Far too often, the modern education system assumes that children are not capable of complex reasoning. School is seen as a place of one-way transmission with defined roles: the Teacher holds the knowledge and is responsible for conveying it, while the Student is the passive receiver. In contrast, Philosophy for Children strives for student-directed learning that places the responsibility for learning upon the whole community. We come to the table with the assumption that young people not only can but actually do engage in abstract thought and meaningful discourse on a regular basis.
The official Philosophy for Children movement (now commonly referred to as P4C) began in the 1970s, when Professor Matthew Lipman left his tenured position at Columbia University to found The Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) to incorporate the teaching of philosophy into pre-university education. Since then, P4C has blossomed into an enormously successful worldwide movement in thousands of communities and over sixty countries. Philosophy is done* in primary schools, junior and senior high schools, summer camps, homeschool programs, family groups, and more.
Although each P4C program is unique, they share the following: respect for student autonomy, a trained facilitator to support the discussions, and the offering of some kind of stimulus before the formal discussion begins.
Personally, I have been privileged to participate in four distinct programs, each of which operates in its own ways. In Professor Tom Wartenberg’s Teaching Children Philosophy program with second-graders in Massachusetts, we begin by reading a picture book, followed by a discussion of philosophically relevant questions drawn from the story. In his similar What’s The Big Idea? program geared towards young adolescents, discussion prompts come from film clips instead. At Eurekamp at the University of Alberta, “Community of Inquiry” sessions sprout from thought-provoking, hands-on activities throughout the summer camp days. At the Balmoral School in Auckland, New Zealand, a number of approaches are combined, with students engaging in hands-on activities, reading, and facilitated philosophy sessions at least every week.
*We often refer to philosophy as something you do, almost like a verb itself, because it is not just a collection of facts to learn or be taught. Philosophizing is a group endeavor that every member of the community participates in with equal importance. No one has all the answers about how to do it “the right way,” and the facilitator has no final conclusion in mind when the discussion begins.
Please refer to this helpful resource at Philosophy for Children New Zealand for further discussion of the history and range of methods involved in doing philosophy with children. For an even more extensive introduction to the field and set of resources for starting a P4C program, visit PLATO (Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization).