Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophy with Picturebooks

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_164


Philosophy with picturebooks as an educational philosophy and practice can be understood only in the context of the Philosophy for Children (P4C) program. Since Matthew Lipman et al. (1977) outlined the educational philosophy of this program, there have been differences of opinion about the kinds of texts best suited to teaching philosophy in education. The program is radically different from other approaches in three distinct ways.

First, there is an entangled relationship between text and philosophy. In collaboration with colleagues at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), based at Montclair State University (USA), Matthew Lipman (1922–2010) developed this comprehensive curriculum consisting of seven dedicated and (deliberately imageless) novels and accompanying manuals to support and guide teachers in the use of the texts for all phases of preuniversity schooling. Lipman argued that “without a curriculum of some kind…the chances that one will be able to do philosophy at all are greatly reduced” (Lipman 1997, p. 1). The curriculum had been specifically designed for teachers who had not studied academic philosophy. In that sense, the P4C curriculum has become the “archetypal” text for P4C, the yardstick against which all others are measured.

Secondly, Lipman’s philosophy of and in education radically opened up a space for a new branch of philosophy: philosophy of childhood. His logically and not empirically sequenced P4C curriculum bypasses any stage theory of children’s cognitive development. In education, the influence of psychological theories of child development as the basis for curriculum construction still remains very strong (File et al. 2012). In contrast, the P4C program sequences practice in a range of thinking skills and exploration of recurring philosophical concepts rather than competences (Lipman et al. 1977). The exercises and discussion plans in the different manuals are sequenced logically, whereas an empirical sequence would involve a correspondence “to already existing stages of cognitive development derived from descriptions of children’s behaviour in non-educational contexts” (Lipman 1988, p. 147). P4C’s curriculum conceptualization expresses a philosophy of childhood that is (albeit in a limited sense) nondevelopmentalist which therefore demands a pedagogy that is post-developmentalist. Developmentalism involves an essentialist view of a child and generalizations about what individual children as a matter of fact are capable of, views that are a result of age-related prejudices. The configuration of “child as philosopher” (Haynes 2008, 2014) has helped to expose such discriminatory and limiting views, spearheaded by Gareth Matthews (1994). Like Lipman, Matthews regarded children’s capacities to philosophize as a historically neglected area of interest in education and child development.

Thirdly, the P4C program assumes an entangled relationship between text and pedagogy: the “teaching methodology” (Lipman et al. 1977, pp. 59–80) for reading the philosophical novels is philosophical inquiry. Lipman compared academic philosophy to memorizing the inscriptions in a graveyard: memorizing a collection of names and dates. A pedagogy is needed that does justice to philosophizing as an activity – philosophy as “a way of life” (Lipman 1991) – and academic philosophy is in need of reconceptualization. For Lipman (and Dewey) we cannot “educate for enquiry unless we have education as enquiry – unless, that is, the qualitative character we desire to have in the end is loaded into the means” (Lipman 1991, pp. 15, 245, fn 3). After reading Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s work in the late 1940s (Lipman 1996, p. xiii), and especially inspired by George Herbert Mead, Lipman (1993, p. 319) developed his curriculum on “an explicit theory of thinking as internalized speech.”

American Pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914) was the first to fuse together the terms “community” and “inquiry” in the domain of scientific inquiry, but it was Lipman who introduced the method as a pedagogy for the teaching of philosophy in schools (Lipman et al. 1977, Ch7). The basic assumption is that learning philosophy is best achieved by engagement in philosophical practices. Further developed in collaboration with Sharp and other colleagues, Lipman (1991, pp. 15–16) describes the community of enquiry as:

A dialogue that tries to conform to logic, it moves forward indirectly like a boat tacking into the wind, but in the process its progress comes to resemble that of thinking itself. Consequently, when this process is internalized or introjected by the participants, they come to think in moves that resemble its procedures. They come to think as the process thinks.

