Life prep 

P4C: preparation for Life 

Stephen Walshe suggests we are not just absorbers of knowledge but active creators of our own knowledge: in learning how to think we can get more not just out of learning but, more importantly, out of life.

Philosophy for Children

Philosophy for Children, or P4C, is an approach to teaching that focuses on philosophical enquiry and dialogue.  The theory behind it is based on Socratic questioning, which focuses on seeking truth in the belief that it is only through expressing our thoughts clearly in dialogue that we can test our beliefs against the logical arguments of others. Vygotsky and Piaget’s constructivism propose that learning is an active, constructive process, while Dewey of course argues that educators should not tell children what to think, but help them to think for themselves.  

Mathew Lipman 

The P4C approach was originally developed by the late Mathew Lipman, Chair of Philosophy at Columbia University. He believed, based on the students entering his undergraduate philosophy classes, that education was not adequately preparing students to think for themselves. After much thought he decided that this problem could not be solved at the university level. He therefore, gave up his post as Chair of Philosophy at Columbia University to change education by developing a pedagogy that focuses on using the activities of philosophical dialogue to develop independent thinking, reasoning, communication and collaboration 

Community of enquiry 

The outcome was P4C, which also encourages the development of curiosity, clarity of expression and emotional intelligence in a safe community of enquiry (C of E).  According to Vygotsky (1978) “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them”. If we want our students to grow into an intellectual life that promotes independent thinking and intellectual curiously in a caring collaborative environment, then we must create the conditions and environments in our schools and classrooms to promote this. P4C does just that!

P4C in the classroom 

A standard P4C enquiry session consists of four phases.   

Phase 1, Starting  

This is a warm-up activity or game related to the theme, skill or attribute that the teacher wants to emphasize. The focus can be skills-building, such as developing listening skills, or community-building, such as encouraging taking turns to speak. The best warm-up activities, however, are ones that connect to the stimulus and incorporate skills and or community building.

Phase 2Questioning 

The teacher presents an open-ended stimulus, video, story, picture or object.  Children have some private thinking time to consider the stimulus, followed by pair work or first words from the students to share their thoughts about the stimulus. Students then form groups to develop questions inspired by the stimulus and vote for one question for discussion.   

Initially young children may ask closed questions, because most of the questions they are asked in schools are in fact,  closed. Facilitators, over time, will need to help students to move toward more open discussable questions that allow for multiple perspectives, which are relevant to all students.

A skilled facilitator can draw an engaging enquiry out of almost any question.  In many cases, even a closed question contains a question or rich concept behind the question. For example, following the presentation of a stimulus children may ask: “Where is Mommy?”. The question or concept behind this may be loneliness or a feeling of abandonment when they can’t find their Mommy.  

Phase 3, Discussion 

During the discussion phase of the enquiry students practice a variety of skills that include. but are not limited to: 

  • Verbal expression; 
  • Reasoning to justify point of view: 
  • Collaboration to build on, or respectfully disagree with, the ideas of others 

The role of the teacher is to facilitate discussion between children, not to dominate the discussion. The children should be encouraged to speak to each other. The facilitator should only intervene to: 

  • Ask open questions to draw out ideas; 
  • Ask for justification of assumptions; 
  • Ask for examples or evidence to support statements 
  • Help children clarify points that are not clearly expressed 
  • Summarize discussion to ensure shared understanding 

The purpose of these interventions is to model good dialogic practice so that, eventually, students are able to do this themselves.  

Phase 4, Wrapping-up 

Students share their final thoughts and discuss how the enquiry went. This helps the children to develop skills of evaluation and reflection as well as planning for improvement in subsequent sessions. 

P4C therefore encourages four types of thinking attributes:

  • Caring thinking – involving respect for others and their interests; 
  • Collaborative thinking – working constructively with the rest of the group;   
  • Critical thinking – justifying and evaluating ideas; 
  • Creative thinking – introducing new thoughts and building on those of others.
Attributes hunting in packs 

Hanna Ardent argues – correctly in my view – that  attributes “hunt in packs”. When using a P4C approach, we might think that a child disagreeing with another child in a Community of Enquiry is just an example of critical thinking. However, to disagree effectively, the child must first listen carefully to what has been said (Caring thinking). The child must then think carefully about what has been said (Critical thinking) and subsequently develop a response to what has been said (Creative thinking). And finally, the child must articulate a response and share it with the whole community (Collaborative thinking). 

Ivory tower or real life? 

‘Philosophy’ is often seen as painfully abstract – a pursuit for those living in ivory towers. Far from it – P4C is powerful stuff in preparation for real life. The sooner a child can experience it, the better, and at the Fortune Kindergarten in Shanghai it has become central to our programme. 


Stephen WalsheP4C China 

Accredited Trainer



FEATURE IMAGE: BerndSold – Pixabay