Philosophy for children (P4C) from the USA to Australia

The development of P4C as an ecofeminist pedagogy

June 2020


Philosophy for Children (P4C) was first developed in the late 1960s by American philosopher Matthew Lipman. It is now practised and researched all over the world. P4C involves students and teachers participating in dialogue-based, collaborative inquiries into philosophical problems. It aims to foster a wide range of thinking skills, meaningfulness, participatory democracy, and the dispositions needed to effectively participate in communal inquiries such as reasonableness, open-mindedness, care and respect for others, imaginativeness and a willingness to self-correct. P4C also has its own philosophy of education, influenced by John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. As P4C has spread around the globe, its materials, practices and theories have evolved as they have been adapted to new contexts and integrated with other ideas and practices. In this inaugural column, I will provide a brief overview of P4C and its history, before focusing on how P4C was taken up and adapted in Australia. In particular, we will see how numerous Australian philosophers integrated P4C with pioneering Australian feminist philosophy, especially Genevieve Lloyd’s feminist critique of reason and Val Plumwood’s ecofeminism, which extends upon on Lloyd’s work. Thus, it is not surprising that current Australian philosophers and educators are exploring and developing P4C so that it may contribute to environmental education.

What is Philosophy for Children?

In the late 1960s, Matthew Lipman, then a professor at Columbia University, grew concerned about that his students seemed to lack higher order thinking skills. Given that the discipline of philosophy involves the study and improvement of thinking itself, Lipman decided to create and trial a philosophy program for elementary students in New Jersey. The program involved especially written children’s books. The first book, published in 1974, was Harry Stottlemeier’s Discovery, designed for sixth graders. The book’s characters, who are mostly children, explore philosophical problems and engage in reasoning and argument construction and analysis. The text was intended to provoke the analysis and evaluation of thinking (i.e. metacognition) through classroom discussions and activities (e.g., the identification of valid argument forms and logical fallacies). Lipman and his long-time collaborator, Ann Margaret Sharp, developed a teacher manual to accompany Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery. The manual contained philosophical exercises and discussion plans. Lipman left Columbia University and, along with Sharp, established the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC) at Montclair State University in New Jersey. While Lipman’s first P4C text was narrowly focused on critical thinking and the sub-discipline of logic, P4C developed to become more inclusive of diverse ways of thinking (e.g., creative and caring thinking), and other areas of philosophy and philosophical traditions. Maughn Gregory and Megan Laverty’s recent edited collection, In Community with Ann Margaret Sharp: Childhood, Philosophy and Education, details how Ann Sharp’s background in feminist philosophy, aesthetics and continental philosophy helped broaden P4C, leading to its adoption of a more embodied notion of thinking and greater focus on the emotions and imagination. At the IAPC, Lipman and Sharp developed an entire set of P4C books and accompanying teachers’ manuals for pre-school to secondary school, covering different areas of philosophy, including ethics, aesthetics, and social philosophy. For more detail about the early days of P4C and the original IAPC teaching materials, you can read Lipman’s firsthand account in his contribution to Saeed Naji and Rosnani Hashim’s History, Theory and Practice of Philosophy for Children: International Perspectives.

In addition to curriculum materials, P4C includes various pedagogical methods. The most important of which is the classroom Community of Inquiry — a type of dialogue, inquiry-based pedagogy. A traditional P4C class begins with students and teachers sitting in a circle and reading aloud from a book that contains philosophical problems (such as one of Lipman’s original P4C books described above). This activity is intended to stimulate a whole class collaborative inquiry. After the shared reading, student formulate questions in response to the text. These questions are written up on the board or poster paper and the class votes on which question they would like to discuss first. Questions that merely ask for factual information or simple comprehension questions are answered quickly before the community moves onto to focus on the more complex questions that warrant philosophical inquiry. Thus, student questions form the basis for a whole class inquiry, where students are encouraged to take turns performing various thinking moves in order to examine the problem at hand, such as, suggesting possible solutions; expressing opinions; providing reasons to support opinions; providing examples; constructing criteria and evaluating; constructing counter examples and counter arguments; analysing arguments and information; questioning each other; building on the ideas of others, etc. Lipman’s book, Thinking in Education provides detailed account of the sorts of thinking moves, skills and dispositions P4C aims to foster. You can view numerous online videos of kids engaged in philosophical communities of inquiry, such as this Australian example.

