Adopting a Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach in Hong Kong

Some years previously, I was invited to raise the profile of critical thinking in several Hong Kong schools. On conducting teacher development sessions on this topic, I opted to support an infusion approach. Such an approach integrates thinking skills development with school subject learning or cross-curricular project work and typically refers to Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains: Cognitive Domain in the expression of intended learning outcomes. This approach seemed to me the appropriate one and was aligned with expectations of the government’s Education Bureau.

In addition to an infusion approach across the school curriculum, there is a core subject in Hong Kong secondary education one overt objective of which is critical thinking skills enhancement, and that is Liberal Studies. The subject matter of Liberal Studies is summarised in this document: http://334.edb.hkedcity.net/doc/eng/infoSheet/LS_S4_e.pdf

However, when it came to starting my online tuition service for upper primary and lower secondary students in Hong Kong, I decided not to offer additional learning of Liberal Studies, or preparation of younger students for Liberal Studies. Instead I chose to offer courses in Philosophy, by which I mean predominantly Western philosophical inquiry, in an approach commonly labelled P4C (Philosophy for Children) or PwC (Philosophy with Children). This is a segregated enrichment approach rather than an infusion approach. It is an add-on to the regular school curricula and I offer it through small group online tutorials at https://www.youngphilosophers.net/

I will not recount the history of P4C here, suffice to say it originated with Matthew Lipman in the early 1970s and is described fully in his seminal text (1991), has enjoyed longevity in its appeal, and has spread to numerous other national contexts. P4C is not formal, academic Philosophy; texts of famous thinkers like Hume or Kant are nowhere to be seen. Rather, it is about fostering young people’s curiosity about the world around them, encouraging them not to take received wisdom for granted, introducing basic skills of inquiry and argumentation, and doing all this with their peers calmly and non-competitively. Themes up for discussion are universal ones that are usually prominent in the minds of youngsters. A particularly good example of a P4C theme is the concept of fairness and how it relates to equality and equity.

For a handy summary of the research evidence on P4Cs impact on learning, I suggest visiting the following webpage maintained by SAPERE: https://www.sapere.org.uk/about-us/p4c-research.aspx The Education Endowment Fund in the UK, a major funding body for educational research, has found P4C to be a “promising” educational intervention and worthy of further investigation. For more details, see https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/projects-and-evaluation/projects/philosophy-for-children/

I must admit I was easily sold on P4C because I had studied Philosophy for my first degree and still enjoy reading Philosophy as a pastime. Trying to be careful though of my own bias, I reflected on the suitability of extra-curricular P4C in Hong Kong (and other relatable East Asian contexts). There are some possible doubts about it that I will point out immediately:

  • It’s a Western approach – does it adapt well to environments with alternative educational heritages? Or is its distinctiveness its strength?
  • In studies on the impact of P4C, I note that it was not easy to establish control groups. How will I be able to get an impression of the impact of the online lessons that I offer?
  • If the themes of my lessons are not ones that appear in formal schooling, will my students be able to transfer the skills of inquiry that they (hopefully) pick up in my enrichment courses to their school studies and beyond?

As I am just starting out on teaching P4C, I will report back later when I have started to address the above questions. Wish me luck!

Lipman, M. (1991). Thinking in Education. Cambridge: CUP.