Observations and anecdotes on facilitation of philosophy with children

Laura Candiotto (PhD in Philosophy) is Marie Curie Researcher at the University of Edinburgh, where she is carrying on the EU funded project “Emotions First. Feeling reasons: the role of emotions” (www.emotionsfirst.org) at the Eidyn Research Centre. She specializes in Philosophy for Children (University of Padua, Italy) and Socratic Dialogue. During the last 15 years she has promoted many workshops of philosophical practices for children and adults in Italy. She is a Member of the Executive Board of the Italian Association Amica Sofia and of the redaction of its journal dedicated to philosophy with children.  You can get in touch with Laura by email at Laura.Candiotto@ed.ac.uk

She was interviewing Peter for a magazine article to be published in Italy, to do with her research.  But for the sake of our English speaking readers we are publishing the interview in English below.  The conversation offers a useful insight into how The Philosophy Foundation differs from other methods of doing philosophy with children.  And Peter offers some practical advice for teachers to take into the classroom, so read on...

Hi Peter! By way of introduction, could you tell us something about yourself and of your commitments towards philosophy with children?

I am the CEO and co-founder of British charity The Philosophy Foundation (TPF), the second largest but fastest growing organization for promoting philosophy with children; I am President of SOPHIA: the European foundation for the advancement of doing philosophy with children and a Visiting Research Associate at King’s College, London. Our (TPF’s) broad commitment is to bring philosophy, and especially philosophical conversations, to the community. Our main focus is primary, secondary and tertiary education. When working in schools we aim to 1) provide the children with an encounter with philosophy and philosophising, where they get to freely reflect and respond to philosophical topics, ideas and problems; 2) allow them to develop intellectual virtues by doing philosophy repeatedly over time, and 3) to give them philosophical, and – more broadly – intellectual independence. We are committed to maintaining a high quality of practice, both that of our own and others, when philosophy with children is done. We also aim to reach children and groups that would not otherwise encounter philosophy, so we target state schools in low-income areas, the majority in London where we’re based.


Last week I attended an exciting session with you that made use of a “Socratic circle”, where you used a very tricky question as a starting point for the dialogue. Could you give us some details about it and also provide some other examples about your method for starting the dialogue? And could you also explain why you think what you do may be helpful?

I am not sure what you mean by ‘a tricky question’, so, for the benefit of the readers, here’s what I did at the workshop you (Laura) attended: I wrote this up on the board:


                        2                      2



                        2                      2


Then, I asked this question: How many numbers are there on the board?

The aim of this session is to have the group discuss numbers in a philosophical or intellectual way. The question is deliberately ambiguous so that the group can then fill in the ambiguity with their own meanings, clarifications, qualifications, or take the discussion in their chosen direction (this will happen organically when well-facilitated). I usually begin this session by eliciting diversity, or getting as many different answers as possible. Answers typically include 4, 8, 2 ‘22’s, 2222, 1, 2, none. The next step is to ‘open up’ the answers: for instance, ‘Who said X? Can you say why you think there’s X number(s) on the board?’ After this we facilitate the group so that they can engage in a philosophical conversation about numbers, making use of many dialectical questioning strategies that we have developed over the years to help this happen. There are many directions that this could take: they could end up talking about the nature of number (What is a number?), they may even get onto the question of realism in mathematics; for instance, if the child who said, ‘There are no numbers on the board’, when opened up, goes on to say, ‘because they are just squiggles of ink’, this could problematize their common-sense view of numbers: that numbers are no more than the symbols we use to represent them. We might help them problematize this by using a strategy called ‘iffing’ – where you simply restate what has been said by a participant and then link it to a main question that is under consideration for the child and/or group to reflect on the implications: ‘That’s interesting,’ I might say, ‘So, if “there are no numbers on the board because they are just squiggles of ink” [quoting or ‘echoing’] then what or where is a number [linking or ‘anchoring’ back to a main question]?’ In a nutshell, what we do at TPF is provide the conditions for the children to have an opportunity to be able to recognise, and engage with, a philosophical problem as a problem for themselves. We might characterize a philosophical problem like so: a philosophical problem is when there is a co-presence of plausibility and conflict in the answers given to a question and where the implications result in unacceptable conclusions. So, to use the above example, a (this is not the only problem that can follow from this stimulus) philosophical problem is encountered when the children recognise, for themselves, that it is plausible both that there are numbers on the board and that there are no numbers on the board; the unacceptable conclusion is that to hold both of these positions leads to an apparent contradiction. Following this, there are two possibilities: either the group needs to reject one or other of the beliefs (either ‘that there are no numbers on the board’ or ‘that there are numbers present on the board’) or they will need to draw careful distinctions to dissolve the threat of contradiction, for example, ‘In a way there are no numbers and in a way there are numbers there’. With careful elicitation-questioning, such as, ‘Could you explain in what way there are no numbers and in what way there are numbers?’ the group or child is invited to draw those distinctions. In a way, unpacking the ‘in a ways’ is what philosophy is all about, dialectically speaking, that is. Other clues that distinctions are about to – or are in need of – being drawn are when children say things like, ‘I think both’, ‘I think it’s 50/50’, ‘I think yes and no’, and ‘In a way it is, and in a way it isn’t’. These phrases sound contradictory but often hide subtle, nuanced ideas that ‘distinction-drawing’ will help bring out to progress the discussion. (Drawing distinctions, by the way, is one important conceptual way that philosophical conversations progress – they are not just circular opinion-sharing forums, when done well.)


What are your goals when you facilitate a dialogical session with children?