P4C is not merely an educational programme. There is an extensive theoretical literature outlining the sophisticated, evolving philosophy that underpins P4C. As I have explained at length in my own book, Social Reconstruction Learning: Dualism, Dewey and Philosophy in Schools, P4C’s is primarily grounded in the philosophy of John Dewey and other classical pragmatists, as well as the social psychology of Lev Vygotsky. P4C embraces pragmatism’s epistemology of fallibilism; an embodied notion of thinking, which rejects traditional mind/body, reason/imagination and reason/emotion dualisms; as well as communal inquiry, as the process by which problems are solved and knowledge, culture and meaningfulness constructed. P4C assumes a notion of self that is interconnected with its natural-social-cultural environment. Like Dewey and Vygotsky, P4C assumes that the self and the capacity for independent thinking develop through mutually transformative interactions with the environment. As the environment is inevitably social-cultural, this means that growth is also shaped by, and dependent upon, our interactions with others. All of this justifies a type of participatory democracy as the most ideal form of social organisation – i.e., societies that allow for the communal, intercultural inquiry and that foster individual and social growth.

Since its inception, P4C has also been the subject of numerous empirical studies. Research suggests that P4C may lead to improvements in cognitive abilities, like reasoning; social and emotional capacities, like empathy, communication skills and resilience; and even literacy skills. For example, see recent studies by Stephen Gorard, et al.; Nadia Siddiqui, et al.; Roberto Colom et al.; Frank Fair et al.; Egle Sare et al.; Chadi Yousse; and Michael D. Burroughs and Tugce B.A. Tuncdemir.

P4C is now practiced in at least sixty countries. In 1985, the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children (ICPIC) was established to support and connect P4C organisations around the world, especially through a biennial conference and an open access, international journal, Childhood and Philosophy. The global spread of P4C has been encouraged by the United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s (UNESCO) endorsement of P4C and its long standing commitment to the practice of philosophy in general. UNESCO’s Paris Declaration for Philosophy (1995) states that:

All individuals everywhere should be entitled to engage in the free pursuit of philosophy in all its forms and in all places where it may be practiced. Philosophy teaching should be maintained or expanded where it exists, introduced where it does not yet exist, and designated explicitly as ‘philosophy.’


As explained in its more recent Intersectorial Strategy on Philosophy (2006), UNESCO sees the practice of philosophy as playing a key role in the advancement of peace, freedom, human rights and international community. UNESCO has published reports that detail the practice and status of P4C around the world, as well as other approaches to teaching philosophy, including Philosophy: A School of Freedom (Teaching Philosophy and Learning to Philosophise: Status and Prospects (2007) and regional reports such as Teaching Philosophy in Asia and the Pacific (2009). These reports also describe how, as P4C has come into contact with new cultures, practitioners and researchers, its theory, practices, and curriculum materials have evolved and diversified. In the next section, we will focus on one example of this by looking how P4C was taken up and transformed in Australia.

