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.