give better reasons when they offer an idea. Some evidence also shows that children and young people use some of the CoPI rules or structures in other areas of their lives, either at home or in school.

Most importantly, though, CoPI is fun; there is often a lot of laughter in a session. People like arguing about ideas and they enjoy the feeling of having a mental workout when they have to wrestle with hard ideas and try to make themselves understood or need to understand what others have said. It helps participants to recognise philosophical problems in the world around them and to think about these with other people.

Want to know more?

For training in practical philosophy with children and adults, or just to find out where you might be able to participate in a CoPI session, contact at the University of Strathclyde’s School of Education.  Follow Claireon Twitter: @ClairePwCC and @PwCCScotland