P4C in Australia

Gilbert Burgh and Simone Thornton’s 2018 edited collection, Philosophical Inquiry with Children: The Development of an Inquiring Society in Australia provides a comprehensive history of P4C in Australia. In 1982, Lawrance Splitter, then a lecturer at the University of Wollongong become aware of P4C while on sabbatical in the USA, where he visited the IAPC to meet with Lipman. In 1985, Splitter and Jen Glasser invited Lipman and Sharp to Australia to run P4C workshops and meetings. A national association for the promotion of P4C in Australasia was established in 1991, now known as the Federation of Philosophy in Schools Associations (FAPSA). Lipman and Sharp’s original IAPC materials were adapted to better fit the Australian context (e.g., Splitter’s 1992 adaptation of Harry Stottlemeir’s Discovery). Furthermore, new materials and pedagogical practices emerged. In fact, throughout the world, it become common practice to use other materials or activities, besides the original IAPC books, to stimulate classroom philosophical inquiries. Other children’s books, including the classic Australian book, The Bunyip of Berkley’s Creek were used and teachers’ manuals were often developed to accompany them. Films, images, newspaper stories, art, objects, excursions, or small group tasks are also often used as discussion prompts. Australian philosopher Phil Cam developed popular P4C texts and activities (e.g., Twenty Thinking Tools: Collaborative Inquiry for the Classroom) that often use small group activities to stimulate whole class communal inquiries. He used this approach to develop an ethics curriculum that was widely taught in primary schools in New South Wales, Australia. In one activity, students are put into groups of three or four and allocated a captioned image that depicts some animal rights issue, such as an image of foxhunting or animals being used for medical research. In their groups, the students discuss the images and try to come to some agreement about how acceptable they find the scenarios. They then place their image along a line that has the terms ‘less acceptable’ and ‘more acceptable’ at either end. This is an example of a learning activity that Cam refers to as ‘bridge’ in his 2012 book, Teaching Ethics in Schools: A New Approach to Moral Education. All the groups then come together to sit in a large circle and share their responses to the small group task. Thus, the responses to the small group task initiates a whole class communal inquiry.

P4C and Ecofeminism

In Australia, P4C’s theory also evolved in interesting ways. In particular, P4C was integrated with particular strands of feminist thought. Australia has produced some of the most well-known, pioneering feminist philosophers in the world, such as Australian philosopher Genevieve Lloyd, whose seminal book, The Man of Reason, published in 1984, which critiques the problematic discourse of dualism, including male/female, mind/body, culture/nature, reason/emotion dualisms. This critique of dualisms was extended upon in Val Plumwood’s ground-breaking work in ecofeminism and environmental philosophy, Feminism and the Mastery of Reason (1993). These ideas had influenced the thinking of many of the Australian philosophers who took an interest in P4C, who went on to develop of a significant body of literature connecting P4C to these feminist philosophies, for example: Felicity Haynes’ 1994 paper, Male Dominance and the Mastery of Reason; Jen Glaser’s Reasoning as Dialogical Inquiry: A Model for the Liberation of Women, also published in 1994; Terri Field’s Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy for Children (1997); Bleazby’s 2013 book, Social Reconstruction Learning: Dualism, Dewey and Philosophy in Schools; and, most recently, Simone Thornton’s PhD thesis, Disruptive Philosophies: Eco-rational Education and the Epistemology of Place.

These Australian feminist philosophers recognised how P4C’s embodied, communal, non-dualistic notions of thinking and the self were aligned with feminist goals – specifically with the dismantling of problematic notions of rationality, selfhood and autonomy, which have worked to legitimise the control, domination and exploitation of the natural environment and of women, girls, indigenous people and many other marginalised groups. P4C’s pragmatist notion of self, a self that is deeply interconnected with its social-cultural-natural environment, also resonates with ecofeminism’s notion of the ecological self. The connection between P4C and the ecological aspects of this philosophy is most evident in the recent work of Simone Thornton, who examines how P4C is well-positioned to dismantle the common discourse that underpins patriarchy, environmental destruction and colonisation. In collaboration with Mary Graham and Gilbert Burgh, Thornton outlines how P4C can draw on counterhegemonic ideas and practices, especially indigenous epistemologies and practices, feminist philosophy and environmental philosophies to help deconstruct this destructive discourse. Thus, these Australian philosophers have taken, what may have seemed like another generic thinking skills program, and identified its radical, truly transformative potential. In future columns we will explore how P4C scholars and practitioners in other parts of the world have also adapted P4C in such promising ways.