As you will have noticed from the above example of ‘the 2 square’, which can be found in the book The Philosophy Shop (Crown House 2012), the facilitation goals are primarily dialectical. By ‘dialectical’ I mean a process of investigation, exploration and evaluation of opinions through systematic conversation, questioning and reasoning. This framework for doing philosophy is inspired primarily by the work and legacy of philosophers such as Socrates (see Plato’s ‘Socratic’ dialogues), Plato (esp. the Meno dialogue) and Aristotle, though others such as Montaigne (see On the education of young children), Spinoza (e.g. The emendation of the intellect), Descartes (his ‘dialogues in one voice’ such as Meditations), Hegel, Foot (esp. Natural Goodness) and Professor M.M. McCabe (see Platonic Conversations) have also directly influenced our work. I should point out that we do not wish to reduce philosophy and philosophising to the dialectical dimension; there are others such as the rhetorical, the historical and the expository dimensions, but there is a very good reason for our focus on the dialectical: it is the dimension that confers philosophy with its most useful tool: evaluation through critical thinking discourse. This is what importantly distinguishes philosophical conversations from other forms of conversation.

Another central aim for us is to adhere to what we call ‘the presence and absence principle’. By presence I mean those interventions that we might make as facilitators that impact on the discussion, and by absence I mean the extent to which we remove ourselves or ‘step out’ of the discussion. A good facilitator aims to get the balance right between these two aims. Not an easy job. We do, however, have ways of checking ourselves, and each other. For instance, an observer (such as a teacher) should not be able to infer our own intellectual position regarding the topic under discussion from our facilitation. The only thing that should come through to an observer is our dialectical interest in furthering the philosophical/intellectual progress of the discussion, on its own terms. One very useful way of achieving this is to use question-structures that are content-free (e.g. ‘Can you say what you mean by…?’, ‘Could you say why you think that?’, ‘If [student’s comment] then [main question]?’). We are decidedly not participants; we see no place for our views in the discussion. So, while some may object that we remove students’ autonomy by giving a starting question (E.g. ‘How many numbers are there on the board?’) and not allowing students to formulate their own questions (a view I would dispute, by the way), we very much respect the autonomy of the children in so far as we ‘step out’ of the conversation as participants. Our insistence on absence also includes – and this surprises many – a recommendation to almost entirely refrain from paraphrasing and summarizing or ‘sign-posting’ students’ ideas, doing so when and only when absolutely necessary for the discussion to progress. I should also add that I take this a little further, probably, than some of my colleagues at TPF - an important way in which TPF develops is that we constantly share and debate the finer details of facilitating philosophical conversations. It is always a work in progress.


I would like to have a taste of your real experiences with children: could you tell us the best session that you can recall?

The best thing is for you to be able to see and hear a session. If your readers would like to go to our website and become members (for free!) then click on ‘members’ and then ‘films/podcasts’. There are two films that show entire sessions, The Ship of Theseus and The Magic Crown. There is also a downloadable transcript of the ‘Ship of Theseus’ session in which I have analysed the role of the facilitator in terms of the dialectical goals I have outlined in this interview. Interestingly, the facilitator is me, but I don’t always give him top marks, as you will see in the analysis! 

Another great session involved a child's incredible insights on Democritus when I was running a session called 'The Incredible Shrinking Machine'.  You can read what happened there in a previous blog entry on our website.


From your experience, what advice would you give to a teacher that would like to do philosophy with children?

First: ‘Shut up and listen!’ That sounds very rude and, obviously, I mean this in the nicest possible way, but the serious point is: in most cases, when you want to say something, the best thing to do will be to refrain from saying anything: go to the next speaker, or ask them to say more about what they said, or put what they said to the group for critical consideration; these are all good default facilitator-moves that keep the conversation going but that don’t ‘contaminate’ it with your ideas, interests and conclusions. Please don’t tell the children what they have said so far, paraphrase, summarise or signpost! The other thing is to keep a genuine open mind: if you have reached a position or conclusion and you are finding it difficult not to tell them or, worse, not to lead them to it, then think like this: ‘Though I think X, I wonder if the children will get me to re-evaluate my position or introduce something new that I hadn’t thought of or about myself?’ Then listen!

Other things: don’t tell them that ‘there are no right and wrong answers in philosophy’. The reason for this is that, if we accept that philosophy is a critical thinking project, then there must be evaluation criteria, and if this is the case, there has to be the possibility of right and wrong answers: better and worse (reasoning), logical and illogical, coherent and incoherent, plausible and implausible, consistent and inconsistent, possible and impossible, relevant and irrelevant. The key thing is not to tell them yourself what you think is right or wrong, but to have other group members do so. It is important to remember that the children/students should be able to critique each other substantively, make judgments about each other’s opinions and revise or reject opinions when there are good reasons to do so. They have to decide, however, for themselves, when they think there are good reasons.

Lastly, don’t moralise, or use philosophy to bring them to ‘healthy’ conclusions, or views that you approve of. Philosophy is a forum for free reflection and so we, as teachers, should not impose on them, overtly or covertly, what it is we think they should think, whether or not we are comfortable with what this entails. If you are too uncomfortable with this, don’t do philosophy. 

Further reading:


If you want to know more about our techniques and strategies in more detail then you’ll find three explanatory papers here that say more about our questioning techniques (‘Iffing, anchoring and opening up’) and presence and absence: https://kcl.academia.edu/PeteWorley

For plenty more articles, some academic and some written for practitioners and teachers, go here: https://www.philosophy-foundation.org/papers-articles

For award-winning books full of lesson plans and resources for doing philosophy in classrooms, go here: https://www.philosophy-foundation.org/books-by-peter-worley

Posted by Joe Tyler on 18th October 2016 at 12:00am