Teaching Philosophy for Children online – how and why?

  • With a shorter attention span, kids may find it difficult to sit through a lesson in front of a computer screen. What are some tips on keeping students engaged and involved?

Poorly designed virtual lessons that leave learners passive for long periods invite students to become distracted. Young learners’ chances of remaining focused are higher when lesson topics are intriguing yet relatable to their world experience, when learning tasks are challenging yet achievable with guidance, and when they are on task for a high proportion of the lessons.

To make sure of the latter, my lessons at Young Philosophers are divided into short phases which are all active in nature. Even when the philosophical topic is first introduced through a short, animated story or other kind of stimulus, I make it an interactive presentation by posing questions to involve learners and ensure comprehension. After analysing the stimulus, students brainstorm more abstract questions and vote for the questions that will be discussed deeply. This element of choice is also important to keep them motivated and interested.

As students become more comfortable with my P4C (Philosophy for Children) lesson framework, I intervene more selectively to prompt higher quality discussion between learners and provide quality feedback on thinking skills development. So again, the emphasis is on them having ownership of the process. I want to encourage them to feel like partners in learning.

  • Interaction can be a challenge in virtual settings. How can teachers help and make sure students understand the concepts taught in lessons? 

That the lessons are virtual actually has an advantage in that I can listen in to discussions more easily, particularly when students are in break-out groups. It also helps that class size is limited to six students. There are enough learners to have a range of perspectives in discussions but few enough for me to monitor and help individuals if they have miscomprehensions that are barriers to learning.

This is Philosophy, mind you, so the primary activity is exploring complex concepts more deeply through dialogue and reflection. Concepts like ‘personal identity’ do not have universally agreed definitions, which is why they have been debated for centuries. If I were to simply explain such a concept and then test for a ‘correct’ understanding, this would not help learners to develop their rationality and imagination.

However, when discussing a concept such as ‘identity’, learners may unintentionally equivocate, i.e. shift between definitions of the term, which causes confusion in discussions. In this situation, I highlight what is happening and underline the importance of agreeing on which meaning is being examined. This is an example of me equipping them with philosophical tools.  

  • What are some essential elements of effective virtual learning? 

As with face-to-face teaching, it is crucial for teachers to know learners well enough to tailor learning experiences. For this reason, I welcome all new students in a one-to-one online session to understand more about them as people and the reasons for their interest in Philosophy.

I also provide a balance between more guided learning and independent exploration. Some virtual learning takes place real time in my online lessons using a webinar application, and some takes place asynchronously with students exploring recommended online resources or completing individual tasks at their own pace before or after lessons.

There are numerous methods or recipes for eLearning and indeed I follow a framework derived from inquiry-based learning. However, the success of any method’s implementation depends on the skills of the tutor. As a trained teacher with thirty years’ experience, I am able to apply my P4C framework expertly, but I am also confident enough to diverge from it according to learners’ responses in lessons. This reactive style is a hallmark of professional teaching.

  • Why is learning philosophical skills important for children today?

There is research evidence that P4C courses have a positive impact on analytical skills, creativity, and even language ability and maths. By learning philosophical skills in their pre-teens, learners can be better prepared for the challenges of upper secondary school studies.

Less pragmatically, students have a chance to apply these skills to explore concepts of interest to all human beings, for example Fairness, Happiness, or Beauty. These topics are not commonly addressed directly in upper primary or lower secondary school curricula but, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  • How does philosophical thinking help prepare students for today’s world?

By following my courses, students can develop their capacity for calm and rational discussion which, in my opinion, is much needed in today’s world. An example of a disposition that is expected in Young Philosophers is the willingness to change opinions when it becomes clear that another student’s viewpoint is more logical and better evidenced.

I hope this shows that Philosophy is not the same as arguing or debating. It is not meant to be adversarial. Instead, it is cooperating with others so that all parties can move towards clearer understandings of complex ideas.

Young Philosophers seeks to nurture reasonableness, in all its meanings.  

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.

From reading to reading critically

In many EFL/ESL/TESOL coursebooks, the approach to reading is usually to proceed from pre-reading strategies of, e.g., content prediction, vocabulary activation, to while-reading sub-skills of skimming and scanning and then to detailed understanding with the occasional inference question and possible post-reading exercises that exploit the text for lexical or grammatical development, or focus on discourse features.

For EAP and mainstream secondary/high school readers in open societies, there is a need to go further by developing the skills of reading critically. This is because writers of media articles may seek to persuade the reader to accept a certain explanation of an issue, or a certain moral stance on an issue. Critical readers are not won over by propaganda or marketing-style tactics such as the use of images that evoke sympathy, the misuse of logic, or the inclusion of emotive words. By contrast, critical readers fairly judge the validity and soundness of writers’ claims.

