Catherine McCall, featured in this clip, has been a pioneer of practical philosophy for children in the UK , having worked extensively with Matthew Lipman in the US.

I was excited about visiting the Dean Gallery ‘s Enlightenment exhibition, not least because it promised film of children philosophising. 7 to 10 year olds were asked such questions as: What is beauty?, How did the world begin?, What is nothing?, Where does the universe end?, Can science explain everything?

The clips were often charming and the children showed much depth and commitment to reflecting on fundamental questions (though there was a fair amount of chortling and even some farting when a group of boys became a little bored with a slightly ponderous peer’s examination of what he meant by the term ‘community’!)

When I have tried to create communities of inquiry using Socratic questioning to investigate ‘text’, I have always been overwhelmed by the depth of thinking that is reached even by very young children. Giving the space and opportunity to take time to ponder upon the big questions is not just rewarding in the short term. I am convinced that it makes a huge impact on learners’ understanding and enjoyment of complex ideas. I have only used printed text as the starter for discussion but clearly multi-modal approaches are equally valid.

Some of the most moving moments have come when a ‘reluctant reader’ has grasped that it is not the decoding of the text that is important but the understanding – and that they are every bit as capable of bringing powerful and personal meanings to ‘text’, and contributing to the discussion as anyone else.

Robert Fisher describes Philosophy for Children thus:

P4C can be called ‘informal philosophy’ – which is the capacity to philosophise and engage in philosophical discussion, which may include, but doesn’t depend on printed texts, and which is the informal capacity for people to engage their philosophical intelligence with questions of existential interest and importance through dialogic means.

Children are naturally philosophical and, given the opportunity, will explore concepts and ideas with enthusiasm. More experienced learners can help less experienced ones to move from the literal level of comprehension’ (understanding the words) to the critical level of analysis (analysing the story) and to understanding at the conceptual level (understanding what key concepts mean); to encourage them to ask Fat rather than Skinny questions. What a good facilitator does is to push for depth and higher order thinking by moving through a series of questions and prompts that push children from the concrete through to the abstract and conceptual.

Fisher’s words are academic, but this books are very accessible and a terrific starting point for those wishing to use Stories, Poems, Art, Games  for Thinking. We can all help children to think about their thinking – and perhaps have our own minds stretched at the same time as I did at the Dean Gallery.

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