Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Philosophy with Children: The Lipman-Sharp Approach to Philosophy for Children

  • Joe Oyler
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_226



Philosophy for Children (P4C) is a designation first associated with Matthew Lipman’s and Ann Margaret Sharp’s particular approach, which now exists within a broader, global educational movement, Philosophy with Children (PwC). Today, many approaches that share similar commitments to the Lipman-Sharp (LS) approach use the P4C label as well. Throughout this entry, LS-P4C will be used to indicate the Lipman-Sharp approach. LS-P4C was the first attempt to develop a comprehensive curriculum designed to engage children and teenagers in philosophical inquiry. Often referred to as the “Lipman approach,” LS-P4C is better understood as the result of an extensive and equal collaboration between Matthew Lipman (1922–2010) and Ann Margaret Sharp (1942–2010), cofounders of the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. With affiliate centers in over 40 countries worldwide, the IAPC has served as the home of LS-P4C since its founding in 1974. Globally, versions of P4C and PwC are represented by the numerous constituents of the International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC), established in 1985.

The Lipman-Sharp Approach

The genesis of P4C is often marked by the appearance of Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery (1982), a philosophical novel written by Matthew Lipman between 1967 and 1969 and first published in 1970. Initial publication of Harry came with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for use in a successful pilot in the Montclair, NJ, school district. In the novel, Harry Stottlemeier is a fifth grader who stumbles upon some of the rules of formal logic (Aristotelian) and explores them in different contexts with his friends. Although this is a consistent thread throughout the novel, the characters also grapple with a variety of philosophical concepts and questions drawn from the philosophical canon including: Invention versus Discovery; Thoughts and Reality; Children’s Rights; Can a person have more than one personality?; Do animals have culture?

In its infancy, Lipman envisioned LS-P4C as a series of such novels, although he had a hunch that the program could become more than a curricular one (Lipman 2008). With the founding of the IAPC and with significant contribution from Sharp, LS-P4C further evolved into a pedagogical program aimed at the improvement of thinking with a particular commitment to rigorous and respectful philosophical dialogue. Lipman and Sharp were aided in their endeavors by colleagues from throughout the world at various times and in various ways. It is because of this collaboration that LS-P4C today continues to be unique within the field of PwC and pre-college philosophy in that it represents a comprehensive pedagogical approach with its own empirically verified, systematic curriculum and classroom methodology.

There are four distinguishing features of the LS-P4C approach that mark its unique place in the field:
  1. 1.

    Clear theoretical foundations in philosophy, psychology, and educational theory

  2. 2.

    Clearly defined pedagogical objectives that guide and inform the approach

  3. 3.

    A systematic curriculum involving philosophical novels and teacher manuals

  4. 4.

    An empirically researched and supported model of classroom discussion


Although other programs and approaches across PwC reflect similar features, none reflect all four in a systematic and comprehensive way as LS-P4C does.

Theoretical Foundations

P4C curriculum and methodology are grounded in social-constructivist learning theories. These theories point to social interaction (dialogue) as a mechanism for the internalization of new and more complex ways of thinking and speaking (Mercer and Littleton 2007). An important insight of these theories is that the modeling of these more complex ways of speaking and thinking is not exclusively the role of the teacher. When groups of young people engage in thoughtful and disciplined discussion, any one of them may activate effective ways of thinking and speaking that serve as strategies to be internalized by others. The insights of these theories are reflected in both the practice of classroom dialogue, advocated for in LS-P4C, and in the varied dialogic episodes occurring in the IAPC curriculum novels.

The philosophical foundations of P4C curricular content draw upon Lipman’s and Sharp’s vast knowledge of the (mostly Western) philosophical canon. The pedagogical components of the approach more specifically draw upon the insights of numerous American philosophers including Justus Buchler (1954) and the pragmatists John Dewey (1916) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1955). Lipman’s and Sharp’s conception of critical thinking is also strongly influenced by pragmatist epistemology that sees the “truth” replaced by “reflective equilibrium” as something that evolves over time, through an ongoing process of inquiry, communal scrutiny, and verification in action (Gregory 2007). Additionally, the theories of John Dewey (1916) are reflected in P4C’s particular philosophy of education as essentially supporting children in awakening to, and grappling with, that which is problematic in whatever subject matter they are engaged (Lipman 2008).

