Dialogues in philosophy with children

Paul Bodin has very kindly provided some examples of what he calls 'two minute plays' that he uses to begin philosophical discussions in schools in Eugene, Oregon, USA.  Please see links at the bottom of this blog to take you to the complete resources - for you to have a go at using them in the classroom.

Here are some of my own reflections on dialogues in philosophy discussions, inspired by Paul’s resources.

Talking dialogues

I think dialogues have strengths and weaknesses as a starting place for philosophy enquiries in the classroom. I’ll start with a weakness. Firstly, they do a lot of the philosophical work for the class. Once a dialogue has been read through the class will have been introduced to many (if not most) of the main arguments/positions in the debate, and, what’s more, very young children certainly, will probably not be able to take those arguments much further, though there will be exceptions, of course. There is something to be said about seeing if the children/students can think of these positions before they are introduced to them.

Now for the strengths of using dialogues. First of all, as with the classic Platonic examples, dialogues provide good models to students or readers of how to do philosophy, how to do it well, and not so well (just as valuable). This was one reason Matthew Lipman liked to use them for doing P4C (philosophy for children – see his philosophical novels such as Pixie and Harry Stottlemeyer’s Discovery and their accompanying teachers’ manuals) and why practitioners of P4C, such as Tim Sprod, continue to use them (see below). They also introduce children to arguments – or positions – that they (in most cases anyway) will not have been able to think of. This, as Robert Wendall Holmes said, ‘stretches their minds over a new idea’ and once stretched, it does not ‘stretch back’. In this regard, dialogues act like mini-Socratic dialogues and do many of the same things for students that Plato did (and does) for his readers. This approach invites a different kind of philosophical engagement. The ‘Task Question approach’ that we (at TPF) often use is ‘responsive’: ‘Is it the same ship?’ - implicit expectation: ‘How do you respond to this question/issue presented in this short stimulus/story?’ as are many of the standard P4C approaches. The dialogue approach provides arguments rather than eliciting them and in virtue of doing this it invites ‘evaluation’ and not just a response. So, it seems to me that the use of a dialogue has two main dialectical demands. 1) To say who’s right? (or who has the best argument) and 2) to think of any positions not represented in the dialogue. What I think is a special strength of a dialogue is that it allows facilitators and participants to go further with the often-overlooked ‘evaluative’ aspect of philosophy. In other words, it invites the group to 'make judgments’. 

Teachers do not, on the whole, like the word ‘judgment’. Philosophy is often prized in schools precisely because it is considered to be non-judgmental. But this is misleading in my view. Philosophy requires that we make judgments about each other’s arguments on the basis of the quality of the reasoning. Of course, the judgments should be ‘provisional’ and one should be open to revising or rejecting any judgments made in light of good reasons for doing so. This is, however, not the same as saying that philosophy is non-judgmental, though this tentative aspect of philosophy is what sometimes gets confused for ‘non-judgmentalism’. Dialogues are a legitimate way to re-introduce provisional judgment-making. And it has the benefit of taking the emphasis away from the members of the group - though one should not explicitly avoid having children judge each other’s positions. This is because philosophy should encourage ‘intellectual courage’ - one of the key intellectual virtues. It’s not good enough that a group simply enumerates the classic positions, for instance in an ethics discussion. At some point, one needs to move towards something more general and possibly more meta. So, it’s not enough to say ‘the atom bomb was good because it stopped wars’ or ‘the car was bad because more people have died than from atom bombs’, these are simply first-order points and – arguably – not philosophy, or only ‘surface level’ philosophy. The deeper questions such as ‘should we decide based on consequentialist principles or something else such as deontology?’ are often simply missed, but dialogues can bring us back to these (to different extents for different ages, of course) by re-introducing more judgmental evaluations. 

Doing dialogues

So, in practice, here’s how I approach the use of philosophical dialogues in the classroom with the example of ‘Are Scientists Mad?’ from Tim Sprod's excellent book ‘Discussions in Science’ ACER (Sprod is a Tasmanian secondary teacher of science and philosophy).

