P4C: Philosophy in Communities, Classrooms, Companies, Counselling

What is it?

American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the first to fuse together the terms ‘community’ and ‘enquiry’ in the domain of scientific enquiry, but it was Matthew Lipman who introduced the phrase to describe the pedagogy of an innovative approach to teaching and learning called Philosophy for Children (P4C). This programme was initially developed to teach the subject philosophy in the late 1960s. Rapidly it has been adopted and adapted to various formal and informal teaching situations and also incorporated in a wide range of subjects, disciplines and practices, such as social work, inclusive education, mathematics, sociology, psychology, museology, and leadership and management. P4C has come to stand for Philosophy in Classrooms, Communities, Companies, or Counselling. P4C theorists draw on a variety of philosophical sources for their inspiration, including: Socrates, Dewey, Heidegger (& Arendt), Foucault, Wittgenstein, Levinas and Rorty.

Lipman’s challenge to the still pervasive Piagetian stage-theory in educational curriculum design and practices, the inclusion of child in the process of meaning-making and the experiential democratic nature of this multi-dimensional revolutionary approach to learning and teaching, explains the resistance P4C-representatives encounter when introducing P4C in their own educational institutions (including Higher Education) (see e.g. the book Picturebooks, Pedagogy and Philosophy). 

Lipman’s monumental curriculum paved the way for an international response by practitioners, often trained initially with Lipman in the United States, to ‘deliver’ the P4C programme. After returning to their own countries and different cultural settings some of these P4C representatives translated the programme, more or less literally into the language of their home country. But also a broader ‘translation’ took place: connecting the programme with different educational expertise, philosophical interests, talents and awareness of the curricular needs of their own country, from the early 1990s onwards, new resources and practices mushroomed. Initially, the development to replace the philosophical novels was resisted by Lipman, who emphasized the importance of a carefully structured curriculum for teachers without an academic background in philosophy, and thus the phrase ‘philosophy with children’ was born to distinguish between the until then official curriculum for P4C and philosophy with picturebooks (Murris, 1992) until the phrase became more widely used by the ‘second-generation’ P4C-representatives. They broke with a strategic uniformity to the educational approach and welcomed difference as a principle of growth. The emphasis for many, but certainly not all, of them is no longer on a curriculum that models the normative ideal of analytic reason, but on dialogue that generates communal reflection, philosophical conversations and democratic practices that include child and young people’s voice – regarded as a potential transformative power in deciding what counts as philosophy.

Initially trained by Lipman, the work of Karin Murris with picturebooks for all ages has been internationally influential. Breaking with a P4C curriculum that models the normative ideal of analytic reason, she uses mainly children’s literature. This work was further developed and theorised in collaboration with Joanna Haynes.

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The community of enquiry pedagogy

Young people and teachers participate in ‘communities of enquiry’ (groups of people seeking better understanding of each other’s ways of thinking and feeling). The community aspect is central: through discussing ethical issues (which are often fundamental questions about right and wrong, freedom and responsibility, etc) participants are encouraged to develop a special care, not only for each other, but also for their own way of thinking. They learn to listen to and to respect each other, but also to reason with each other.

The assumption by members of a ‘community of enquiry’ that contributions by any one of them might prove crucial to the groups’ understanding enhances each member’s self-confidence and sense of community. The method provides a unique space and highly valued time for participants to pose their own questions, and to express their own opinions. The experience that what they say and do makes a difference -i.e., when they sense what it feels like to be part of a community of enquiry - encourages automatic development of the skills and virtues that make reflective thinking possible. Examples of virtues that make good thinking possible are openness, patience, tenacity, courage, flexibility and respect for others.

The philosophical approach helps to tackle problems associated with democratic discussion and managing differences of opinion, conflicting beliefs, strong feelings, controversial issues and decision-making. Illiterate people or people with behavioural problems and specific learning difficulties particularly appreciate the emphasis on oral work, personal experience and collaboration.

This pedagogy emphasises the importance of enquiry/questioning skills, imaginative and meaningful dialogue, and careful reasoning/reflection in the process of education. It aims to improve students’ abilities to think creatively, critically, caringly and collaboratively through well-guided discussion. The teacher’s role is that of facilitator. The class learns to evolve as a ‘community of enquiry’, defined as a rigorous, democratic and reflective approach to discussion built up over time with the same group of learners. This powerful pedagogy reinvigorates learning and teaching experiences. It is one of those key concepts that takes on new aspects and dimensions as teachers and students apply it and modify it to their purposes. Each community of enquiry is unique.