Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophy with Children

  • Marjan Šimenc
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_160



Philosophy with children (PWC) as well as philosophy for children (P4C) as practices of philosophical thinking of children are essentially connected to the American philosopher Matthew Lipman. Lipman designed the community of inquiry (COI) as a form of philosophizing for children, created plenty of resources for classroom work, and developed the philosophical foundation of the programme. On a practical level, he founded the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children at Montclair State University where teachers are educated and where philosophers get acquainted with the P4C programme and the Thinking journal as a source of reflection on the practice. P4C eventually spilled over the border of the country: it is present in 50 countries, and Lipman’s resources have been translated into more than 20 languages.

Lipman did not coordinate the project on his own; he was helped by his colleagues, especially by Ann M. Sharp. The seminars held in Montclair were attended by philosophers from all around the world who later founded national centers for the P4C. In different countries, the programme was adapted to the social and cultural environment and the local philosophical traditions. For a clearer distinction, Lipman tried to differentiate between his own programme and other principles of philosophical work with children.

Thus, in her approach to P4C that includes children below 5 years of age with the help of picturebooks, Karin Murris, on Lipman’s request, started using the term philosophy with children, “which has also been taken up by others as it expresses the democratic and collaborative nature of the practice: philosophy adults do with, not for children.” (Haynes and Murris 2011, p. 300). One could use PWC as a general term, referring to every practice, including Lipman’s (similar goes for P4C: it can refer to every practice or Lipman’s exclusively), or in a narrow sense, for every non-Lipman practice. The former is more commonly used, and it is also used by The International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC), which was established in 1985, “to strengthen communications among those in different parts of the world who are engaged in philosophical inquiry with children, in teacher education, in research and for school administrators looking to initiate and develop programs that would encourage children’s philosophical thinking” (ICPIC 2015). This is how the term PWC is used in this article.

It should be noted that the P4C programme was developed in the USA, where – as in some other countries – they did not incorporate philosophy in their preuniversity curriculum. Teaching philosophy as a school subject on an upper-secondary education level has a long tradition in European countries. Independently from the P4C programme, there was a debate in Europe on different approaches to the teaching of philosophy and the reasons for it being limited only to upper-secondary level of education; some of these were the French group Greph (groupe de recherches sur l’enseignement philosophique), the dialogic and pragmatic philosophy didactics by Ekkehard Martens, a German philosopher, and discussions within the AIPPH (Association Internationale des Professeurs de Philosophie) on the difference between teaching about philosophy and doing philosophy. Thus, some countries began with independent initiatives to incorporate the teaching of philosophy also into primary education. Simultaneously, there were other principles of philosophical practice (philosophical counseling, the philosophy cafe, the neo-Socratic dialogue …) emerging independently from the P4C, which, similarly to the latter, are founded on a belief that parallel to the academic philosophy there is the philosophy in everyday life, meaning that besides the theoretical philosophy there also exists philosophy as a way of life. Today, PWC is one of many philosophical practices and as such it is not only influenced by pedagogical and philosophical ideas, but also by other philosophical practices which, reciprocally, it influences as well.

For PWC, a diversity of philosophical practices may be compared to the Wittgenstein concept of family resemblance: there is no common essence, only a string of resemblances, but not a single property connects all the members of a family. However, it seems that philosophers, theorists, and practitioners who work with the PWC are all somehow interconnected. Primarily, they are a part of a common space of the PWC, defined by magazines, conferences, and societies. The other connecting element is grounded in the content: PWC is marked by the connection to Matthew Lipman, who established the link philosophy-child. This connection to Lipman can be represented by continuation and modification, but it can also have a form of criticism.

Modification: The Structure of the Practice

The 2008 publication of the Philosophy for Children, Practitioner’s Handbook, presents five traditional steps of the Lipman model, albeit slightly modified: (1) the reading of a philosophical story; (2) asking questions and forming the programme of work; (3) discussion on the questions in the COI; (4) self-evaluation of the practice, philosophical exercises, and activities; and (5) in between each episode, the moderator presents a mind game and a guided discussion on an important concept according to the discussion plan from the handbook. Students may also be involved in a nondialogical philosophical activity (e.g., an interview with parents on an important philosophical question, taking pictures, doing art, etc.) (Gregory 2008, p. 9).

The comparison of standard instructions of the P4C and the PWC instructions (which emerged in the context of the work done in English schools) shows a number of similarities and differences. Sara Stanley suggests the following procedure: (1) presenting the stimulus, (2) thinking time, (3) recorded thinking time, (4) collecting questions, (5) analyzing and deciding upon questions, (6) dialogue, and (7) closure and evaluation (Stanley 2006, p. 31). There are no obvious differences besides the second step (asking questions) being divided into several steps. However, there are two new moments incorporated, the “thinking time” and the “recorded thinking time” – important innovations which introduce the element of silence and the element of writing that the classical P4C approach omitted.