Pedagogical Objectives

Central to the LS-P4C approach is a commitment to helping children strengthen their capacities for inquiry, with the goal of helping them to arrive at their own reasonable, philosophical judgments concerning questions and issues that arise in their own experience. This commitment is established and elucidated in a vast collection of theoretical materials from Lipman, Sharp, and their colleagues in P4C and PwC. Although often generalized as empowering children to “think for themselves,” LS-P4C advocates understand “thinking for oneself” to involve the application and development of critical, creative, and caring thinking.

Critical Thinking. Although largely developed alongside a number of different critical thinking programs and perspectives, LS-P4C is unique in its focus on judgment as the key function of critical thinking. According to LS-P4C, critical thinking involves the application of criteria, sensitivity to context, inferential reasoning, metacognition, and self-correction (Lipman 2003b). Critical thinking for LS-P4C is also concerned with application, where the product of this kind of thinking results in a judgment that can be put into practice or initiate a change. This practical aspect of critical thinking is deeply informed by C. S. Peirce’s (1955) concern with protecting the results of one’s inquiry from turning into meaningless abstractions and unjustified beliefs. Doing so means evaluating the results according to their practical consequences (Gregory 2007). Consistent with Peirce’s concern, the LS-P4C teacher manuals and methodological literature reflect a focus on testing ideas in action.

Creative Thinking. Where critical thinking might be understood as the application of rules and standard criteria of logic and inferential reasoning in a given context, creative thinking, in contrast, involves going outside those rules to generate new possible answers, new criteria, or new ways of framing things. Lipman referred to this as a “freshness,” which he linked with a sense of wonder that is essential to philosophical thinking and inquiry (2003b). Lipman and Sharp characterized creative thinking in part as thinking that is original or precedent setting; imaginative in envisioning possible worlds; independent in presenting their own thoughts rather than mirroring those of others; experimental in trying on news ways of proceeding; expressive of our experience with our thoughts and perceptions; surprising in what it creates, thereby generating new wonder; and maieutic in its attempt to bring out the best in the world (Lipman 2003b).

Caring Thinking. One of the most unique aspects of LS-P4C’s pedagogical vision and its conception of higher-order thinking is the role of caring thinking. The idea of caring thinking arose from Lipman’s and Sharp’s sensitivity to the role that our passions and emotions play in thinking. To that end, Lipman and Sharp identify caring thinking as thinking, that is, at a minimum: concerned with the problems and challenges that others face; careful to maintain the cognitive excellence of the process and product of one’s thinking; normative in searching for what ought to be rather than simply describing what is; and deliberative in weighing contextual factors prior to making a judgment (Lipman 2003b). Caring thinking is thus thinking that reflects care through a sensitivity to how we are thinking, what is worth thinking about, and what is important to consider as we are thinking. A number of P4C programs around the world, especially ones concerned with developing pro-social behaviors and the reduction of violence, make caring thinking their central focus.

IAPC Curriculum

The LS-P4C/IAPC curriculum is designed to help teachers and students develop a philosophical ear – to recognize philosophical dimensions of their experience and of school subjects – to engage in group dialogue and to practice critical, creative, and caring thinking. The LS-P4C curriculum includes ten novels, each with an accompanying teacher manual (to which several other authors contributed). Eight of these, Elfie (2003a), Kio and Gus (1982), Pixie (1981), Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery (1982), Nous (1996a), Lisa (1983), Mark (1980), and Suki (1978), are published directly by the IAPC. Two others, The Doll Hospital (1999) and Geraldo (2000), were published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

IAPC Novels. One of the most unique contributions Lipman made to the field of PwC is the philosophical novel as philosophical text. Together, Lipman and Sharp continued the development and use of the philosophical novel in service of their particular educational aims. Within the LS-P4C, the novel plays a number of important roles, some but not all of which can be filled by good literature in a variety of traditions and disciplines. Lipman and Sharp were not against teachers using materials from outside of the IAPC curriculum, but did see the philosophical novels as best equipped to fully address the pedagogical commitments and theoretical insights of their model. To that end, Lipman and Sharp encouraged others to develop their own philosophical novels. The privilege that the LS-P4C approach grants to the philosophical novel is grounded in its ability to serve as both a stimulus for, and a model of, philosophical sensitivity and multidimensional thinking (DeMarzio 2007).