  • I would begin by asking a task question (TQ), such as ‘Are scientists mad?’ or I might present a stimulus such as three contrasting examples of scientific advancements, maybe one in medicine, one in war, and another, such as the combustion engine, washing machine etc. 
  • Then I might ask an explicit, evaluative TQ such as ‘Is science good?’ (general) or ‘Were these advancements good?’ (more rooted in the concrete examples) - though simply allowing the group to respond would probably be enough, without the need for a TQ, especially if it were older students in a science class for example. (I often use TQs as back-up anyway, not as the first tool.)
  • I would run an enquiry and note down the positions made by the students. 
  • Perhaps, the following week, the next step would be to use a dialogue (such as Sprod's) in the way described in his book. 
  • However, one difference would be that I would not ask them to generate questions so much as draw their attention to the arguments/positions in the dialogue. Perhaps I’d write some of them up as arguments, or use the formulations the group themselves came up with the previous week (in those cases where they anticipated some of the arguments/positions). The underlying question I’d be working with would be evaluative: 'Who’s right?', 'What's the best argument(s)?' or 'What do we think of these arguments?' 

Some other suggestions for dialogues:

Role play: ask children to play characters, not just dramatically, but intellectually too. So, ask ‘What do you think [the character] Sarah would say to what [participant] Mark just said?’ and then ‘Is there anyone who would like to play ‘Sarah’ and say what she would say?’ 

Line freeze: ask the children to read out/act the scene but stop everything with a clap after a character has said a conclusion ‘I think that X because-’ but just before they give any reasons. Then say to the class: ‘Can anyone say what they think Sarah is just about to say?’ 

Mini-dialogues: you could break the dialogues up into smaller sections or sequences. When you reach a certain point in the dialogue you could stop it and run an enquiry, responding to the part you’ve reached. It’s a good idea to stop at tensions, arguments, both formal (before them, to anticipate them – see above, or after them, to evaluate them) and those between respondents.

Here’s another general approach to stories that provide examples of X in scenarios as opposed to dialogues (though, sometimes you get a combination of the two) This was inspired by Socratic Dialogues, and particularly the work of Pieter Mostert (see his great books 'Free Space' and 'Learning Conversations'):

  • Have a TQ1 such as ‘Is it ever okay to lie?'
  • Read the story or scenario that provides an example of a lie that the story or character claims is okay, or that’s ambiguous enough to be a candidate example for TQ1 above.
  • Then come to TQ2: 'Is this a genuine example of X (in this case, a lie)?’ - to the children: ‘Is this a lie?' 
  • This will involve a discussion around the following TQ3: 'What is X?' - to the children: ‘What is a lie?'
  • And then TQ4: If this [example Y] is a genuine example of [category X] then is it okay?’ - to the children: ‘If it is a lie, then is it okay?’

Thomas Wartenberg has some great online clips from popular films such as ‘Liar Liar' with questions that would work really well with the above enquiry structure: http://whatsthebigideaprogram.com/

Places to find dialogues for doing philosophy in classrooms:

Paul Bodin’s examples.  Click the links to take you to three free examples provided by Paul Bodin, now available in the 'enquiries' section of our website:

Who Gains and Who Loses

Playing With Dolls

The Science Project

Please note, you will need to become members of our website (which you can do for free) in order to view the enquiries part of our website.


Other books available:

Tim Sprod: Discussions in Science

Stephen Law: The Philosophy Files and The Philosophy Gym

Thompson and Kaye: Philosophy For Teens

Plato: Dialogues (many options available)

Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural Religions (different editions available)

Posted by Joe Tyler on 7th November 2016 at 12:00am


This is wonderful! Thank you for all of your work!

Posted by Julie on 13th November 2016 at 01:39pm

great work

Posted by krishna menon on 25th July 2019 at 04:49am