Hymer and Sutcliff, in their 10-step model, also strive for a more structured research. Their model breaks the dialogue down into three different steps: first words, building, last words. The first step is dedicated to the students’ suggestions on how to handle a problem, while the last step helps an individual to have a last say on the topic, to summarize, perhaps ask a new question (Hymer and Sutcliffe 2012, p. 10). Therefore, last words are used to introduce postdebate commentaries that do not construct the dialogue any more. (The first level of dialogue is similarly parsed by Peter Worley – his philosophical enquiry method [PhiE] consists of five steps: stimulus, first thoughts, task questions, talk time, and enquiry.) Beate Borresen’s work follows the same direction, introducing a log sheet into the procedure, which enables the individual to reflect on each step of the COI. Catherine C. McCall, who developed the Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI) while working with Lipman, took another direction. She developed an 18-step approach that focuses on a detailed description of each step of a discussion. Ekkehard Martens developed an integrative model including five methods (phenomenology, hermeneutics, analysis, dialectics, speculation), extracted from the history of philosophy. Oscar Brenifier continues to invent new strategies that force the students to think, thus nurturing their thinking.


Oscar Brenifier developed his approach to the philosophical practice with children exclusively of the P4C. He attended the 2003 ICPIP congress in Varna and published a critical article on the “Lipman Method.” His attention was mainly drawn by the demonstration of the P4C he witnessed. The children participating in the demonstration were stringing opinions with no critical thought on the subject. In a discussion they held with Brenifier, they also claimed that philosophy is interesting mainly due to the fact that “there is no ‘true’ and no ‘false’ and that everyone can say what he wants” (Brenifier 2007, p. 226).

The demonstration of the P4C was focused on expressing opinions, not on the analysis and justification of those, keeping the method on a prephilosophy level. According to Brenifier, this is also evident from the children’s statements that the charm of philosophy is in the absence of true answers, which is a point of view defended by those who have not yet encountered philosophy, the goal of which is to show the narrow-mindedness of the common-sense relativism.

Brenifier’s critic of Lipman received a number of responses. Pierre Lebuis (Lebuis 2005), a Canadian practitioner of P4C, noted that he agreed with Brenifier’s critic of the P4C practice in Varna, but declared that that was not the Lipman practice. The described demonstration of the communal research deviated from P4C. The reason for the deviation, according to Lebuis, is most probably the limited training of the teachers, which should not be attributed to the programme itself, but rather to the problems related to the implementation of the programme.

In this manner, Lebuis exempts Lipman from the critic and indirectly raises awareness of an unusual fact: Brenifier, who criticizes Lipman sharply, is closer to him than many a person within the PWC movement. In his criticism, Brenifier enumerates the activities that the facilitators of the COI should provide: “They must produce questions, formulate hypotheses, interrogate presuppositions, give counter-arguments, find the contradictions, analyse ideas, produce concepts, problematize statements, identify the issues, etc.,” (Brenifier 2007, p. 237) which corresponds to Lipman’s description of the elements of philosophical research in Thinking and Education: the articulation of disagreements and the quest for understanding; fostering cognitive skills (e.g., assumption finding, generalization, exemplification) through dialogical practice; learning to employ cognitive tools (e.g., reasons, criteria, concepts, algorithms, rules, principles); and joining together in cooperative reasoning (e.g., building on each other’s ideas, offering counterexamples or alternative hypotheses, etc.) (Lipman 1991, p. 242).

Seven years before Brenifier, Susan Gardner opened a debate on the same grounds. In the article “Inquiry is no mere Conversation” she draws attention to the “underrating of the role of facilitator,” which leads to the devaluation of an “otherwise brilliant pedagogical method” (Gardner 1996, p. 102), but she takes a step further than Lebuis. Gardner emphasizes the relationship between COI and the truth: the communal research is essentially a research, therefore it seeks truth. This is why in understanding the facilitation of COI, it does not suffice to rely primarily on the autonomy of the pupils. Gardner does not accept the reason for difficulties to lie only in the strenuous implementation of the programme, but rather focuses on searching for deeper reasons for them. Doing so, she uses Lipman’s statement that all research should reach for the truth, at the same time noting that “his writing [is] so rich with insight, particularly with regard to the processes and procedures of inquiry that I fear that his comments with regard to the importance of truth as its regulative ideal are too often overlooked” (Gardner 1996, p. 103).

When analyzing the reasons for a research to slip into conversation, she pinpoints the fact that Lipman in his texts writes about the “natural philosophical propensity” of children, thus giving an impression that a teacher should let the children speak freely, and the dialogue will flow correctly. According to her analysis, Lipman’s suggestion of using modeling as a key method in educating teachers “masks the intricacies and in particular the philosophical nuances employed by experts for ensuring a successful community” (Gardner 1996, p. 104).