Critical reading is a learnt skill. Teachers and coursebook authors can help learners by guiding them to search for particular features of persuasive writing. Through responding to skillfully devised questions, students can learn to identify the…

  • issue itself
  • causes of the issue
  • writer’s identity and background (if available)
  • reasons for the writer’s concern and interest in the issue
  • stakeholders, i.e. groups in society with a vested interest in the issue
  • possible value conflicts between stakeholders
  • writer’s conclusion
  • writer’s reasons
  • writer’s assumptions (= hidden reasons)
  • evidence for the writer’s proposition
  • sources of that evidence (if cited)
  • ambiguous, emotive and euphemistic vocabulary
  • logical fallacies, e.g. hasty generalisations

Teachers and authors can provide helpful support by setting questions that require identification of these features. Once the skill of identification is mastered through practice, students can progress to setting similar questions for their peers and finally formulating such questions independently for themselves when they encounter other media articles in future.

To help authors and teachers, a questioning framework is a useful reference. There are many available, but suggested here are Socratic questioning and Biggs & Sollis SOLO Taxonomy.

Below, I provide an example of a reading lesson that begins conventionally but ends with more critical reading by means of Socratic questions. A similar result could be achieved with the SOLO or Bloom’s taxonomies. It is based upon a 2007 article that appeared in the South China Morning Post on the issue of conservation of historic buildings.

Taxi driver lone dissenting voice as conservationists plead for pier (10th May 2007 SCMP)

Pre-reading

Speculating 

Cover the text. Describe what you see in the accompanying photograph (with the original article). Can you guess the situation?  (clue = date: 10th May 2007) What do you imagine the people are looking at? How are the people feeling? The placards are blank. Can you imagine what was written on them?

Sharing personal experiences related to the topic of the article

Have you ever been involved in a protest? If so, can you describe the experience? If not, do you know anyone who has? Would you join this protest? Why/why not?

Comparing initial opinions on the issue involved

How do you balance heritage conservation with economic development?

Activating related vocabulary

Now that you know the topic of the article, predict 10 words and phrases that you believe will appear in it.

Capture2

Researching key vocabulary 

Work in small groups. Use a dictionary and race to complete the table below using 4 of the following words/phrases: dissenting, public hearing, conservationist, public sentiment, plead, antiquities.

Capture

While-reading

Skimming

Choose the most appropriate title for this article:

  • Pier preservation incontestable argue conservationists
  • Taxi driver lone dissenting voice as conservationists plead for pier
  • Queen’s pier – new symbol of civic movement


Scanning & identifying key points

Who expressed the following opinions?

Capture3

Summarising the article

Complete the chart below to summarise the opinions, reasons and possible consequences described by Mr Lam and Ms Lung.

Capture4

Critical reading

Distinguishing facts from opinions

Which of the following statements from the article are factual?

  1. “Queen’s pier has a high level of heritage collective memory.”
  2. “Reconstructing the pier between two public piers might be cheaper and easier, but the pier would be much more significant as part of the City Hall complex.”
  3. “Mr. Lee was a government architect between the 1960s and 1970s.”
  4. “What has happened since the demolition of the Star Ferry pier in December has given Queen’s Pier a new meaning.”
  5. “Representatives of 11 conservation groups and a lone taxi driver spoke at an unprecedented public hearing…”

Socratic questioning

  • Questions that probe assumptions

What belief is behind the words of Ms Man-wah when she says that “The pier witnessed how Hong Kong evolved…”?

 The term ‘heritage collective memory’ was used by Mr Cheong. What do you understand by this term?

  • Questions that probe reason and evidence 

Is any evidence reported in the article to support the views expressed?

What kind of evidence might support Mr Cheong’s opinions?

  • Questions about viewpoints or perspectives

 Do you see any relation between the opinions expressed and the vocations of the people who expressed them?

What opinions do you think would be expressed by a prominent business leader, a representative of the Hong Kong Tourism Board, or a traffic police officer?

  •  Questions that probe implications and consequences

What are the consequences of asserting that the Queen’s Pier is “an inseparable part of the City Hall complex”?

References

Biggs, J.B. & Collis, K.F. (1982) Evaluating the Quality of Learning: Structure of the Observed Learning Outcome Taxonomy. Academic Press Inc.

Brown, M.N. & Keeley, S.M. (2007). Asking the right questions: A guide to critical thinking. Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-220304-9

Van den Brink-Budgen, R. (2000). Critical thinking for students. How To Books. ISBN 978-1-85703-634-3