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Ask Big Questions, Get Big Answers: Creating a culture of questioning in the primary school classroom using the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) approach, including stimulus ideas and useful resources.

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Using the methodology Philosophy for Children (P4C) I had a mind-blowing moment, one of those little BIG things that drives you to teach. Having said that, this experience happened long before I qualified as a primary school teacher, but it stayed with me and inspired me to place questioning and enquiry at the heart of my practice today. By using the P4C approach I saw children answer some of life’s biggest questions, and the best part – they did it without me!

What is Philosophy for Children (P4C)?

P4C is a methodology that teaches children how to ask and then discuss philosophical questions using a ‘stimulus’ as a starting point.

Developing P4C in the year 2 classroom

This is where the session started, in a Year 2 class with an image from ‘We Are All Born Free’ .

Philosophy for Children Stimulus

I was a visitor practicing P4C with this class for half a term. Like the finale to a great play this culminating session deserved a round of applause and, to me, demonstrated the power of philosophy.

Preparation and presentation of the stimulus

In preparing for a session I usually sit the children in a horseshoe or circle, introducing the philosophy workshop and the concept of juicy questions – thinking questions with no specific answer. When delivering P4C in Reception I often let the children ask me a juicy question or two, which tends to get lots of giggles and is usually as risqué as ‘what’s your name miss?’ Which is juicy in a different way to small people and is something I enjoy sharing (don’t tell the headteacher).

It’s helpful at this point to highlight or introduce the rules, depending on where you are in your P4C journey. The four I choose to use are think, talk, listen and that there are no right or wrong answers in philosophy. I use a thumbs up if children want to speak and discuss respectful listening. What is key in P4C is creating a safe and open space where children feel able to share their thoughts and feelings – this happens gradually with practice. The P4C approach uses the four C’s – caring, critical, collaborative and creative and this is what an enquiry should look like.

Philosophy for Children rules
Rule picture cards and an orange for sticking juicy questions on.

Thinking time

Housekeeping done, we’re in… in this year group chinese whispers is a good place to start, honing in on listening skills and team work. The stimulus is then shared, anything from an object or film to a book or experience – this is where the magic begins. I placed the picture, shown above, in the middle of the circle and then asked the children to think about what they had been presented with. Scroll back, have a really good look and consider what you see…

Philosophical conversation

Once the children have had enough time to consider the stimulus I ask them to discuss and share their thoughts, with one another and smaller groups at first and then with the whole group. This conversation always demonstrates the power of perspective and in this instance the feedback ranged from, ‘I was just thinking about how that kite was flying miss’ to ‘I don’t know if all twins look the same?’ and the mandatory ‘is it nearly dinner time!?’ Not yet the most philosophical of content but then comes the question generator.

Generating and sharing questions

This year 2 group were well versed at generating questions, I had been delivering P4C for a few weeks and had built-in activities around ‘juicy questions.’ These are the big ones, the ones you can’t answer yes or no to, the ones that make your teacher squirm (incentive for a 7-year-old!) And out comes Philosophy Phil, a handmade and very friendly robot who eats the questions and spits them out if they’re not juicy enough. Thanks Phil.

So here are the questions that were generated, which I note exactly as the child says, sticking only the juicy ones up on the large laminated orange.

Do people treat you differently if you treat them nicely?

Should we be free?

Is freedom being able to get up and go outside when you’re hot?

Are boys and girls born the same?

Should we treat people the same?

Should we all be treated the same?

Does everybody look the same?

If someone is poorly should they stay inside?

When parents have twins how can they look the same?

Selecting a question

Philosophy Phil got a good feed with this list of questions and as for twins looking the same I passed that to Miss to research in science! As with all P4C sessions we then considered the questions, the class worked together with my input to group the questions, into themes and commonalities. Critical thinking comes in and discussion is directed to really deepen thought and develop the biggest, juiciest questions ever! Once we had generated two or three really solid philosophical questions I asked the children to vote with their feet. ‘What question shall we bring to our enquiry today?’ The result was in, the selected question was:

Should we treat all people the same?

Philosophy for Children enquiry

Sat in our enquiry circle the question was announced but there were no thumbs up, the children just looked at me like ‘miss seriously, how can I answer this, aren’t you paid to give us the answers?’ I prompted, ‘would you like to be treated the same as everyone else? Is everyone the same? I saw some thumbs creep up with trepidation and gave the nod. ‘Miss the children in the picture aren’t all the same, they might like different things too’ another thumbs up…‘yes when my mum gets me and my sister a toy we always get the same but sometimes I don’t like that one I want another one.’