Laurance Splitter and Ann Margaret Sharp, who have written extensively on the subject, prefer not to give a definition of a community of inquiry, because it is one of those key concepts, they say, “…which takes on new aspects and dimensions as teachers and students apply it and modify it to their purposes. A community of enquiry is at once imminent and transcendent: it provides a framework which pervades the everyday life of its participants and it serves as an ideal to strive for” (Splitter and Sharp 1995, pp. 17–18). They explain that the internalization of the variety of voices in a community of inquiry will lead to a richer, more varied “inner” dialogue and, as a result, a better, more reasonable thinking through “self-correction.” They continue that it is because we define ourselves as persons through the dialogues and conversations we engage in, that the ethical, social, and ontological aspects of the community of inquiry are central to the very notion of reason itself (Splitter and Sharp 1995, pp. 32–33). David Kennedy (2006, pp. 159) suggests that in inner dialogue we also address the “child within” – the child the adult once was and still is.

The key educational idea is that the fictional novels model children and adults engaging in communities of philosophical inquiry. Lipman explains (1997, p. 1) that student teachers and qualified teachers need “models of doing philosophy that are clear, practical and specific. They need to be able to distinguish essentially decidable concepts from essentially contestable concepts, if they are to understand why only the latter are truly philosophical.” The novels function as models. They are not a narrative version of the history of philosophy (as, e.g., attempted in Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, 1994), but central philosophical ideas, themes, and questions have been “injected into” the text without the use of technical jargon. The history of Western philosophy is presented as a mode of thinking, with the novels representing the kind of thinking that is typical of the history of philosophy.

The philosophical thinking in the novels is enacted by fictional, thoughtful children who reflect explicitly on their thought processes in the way adult philosophers would do, but that children “normally” do not. Engagement of real children with the “abnormal” conversations in the novels (Kennedy 2011, p. 61) helps them “develop their own philosophy, their own way of thinking about the world” through the community of inquiry pedagogy (Lipman 2008, p. 166). In that sense, the P4C curriculum positions the ideal-philosopher-child (Murris 2015).

Philosophy with Picturebooks

Lipman’s pioneering work reaches beyond the mere introduction of just another subject in the curriculum, that of philosophy. It profoundly questions how schools regard knowledge and how subjects are taught. For Lipman the statements of which human knowledge is said to be composed are, in fact, answers to questions by now long forgotten (Lipman and Sharp 1984, p. 158). What we now call factual knowledge is the generally accepted outcome of previous inquiries. The P4C curriculum focuses on questions, not answers, on thinking, not knowledge.

The program has inspired others to create a variety of alternative resources and approaches to support teachers in their philosophical work, either for practical reasons (e.g., shorter, cheaper) or philosophical and pedagogical reasons (for the program’s lack of internal consistency, see Murris 1997; for its Anglo-American philosophy bias, see Martens 1999, 2008).

The current positivist educational climate has provoked P4C advocates to justify the addition of P4C to the existing curriculum by pointing out its usefulness in terms of raising standards, teaching thinking skills, creativity, citizenship, inclusion, and emotional literacy. These are justifications that are often motivated by accountability or the need to secure funding. Understandably, such an instrumental approach has been criticized (Vansiegelheim 2005; Long 2005). P4C can be the home of a complex mixture of educational ideas and philosophical traditions as practitioners situate the approach rhizomatically in their own cultural, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic contexts and infuse the practice with their own identity and beliefs.

P4C challenges many perceived wisdoms about classroom size, epistemological expertise, the limits of scientific knowledge, and who should ask the questions in class (see, e.g., Benjamin and Ecchevarria 1992). It questions what it means to be a child and what it means to be treated as a citizen. Some authors emphasize the radical democratic nature of the practice. The concept of “democracy” is understood to include moral principles such as freedom and equality and implies that schools make space for children to actively participate as citizens in contexts that are meaningful to them. Depending on one’s practice, P4C can nibble away at the very undemocratic foundations of modern education itself (Kennedy 2006; Kohan 2002; Haynes 2008).

Although Lipman himself was very much inspired by the philosophies of both Plato and American pragmatism (especially John Dewey) and later on also used Vygotskian socio-constructivism to theorize the pedagogy, others have used a wide range of other philosophies and educational theories to justify P4C, including Kantian philosophy (McCall 2009), semiotics, critical pedagogy (Kohan and Wozniak 2009), postmodernism (Kennedy 2006), and critical posthumanism (Murris 2016).