The LS-P4C novels are meant to serve first and foremost as a stimulus for the questioning and wonderment of the students reading them. Lipman and Sharp were sensitive to exposing young people to philosophical ideas without “hitting them over the head” with them. Where traditional children’s literature may touch upon a variety of philosophically interesting ideas or themes, they all too often reflect a lesson or a “moral to the story” that cannot be ignored by even the most careless reader. The LS-P4C novels attempt to balance story with philosophy in ways that allow children to uncover the philosophical issues that emerge for them (DeMarzio 2007). Maintaining this balance helps the philosophical ideas and issues embedded in the story to remain connected to the context in which they are explored by the characters. When the philosophical concept emerges in this way, the objectives of problem finding (critical thinking) and contextual attentiveness (caring thinking) are supported. When the children are allowed to draw the ideas from the stimulus, they are also given an opportunity to generate wonder and express their thoughts about the text in ways reflective of creative thinking.

Equally important to serving as a stimulus for philosophical inquiry, the LS-P4C novels serve as models for group discussion and for critical, caring, and creative thinking (DeMarzio 2007). Characters like Harry, Lisa, and Suki discover logical reasoning, engage in self-correction, and consider matters of context. They do so while confronting issues that are ethical, metaphysical, aesthetic, and epistemological in nature. Throughout their shared inquiries, they are considerate of others who have suffered personal losses, have physical disabilities or whose behavior might be considered anti-social. They engage in the kind of behavior conducive to good communal inquiry, including acknowledging, clarifying, and building upon the ideas of others. They also hold each other accountable for their ideas and thoughts in ways that reflect sensitivity and rigor.

In addition to modeling the processes and dispositions of good inquiry, each of the characters in the LS-P4C novels exemplifies a kind of thinking or a type of thinker (DeMarzio 2007). Harry is a critical thinker who approaches things logically. Lisa is a caring thinker who displays a deep sensitivity to context and the experiences of others. Suki is the creative thinker who sees things through the eyes of an artist and helps other to look at things in novel ways. Seldom depicted dealing with a problem on their own, the character’s collaborations represent the various ways that these kinds of thinking can be enlisted in support of each other.

IAPC Manuals. Where the LS-P4C novels model the interplay of different kinds and processes of thinking, the manuals help supplement the skills and conceptual depth that make the interplay possible (Lipman 1996b). Lipman and Sharp populated their curriculum manuals with two distinct tools – Philosophical Discussion Plans and Philosophical Exercises – meant to be activated by the teacher based on her assessment of the group’s skill in philosophizing together. These plans and exercises correspond to each of the “leading philosophical ideas” written into each section of the novel.

Exercises aim to help increase precision in the use of cognitive skills. For example, if during a discussion the participants are having a hard time establishing criteria, then the teacher might have them work together through an exercise to get more practice in doing so.

Discussion plans help the group to delve deeper into a philosophical concept or issue, often testing the conceptual boundaries that frame them. They can be used to provoke an inquiry themselves or to explore different ways of opening up a concept. For example, if the participants are exploring the concept of human families and the teacher sees that they are struggling to frame the concept as anything beyond blood relationships, the teacher might bring in a discussion plan that looks at love, trust, or familiarity as potential criteria relevant to considerations of family. Discussion plans are typically constructed in ways that pit criteria against each other or that present the criteria as questions of growing complexity. At no point in the manuals do discussion plans or exercises include final answers at which participants should arrive. Instead, they are constructed in ways that maintain the sense of problematicity central to the LS-P4C approach.

Equally important to LS-P4C approach is that the novels and manuals not be moved through systematically, like a typical curriculum workbook. The true spirit of the approach allows for a class to struggle through a chapter in the novel for months, to reflect on, assess, and revise their practice with support from exercises and discussion plans drawn from anywhere in the manual or even constructed by the teacher or the students themselves. The LS-P4C curriculum is meant to stimulate and enhance respectful, collaborative, and rigorous philosophical inquiry into concepts that the group has deemed meaningful and worthwhile. This leads us to what should be understood as the central component of the LS-P4C approach – the community of inquiry.

Community of Inquiry

The LS-P4C model of group dialogue is widely referred to as the community of inquiry (CI/CoI) or community of philosophical inquiry (CoPI), although these terms did not appear in Lipman’s and Sharp’s work until 1978. Often attributed to C. S. Peirce, Lipman’s and Sharp’s notion of the classroom community of inquiry also drew on Dewey’s (1916) writing on problem-based inquiry in schools and on Justus Buchler’s (1954) writing on classroom dialogue as a form of philosophical inquiry. CI is represented in the LS-P4C/IAPC training materials as a dialogue community, working/thinking together to determine what is most reasonable to believe or do, in response to a contestable question. A reasonable conclusion in CI for Lipman and Sharp is seldom, if ever, understood as a consensus view. Instead, typical products of an effective CI might be: the elimination of indefensible claims; a new or more comprehensive understanding of an issue or concept; a plan for how to act or live; or a more noble vision of society. Framing CI as a goal-oriented task lends itself to ongoing reflection and assessment by the group.