The conversation was off (phew), a slow start is common for children and adults, it’s hard to have the first word, especially when the topic is so juicy. The conversation built momentum and the class were functioning almost independently, questioning, listening, responding and regulating their own thought. And then this ‘Miss but people are a bit different and I don’t always want to treat people the same because they are not like me, I don’t think I want to play with the boy in the wheelchair.’ (Referencing the picture)

This was one of those uncomfortable moments (I asked for it) one of those that makes you sit up as a teacher, that sets your brain whirring as you unpick what has been said and consider how best to respond. If I had a collar I would have been hot under it. As everything slowed down, I noticed a girl in the class, who was usually reluctant to speak, but was always listening so intently. Her thumbs had slowly crept up and she looked at me with such purpose I could almost hear her say ‘I’ve got this one miss.’ I knew my enquiry circle well, and though ready to respond myself, I placed my trust in this knowledge and nodded to the little girl to speak. She bravely spoke to the circle ‘my brother is in a wheelchair, he is just like me, he likes to play and fish fingers are his favourite too, we go to the park lots and the dog and my mum.’ she looked at the boy and so kindly said ‘I think you just need to see my brother and you would know he is very nice and the same and you would want to play with him.’ The little boy smiled at his classmate and then turned to me ‘Miss can I go to their house for tea and play?’ and there I was in another sticky situation!

Last words

I asked the children what they thought about the discussion and with a lump in my throat summarised. We are all different but no mater our background or circumstances, what makes all children (and grown ups) happy is often the same – play, friendship, sunshine and that, in this respect, we should treat each other the same – equally. I also left the class in the safe hands of their wonderful teacher, who built this question into her weekly classroom activity, speaking closely with the two children who had shared.

This session had worked so well because the children had regulated their own thought, coming to a meaningful conclusion themselves. This brave little girl had the answer but only because the brave little boy spoke so openly and honestly – big stuff for such little people. The tense moment is where the adult regulates, sometimes stepping in but sometimes being brave and giving the children an opportunity to speak. The children, went on to be friends and a little boys assumptions were changed because a meaningful discussion had taken place in a safe space.

The broader implications of Philosophy for Children

Teaching children to question means they will inevitably ask questions, how the classroom is set up, why we go to assembly, whether dogs have feelings etc. Having my pedagogy questioned by an eight year old just tells me I’m doing it right. It re-addresses the balance, creates a culture of respect and gives children opportunities to meaningfully input into their own community (active citizenship – British Values (if you must))

We should all question more, with headlines written to sell papers and politicians in it for their own game we live in a climate that requires questioning. What is the education system doing for our children at the minute? How do we feel about that? How can we work to change it? (Another story for another day)

Philosophy for Children is an approach, an ethos, a value system – like many things that have impact in schools it is not limited to an hour a week (if you’re supported to use this time), it is woven through all lessons and interactions.

The community of enquiry is teaching children to problem solve, to think critically, to regulate their emotions, to listen to one another, to share their worries, success’ and to respect each others views and opinions. It is for all these reasons that I think P4C is not a fluffy, nice to have but core to children succeeding, in learning and in life. I cannot give you data to evidence this but I could share several examples like the one above.

Research carried out by Durham University in conjunction with the Education Endowment Foundation and Nuffield Health shows that P4C improves Maths and Literacy outcomes and develops other skills such as speaking and listening skills (the foundations of early literacy), confidence and self-esteem.

The Guardian reported that

“A Durham University evaluation said the results showed faster rates of progress for pupils eligible for free school meals, suggesting that the technique could “be used to reduce the attainment gap in terms of poverty in the short-term.”

Now who can argue with that!?

Stimulus ideas to generate juicy questions

Here are just a few stimulus suggestions that range in suitability from young children to older children and adult (Philosophy for Communities). If you have any recommendations please comment below or, if you are looking for something specific to deliver an enquiry please feel free to contact me.

Book: Would You Rather, John Burningham. This is great as a starting point with younger children, ask them a series of would you rather questions from the book and then support them to vote with their feet, explaining their choices.

Book: We are all born free (pictured above) – access online here

Book: Huge Bag of Worries, Virginia Ironside

Book: Wilfred Gordon Macdonald Partridge, Fox Mem – written for younger children this book is fantastic for all ages and moves me to tears every time I read it.

Poem: I Was Only Asking, Steve Turner – a selection of poems about life’s big questions

Poetry: Charly Cox, She Must Be Mad – Kindness p.74

Spoken Word: Dear Future Generations – Prince Ea

Film: What Makes me Happy TV, The British Council – Tommy’s Story

Art: David Shringley – take your pick!

Song: All you need is Love – The Beetles

Experience: A pet, fish, hamster, whatever you’re brave enough to facilitate! Is it fair to keep a pet?

For a more open-ended enquiry use an object, a cake, a present, a mega phone, a basket of ‘memories,’ some binoculars or a suitcase for example. A current News headline or picture is also a good starting point for older children and adults.

For more information about P4C from resources to training, research and enquiry examples visit the SAPERE website

Useful Links

The P4C Co-operative – For information, resources and examples

SAPERE – For information, training, resources, research and examples

Sara Stanley – For books, information, ideas and resources

2 thoughts on “Ask Big Questions, Get Big Answers: Creating a culture of questioning in the primary school classroom using the ‘Philosophy for Children’ (P4C) approach, including stimulus ideas and useful resources.”

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