Disrupting the paradigm of adult philosophy with its emphasis on language, logic, and rationality, David Kennedy, Walter Kohan, and others have influenced the choice of text, the text-pedagogy relationship, and how texts are read in P4C (Haynes and Murris 2012). These dimensions explain the reasons and motivations for the subsequent diversification of practices – differences in the field are related to implicit or explicit views of a child, what philosophy is, and ideas about how philosophy can learn from a child. Since the early 1990s the introduction of these alternatives to the P4C curriculum has generated new debates about the necessary requirement for teachers of P4C (and the trainers of these teachers) to have a background in academic philosophy. The phrase “philosophy with children” was born to distinguish between the “official” Philosophy for Children program and other approaches such as “philosophy with picturebooks” (Murris 1992). The phrase philosophy “with” children articulated an important difference and became more widely used much later by what Vansieleghem and Kennedy (2011) refer to as the “second-generation” P4C proponents. They broke with a strategic uniformity to the educational approach and “welcomed difference as a principle of growth” (Vansieleghem and Kennedy 2011, p. 172). The emphasis for many of them, but certainly not all, 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 potentially transformative power in deciding what counts as philosophy. The diversity of P4C theory and practice is entangled with questions about philosophy, what it is, and which texts one should choose for teaching it.

The picturebook has been a recurrent feature in the diversification. Why is this? What is peculiar about the picturebook that makes it such a suitable philosophical text?

The P4C curriculum contains the promise of a complete, whole, continuous curriculum that expresses a developmental view of a human being – in terms of development in understanding philosophical concepts. The latter are introduced in an age-related sequential manner, each time with “a little more depth, breadth and sophistication” (Lipman et al. 1977, p. 59). The philosophical child for Lipman (1993), Matthews (1992, 1993, 2006, 2009), and others (Wartenberg 2009; Mohr-Lone 2012) is the child whose verbal utterances resemble the ideas of established academic philosophers, and the picturebooks are selected on the basis of the classical philosophical themes and topics they “contain,” such as freedom versus determinism, lying versus truth telling, or justified anger (Costello 2012).

Other approaches to the use of picturebooks for P4C focus on critical and creative thinking approaches to literacy education (Roche 2015). Avoiding the term “philosophy” can be helpful in not alienating teachers, but the risk attached is that P4C is conceptualized as a mere thinking skills approach without the history of philosophical inquiry to draw on as resource. For Lipman, thinking skills should always be taught in the context of a humanistic discipline, such as philosophy – a discipline that is “representative of the heritage of human thought” (Lipman 1988, p. 40; 1991, pp. 29–30). The task of philosophy is to encourage children to think for themselves in, about, and among the disciplines, which involves an induction into the higher-order thinking and critical reflection upon the methodology of each discipline: its assumptions, criteria, procedures, and modes of reasoning (Lipman 1991, pp. 263–264). A crucial question is how this is done and how the implied reader is positioned in the texts that are chosen for the philosophical work.

Philosophy with picturebooks was introduced by Murris (1992) and further developed in collaboration with Joanna Haynes after they met in 1994 (Murris and Haynes 2002; Haynes and Murris 2012). Philosophy with picturebooks has proven to be popular in practice, not only in early years’ settings or primary/elementary education. Picturebooks are short, self-contained stories, not too expensive, and sometimes already available in schools, at least those with the financial resources to provide books. In such schools, teachers are familiar with the medium, and the children are used to, and often appreciate, visual texts.

Good quality picturebooks are more than just books with illustrations (hence the spelling of “picturebooks,” instead of “picture books”). Oft-quoted, classic points of reference in children’s literature research argue that picturebooks involve two very different interdependent sign systems (the images and the words) (Nikolajeva and Scott 2006; Sipe 1998). The reader, so the argument goes, is pulled in different directions of meaning-making by the use of these two different sign systems; the linear direction of the text invites readers to continue reading; the pictures compel them to ponder. Importantly, the “gaps” between text and image may be experienced differently as people grow older, which challenges teachers to listen and respond differently from children (Haynes and Murris 2012). In their influential article, Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2000, p. 238) argue that a picturebook “speaks to both adults and children” and that “the two audiences may approach textual and visual gaps differently and fill them in different ways.” Children’s literature scholar David Lewis (2001, p. 74) describes metaphorically how in contemporary picturebooks “[w]ords are never ‘just words’… [they] are always partial, incomplete, unfinished, waiting the flesh of the pictures. Similarly, the pictures are perpetually pregnant with potential narrative meaning, indeterminate, unfinished, awaiting the closure provided by the words. But the words and the pictures come from outside the picturebook.” The interaction between image and text is neither stable nor predictable. “Boundaries have dissolved,” writes Lewis, “inviting a promiscuous mixing of forms” (Lewis 2001, p.90). Picturebook narratives often feature unusual characters (e.g., humans covered in body hair, aliens), extreme concepts (e.g., immortality, the size of the universe), and obscure thought experiments.