Lipman and Sharp recommended a particular sequence of practice for the LS-P4C approach, not as a rigid method, but as a set of components that teachers were welcome to experiment with, based upon the group’s needs and development. The essential parts of the sequence and relevant pedagogical justifications are as follows:
  • Engaging with a Stimulus – For Lipman and Sharp, this may come in a variety of forms, including, but not limited to, shared experiences, works of art, and important or troubling world events. However, when the group lacks the experience to mine these stimuli for the philosophically problematic, the LS-P4C novels are a helpful resource.

  • Student-Generated Question – Letting students generate questions in response to their engagement with a stimulus is meant to give them practice in recognizing the philosophical, discovering the problematic, and digging beneath the surface. For Lipman and Sharp, it is also a practical strategy for keeping students engaged. The assumption here is that students will be more intrinsically motivated to inquire into things they identify as meaningful. It is also practice of caring thinking. When the teacher lets the students control key components of the inquiry process, she is modeling respect and collaboration and setting the stage for an egalitarian participation structure. This egalitarian structure has been identified as an important component in classroom discussion in a number of empirical studies.

  • Inquiry Dialogue – In the LS-P4C approach, this stage of the sequence is where the majority of the group’s time is spent. In a typical LS-P4C classroom, a group might spend 25 min constructing a list of student questions and then spend 10–15 independent inquiry sessions engaging as a CI in response to the questions. Depending on the skill of the group and the results of group and individual assessment, the teacher might also include sessions where the group works on an exercise or discussion plan. It is in the CI that the group practices and hones its skills in critical, creative, and caring thinking.

    The LS-P4C facilitator is an invaluable part of the CI. Initially, the facilitator is often a visiting philosopher or the classroom teacher. In the LS-P4C approach, the students should eventually take on the various responsibilities of facilitation as they internalize the facilitator’s moves, resulting in a group that facilitates itself. To achieve this ideal, the facilitator serves the important role of modeling and supporting the virtues of good communal inquiry (Gregory 2007). She helps the students to be clear in what they are saying and thinking, and helps them to see how their thoughts and comments relate to the contributions of others. She tracks the inquiry, names argumentation and inquiry moves as they arise, and helps students see important points that emerge. She does this with a sensitivity to letting the students determine the trajectory of the inquiry. Said another way, while the participants determine the direction in which they want the inquiry to go, it is the facilitator’s job to help them go there together, critically, creatively, and caringly (Splitter and Sharp 1995).

  • Metacognitive Reflection – Essential to the LS-P4C approach is the use of post-inquiry reflection. Because the CI itself is a kind of moral and cognitive engagement, it is ripe for analysis and experimentation. A teacher in the LS-P4C vein will set aside time at the end of each inquiry session to ask the group to assess its work. She might ask them to reflect on the cognitive, moral, political or philosophical criteria that define and shape a good community of inquiry. Typical assessment questions might include: Are we looking at the issue from different perspectives? Are we making sure that no one is dominating the discussion? Are we challenging each other’s thinking? Are we building toward a reasonable conclusion? Are we digging deep into concepts and ideas? Are we getting better at [one of these] than we used to be? How can we improve our practice and/or our thinking next time? These metacognitive practices help clarify and reinforce the norms of good inquiry, and encourage students to treat thinking itself as something to be strategized about and improved upon.

  • The final stage in the sequence involves the group translating the inquiry into some mode other than dialogue, like doing an art or action project that in some way implements the new judgments and also continues the inquiry. Testing the results of the inquiry in this way is an important step that maintains the applicability and meaning of philosophical inquiry in our daily lives. It is also an important test within the pragmatist epistemological tradition (Lipman 2001, 2003).

The Future of LS-P4C

The history of LS-P4C is one of experimentation and evolution. The approach has grown from an idea of a dime-store novel for young people to a curriculum and then to what today might best be understood as a pedagogical vision for what education can and should be. The LS-P4C approach continues to grow through the work of the IAPC, whose mission is to advance P4C via educational programming, dissemination, and professional affiliation and through continued empirical and theoretical research. The LS-P4C approach continues to produce empirically verified educational results, and the IAPC is committed to increasing the effectiveness of the approach through a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the various aspects of the approach outlined here.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Montclair State UniversityMontclairUSA