Values and philosophy

Uncovering submerged values with P4C

There is a lot of talk about “Values Education”, but what values will be relevant for an interconnected, mobile world, in which our two to six year olds will be living and working. Stephen Walshe looks at the role Philosophy for Children (P4C) can play in uncovering their “submerged” values.


Robert Fisher (2009) suggests it might be useful to look at values as  “Received” and “Operational”. Received values are those that are directly taught or expected of children. Operational values, however, are developed through the child’s direct experience with the world and while evaluating how the world actually works. These values learned not from what the child is told to do, but from the child’s interpretation of what he or she sees, hears and experiences in the world, become those which the child actually operates with.

Many of these values are subconscious and are rarely examined. This is especially so with young children who are trying to make sense of all that is happening around them. Over time, however, values acquired while young can become fixed. As the child grows he/she may continue acting on these values and, because they remain part of their subconscious or submerged values, never really examine them. It is therefore, important to provide time, a safe space and a process in schools to encourage children to bring these developing, submerged values to the surface to examine them.

The insight of Pooh

Pooh Bear, in A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner, captures this very well:

Pooh began to feel a little more comfortable, because when you are a Bear of Very Little Brain and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that the Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it

Especially for young children who are in the process of developing their own understanding of what is and is not appropriate in any given situation, values must be understood and, most importantly, open to questioning. Philosophy for Children (P4C) provides a safe space for children to identify, question and discuss values in relation to their particular context.

P4C Enquiry

In a P4C enquiry the teacher presents a stimulus, story, object or picture, which contains a big idea or value: Friendship, Fear, Cooperation, Fairness, etc. Children think about the stimulus, share opinions, collaborate to create meaningful questions and then vote on their preferred question. This then leads to rich dialogue among the children based on reasoning, the purpose of which is to become clearer about one’s own thinking and values while appreciating experiences better.

Creating a safe space for dialogue

Initially, of course, a safe space must be created to allow these thingish things to emerge. The teacher, acting as a facilitator of dialogue and enquiry must set this up. In order to accomplish this, judgment about what the children say is suspended. Teachers have to create an environment where children feel they can say anything they want to say; even utterances that might be offensive or that the teacher, because of his or her beliefs, feels inappropriate. What we don’t want is an environment where the child thinks, “I’d better not say that, teacher won’t like it.” This puts demands on the teacher, because it is not only the children that have thingish things that remain submerged – we all do.

Developing competencies

This pedagogical shift can be challenging for teachers who are used to tailoring lessons to meet a predetermined set of objectives and then moving on to the next set of objectives. Shifting away from set linear objectives to a focus on developing competencies which evolve slowly and are not as easy to measure as traditional lesson objectives, can be daunting. Handing over the direction of the lesson to the children and not knowing what they will say, only heightens the unease.

However, isn’t this what many of us came into teaching for? Didn’t we begin with the idea that we wanted to get to know the children and what they think in order to understand how they view the world, what they believe their problems and challenges are, what their values really are and what influences are forming these developing values. If we still place value on really getting to know the children, then shouldn’t we provide time, opportunity and a safe space to do this?

At P4C China we believe that values should be promoted as part of the school ethos as opposed to being directly taught to children. Values development evolves as part of the education process and the experience of being at school. Consequently, a school’s decision to implement P4C is a values statement in itself. Explicitly recognizing the fact that children have something to share, while acknowledging that what they have to share is important and should be taken seriously.


Stephen WalsheP4C China 

Accredited Trainer




FEATURE IMAGE: Innviertlerin – Pixabay

Support Images: P4C China