These narratives provoke philosophical conversations – “‘a language of languages,’ a focus on ‘something greater than the judgments,’ that is, the criteria for those judgments” (Lipman 2008, p. 59). These criteria, in turn, interlock with other criteria that are interlocked with other criteria and so on, and, although no answers yet emerge, the process is “intriguing, exciting, illuminating” (Lipman 2008, p. 59). They generate inquiries that focus on meaning, rather than learning, on understanding, rather than truth – provoking conceptual questioning. Reading picturebooks philosophically does not involve a process of finding out what pictures denote or literally represent, but requires sensitivity in bringing together what is said and what is unsaid. These judgments are often complex and unpredictable and involve emotional, imaginative, and reasoned responses – not necessarily with a focus on the philosophical concepts that adults find interesting (Murris 1997).

Lipman’s P4C novels position the “abnormal” child, the thinking child – the adult philosopher’s child modeled in communities of inquiry with peers. In contrast, philosophy with picturebooks often involves children in inquiries about fantastical scenarios in the void between reality and fantasy, rather than about the world as it “is” (for the adult philosopher). The perspective of what it means to be child-philosopher-like is firmly embedded in adult assumptions and desires about how a child should be. In contrast, philosophy with picturebooks does not locate the philosophical “in” texts themselves but in the space in between text, child reader, and adult reader (teacher). Gert Biesta (2011, p. 317) writes about “exposure” as the quality of human interaction, which “makes the event of the incoming of uniqueness possible.” It is this kind of philosophy that cannot be mapped out or modeled by the philosophical novels. It could not be; it escapes representation. This position assumes that we have to be more modest in our claims about what narratives can do when doing philosophy in class. A pedagogy of exposure involves consciously giving up regarding education as the formation of childhood as well as regarding children as adult opportunities to carry out adults’ ideals and to use education as an instrument for such ends (Kohan 2011, p. 430).

Although the sociocultural orientation of the way in which the P4C community of inquiry is often theorized was revolutionary at the time, its constructivist ontology seems ironically rather individualistic some 45 years after its introduction. What is assumed is that students and teachers learn P4C through a process of “internalization” and therefore presupposes a humanist subjectivity based on binaries such as inner/outer, nature/culture, and matter/discourse and an anthropocentric perspective of what it is to be human/child (and therefore what is involved in teaching philosophy). In philosophy with picturebooks there is a dynamic entanglement between philosophy, the democratic practice of the community of inquiry pedagogy, the notion of the competent child as (implied) philosophical reader, teachers as philosophical readers, and the epistemological ambiguity and aesthetic qualities of the picturebooks. The ontology and epistemology this practice assumes are relational.

Moving toward a critical posthumanist orientation, P4C scholars have recently started to pay more attention (this includes the analysis of philosophical enquiries) to the picturebook’s materiality: the effects of graphic design, choice of art style, visual grammar, use of colors, and medium (paper, virtual, etc.) (Murris 2016). In fact, there are infinite material-discursive elements that could and should be considered when reading texts philosophically. How these “languages” interact, connect, and influence each other also depends on what readers “bring to” the narrative themselves and the affordances of the material environment. From this perspective the preparation and education of teachers for philosophical practice should be less focused on induction in set curricula and more on the acquisition of a wide range of philosophical content knowledge from various traditions in combination with the learning of philosophical pedagogical skills and attitudes. The philosophy teacher does not scaffold existing truths, but problematizes the relationship that both students and teachers have to truths in which they are already installed (Kohan 2011, p.346). The choice of text can hinder or support this experiential process of bringing something new into the world.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Cape TownCape TownSouth Africa