It should be noted that the title of the article per se, “Inquiry is no mere Conversation,” bears proof of her faithfulness to Lipman, who, in Thinking in Education, named one of the chapters “The art of conversation,” and another one “The structure of dialogue” (Lipman 1991, p. 235). From the content of these two chapters it is clear how Lipman considers various theories, and bases his own view on the discussion of these theories, but does not evaluate them. Thus, he starts his discussion of the dialogue with a view that emphasizes a “disclosure” of a subject in dialogue on one side and the persuasion at the other side, claiming that the dialogue happens somewhere in between, while the COI dialogue is a “dialogue that is disciplined by logic” (Lipman 1991, p. 236). So, in Lipman’s writings we find a plurality of ideas that cannot be found in the conclusions he makes. This plurality in written form often anticipates the plurality of understandings and methods of work that later emerged within the PWC.

Brenifier’s article received response also from Walter Kohan, who worked in Brazil. He agrees with Brenifier’s criticism on many points, but at the same time exposes the key differences. The specificity of his point of view is best shown through the answer on Brenifier’s address of relativism. Kohan points out that Lipman had always outspokenly objected relativism, and therefore, Brenifier’s objection to Lipman is unjustified. However, Brenifier and many others within the PWC movement are connected by philosophical underestimation of relativism. Philosophical concepts are controversial, so no one can claim that he is the only one who holds the truth. The concept of truth, as well as other philosophical concepts, can be understood in a number of ways. “This is why what counts most is not for the children to be relativists or absolutists, but for them to be philosophers, essentially the people who openly, creatively and critically deal with different concepts on the grounds of their experience” (Kohan 2005).

Kohan thus does not defend Lipman from Brenifier’s accusations, but rather addresses Brenifier and the PWC, claiming that they force feed the children their own perception of truth instead of opening up a space where children could think of the truth on their own. In this manner, Brenifier’s criticism led to a dialogue that questioned several of the fundamental concepts of the P4C. Paradoxically, the most radical criticism on Lipman was not expressed by Brenifier as an outside observer, but rather by Kohan, who completed his doctorate with Lipman.

However, the story does not end here. In an issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education, dedicated to philosophy for children, Murris and Haynes include also epistemological and moral relativism into the “recurring themes in the practice of PWC educators.” They attach it to the popular belief that “philosophy has no right or wrong answers” (Haynes and Murris 2011, p. 295). They, too, do not comply with the standard instruction in P4C on critical research of every aspect presented in a discussion, as “every participant [is] a potential source of insight and worthy of being listened to responsively. (…) We value the rich openings philosophical teaching creates for everyone involved to play freely with new ideas. The aim of education should not be a mere focusing on the acquisition of knowledge, or a process of socialization into an existing order, but to speak with one’s own voice and to bring something new into the world …” (Haynes and Murris 2011, p. 296). In order for “other” and “different” to be encountered, mere critical research of every opinion does not suffice, but rather an openness that enables the new to emerge in a discussion. Thus, the fight against relativism becomes more complex. The rigidity of thinking is enriched by new spaces opening up and the open-mindedness toward the otherness. The apparatus of critical thought is not only nonadequate but can act harmfully as well, since it can, when put into central focus in an inappropriate manner, close a space within which the children are searching for their voice.


An overview of different models of practice and a discussion on the objectives of the philosophical practice with children has shown that the demarcation line between the P4C and PWC cannot be drawn between Lipman and different representatives of the PWC, but rather that the differentiation happens within Lipman’s work as well as among different representatives of the PWC. The aforementioned discussion has thus led from a mere stating of opinions of the children, past the structured practice in which a facilitator leads and steers the children in quest of truth (simultaneously teaching them about thinking and other skills), to the practice of philosophy based, again, on the thinking of the children. This time, it is not based on expressing opinions, but on “philosophy as an experience of thinking which doesn’t admit of any definite order. It aspires to think the unthinkable. (…) It opens the door to difference. In short, it allows an encounter with childhood” (Kohan 2002, p. 11). The first and the last do not represent the two extreme poles within the PWC as they do the extreme poles of every practice aiming to connect philosophy and children.

Lipman’s text offers a plurality of principles that cannot be found in his conclusions. This plurality on a textual level anticipates the plurality of interpretations of his work within the PWC. When Walter Kohan insists on philosophy not being “an ability but an event; not a tool but an experience” (Kohan 2002, p. 10), he is being true to the connection between philosophy and a child, which is at the very heart of Lipman’s work. The development of PWC could be understood as a deviation from Lipman’s ideas, but the pluralization of the programme evident in the new resources, modifications in the structure of work, and the introduction of ideas from different philosophical schools may also be understood as an expression of importance of the Lipman’s programme.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of ArtsUniversity of LjubljanaLjubljanaSlovenia