However, the theoretical connections between P4C and feminist philosophy haven’t always been fully realised in practice. Despite early criticisms, that more P4C materials needed to be developed that would provoke a philosophical examination of gender stereotypes, racial stereotypes, discrimination and social justice issues, there still appears to be dearth of material in this area, at least in comparison to the number of P4C materials and activities focused on more ‘traditional’ philosophical problems in the areas of logic, epistemology and metaphysics. Furthermore, while P4C’s theory clearly assumes anti-dualist ideals, these are not always fully realised in P4C’s pedagogy either. For example, as explained in chapter 8 of my own Social Reconstruction Learning, the theory/practice, mind/body, nature/culture dualisms are not fully deconstructed in traditional P4C classrooms, which emphasise philosophical thinking and dialogue but do not usually engage students in transformative interaction with the environment beyond the classroom. Having originally emerged from the Western philosophical canon, P4C’s materials and methods must always be used cautiously and critically, remaining open to being transformed or even replaced when they are used within different contexts. Deliberate efforts need to be made to seek out and include texts, materials, ideas and methods from non-Western and marginalised perspectives, like indigenous and Eastern philosophies. Encouragingly, fallibilism, critical self-reflection and openness to being transformed by others are central elements of P4C’s own epistemology and pedagogy.

P4C and Environmental Education

Given the theoretical overlap between P4C and ecofeminism, P4C should be further developed to contribute to environmental education. In its Global Action Programme on Education for Sustainable Development, UNESCO explains how education must play an essential role in the global response to climate change. Schools must help their students understand the nature, causes and effects of climate change; foster the development of environmentally sustainable values, behaviours and attitudes; and prepare students to adapt to environments transformed by climate change. Some common P4C topics and materials cover issues central to these aims, such as animal rights; and the examination of materialism, hedonism and egoism in relation to ethics and the good life. But, again, P4C could be better utilised to explore environmental issues and to promote values associated with sustainability, especially through the development of more resources devoted to environmental ethics, as well as through the integration of P4C with pedagogies that involve transformative action beyond the classroom, such as through social justice approaches to community service learning.

P4C may also help address one significant obstacle to the implementation of quality climate change education in schools. Despite the scientific consensus, there remains considerable public debate about the existence, causes and implications of climate change and this debate is highly politicised. This can make it a difficult and sensitive topic for teachers, who are often weary of being accused of political or moral indoctrination, as discussed by Mark Kissling and Jonathon Bell in their recent paper, Teaching Social Studies amid Ecological Crisis. One response to this problem is to teach climate change the same way many educational researchers recommend teaching many controversial topics – i.e., teachers adopt a neutral stance and allow students to examine both sides of the debate, so that students may formulate and express their own viewpoints and develop the capacity for independent thinking. However, this approach poses the risk that students will reject climate science or, at least, perceive climate science as epistemologically equivalent to the beliefs of climate change deniers. Thus, this approach can seem to promote relativism. Such an approach also fails to actively encourage the adoption of environmentally sustainable values and behaviours. P4C rejects both relativism and indoctrination and has more sophisticated pedagogical methods for fostering dialogues into ‘controversial’ issues. As I have explained in more detail in a recent paper in the Journal of Curriculum Studies, P4C aims to foster desirable moral values and behaviours using reason and evidence, and collaborative inquiry, which means that while particular values, like environmental sustainability, can be actively promoted as there are persuasive reasons for them, they also remain open to critique and revision. This is clearly distinct from indoctrination, which involves attempts to compel belief via non-rational means (e.g., threats, emotional manipulation, lying or withholding information, etc.).

Some researchers in Australia and elsewhere are already doing some promising work around using P4C as a form of environmental education, notably Margaret MacDonald and

Warren Bowen’s study, Using Engaged Philosophical Inquiry to Deepen Young Children’s Understanding of Environmental Sustainability: Being, Becoming and Belonging; and Simone Thornton, Mary Graham and Gilbert Burgh’s, Reflecting on Place: Environmental Education as Decolonisation. In future columns, we will report on developments in this important area of P4C practice and research.

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Full Citation Information:
Bleazby, J. (2020). Philosophy for Children (P4C) from the USA to Australia: The development of P4C as an ecofeminist pedagogy. PESA Agora.

Jennifer Bleazby

Jennifer Bleazby is senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education, Monash University, Australia. Prior to taking up her position at Monash University, she worked as a philosophy, history, humanities and media studies teacher in both government and independent secondary schools. Her main areas of research are philosophy of education; philosophy for children; ethics and religion in schools; children's rights; curriculum theory; feminist philosophy; and pragmatism, especially the philosophy of John Dewey. Jennifer is currently conducting a research project on religious education in Australian government schools, generously funded by a Rationalist Society of Australia Patron's Grant.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels