What is philosophical enquiry?

Thinking Space specialises in philosophical enquiry with children and adults. We use a range of strategies to help people tackle philosophical issues; the most recognisable is ‘Community of Philosophical Enquiry’ sometimes abbreviated as P4C (“Philosophy for Children/Communities”)

Community of Philosophical Enquiry, is a pedagogy which promotes the cognitive and socio-emotional skills associated with philosophical enquiry. Inspired by the work of the American Philosopher John Dewey, it was developed by academics Matthew Lipman, Ann Sharp and Gareth Matthews in the 1970s with the aim of helping undergraduate students become ‘reasonable’ as well as rational. The approach is now practiced with children and adults in schools, PRUs, colleges, prisons, hospitals, community centres, businesses, arts organisations and pubs etc. across the world. It’s ideal for people who are brand new to philosophy, but experienced philosophers often find CoPE breathes new life into old problems.

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Community of philosophical enquiry involves talking and thinking together with a group of peers keen to explore issues of shared interest. In an enquiry we focus less less on teaching the philosophical ideas of others and more on facilitating your own philosophical ideas. This kind of enquiry is recognisable as:

These skills make for great philosophers but their application is far broader; we think they are a key to the development of reasonable, well-rounded people. The approach is characterised by key elements or steps, which include the presentation of an intriguing stimulus and the generation of questions from which one is selected by the group as the most philosophically interesting. This question then forms the basis of a structured dialogue.

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Philosophy for Children: The Evidence

Evidence of maintained gains from ‘thinking skills’ interventions, whatever form they might take, are rare in the literature even within sectors of education, let alone across sectors. Yet there is now substantial evidence of the efficacy of philosophical enquiry, as a thinking skills intervention and as a pedagogy with broader intellectual, social and emotional aims.

Research by Dundee University, published in 2006 investigated the impact of philosophical enquiry in Clackmannanshire Schools. Having explored the findings of various pieces of international research claiming that Philosophy for Children improved cognitive ability and critical reasoning as well as having social and emotional benefits. The researchers set out to see whether these outcomes were replicable in ‘normal’ circumstances. The study took place in mainstream classrooms of typically 30 children, across an entire educational authority. The teachers who took part were all new to philosophy and worked on the project with the same constraints of funding and professional development time found in most schools.

The study found finding that after 16 months of weekly enquiry, children made average gains of 6 standard points on a measure of cognitive ability. After a period of just six months pupils increased their level of participation in discussion by half as much again and supported their views with reasons twice as frequently. In addition to this, teachers doubled their use of open-ended questions and both teachers ad pupils ‘perceived significant gains in communication, confidence, concentration, participation and social behaviour’ (Trickey 2007).

A later study by Toppings and Tricky investigating the cognitive effects of collaborative philosophical inquiry two years after the initial input had finished and revealed that the significant gains in cognitive ability in the experimental primary school group were maintained towards the end of their second year of secondary school. These gains were sustained despite the fact that the participants had transferred to secondary school without experiencing further philosophical enquiry in the interim (Topping & Trickey 2007).

Another more recent piece of research by Soter et al published in 2008, set out to evaluate student talk as an indicator of student understanding and critical thinking reviewing a range of educational approaches among them Philosophy for Children. This research concluded that the more critical-analytic and the more expressive pedagogies seem to offer the greatest opportunities for students to engage in high-level thinking and reasoning.

The researchers’ analysis of the discourse supports the view that productive discussions are structured and focused yet not dominated by the teacher. They suggest that productive discussions occur where students hold the floor for extended periods of time, where students are prompted to discuss texts through open-ended or authentic questions, and where discussion incorporates a high degree of uptake from the group. They also suggest that a certain amount of modelling and scaffolding on the part of the teacher is necessary to prompt elaborated forms of individual reasoning from students. Anyone familiar with Philosophy for Children will immediately recognise that these features of critical-analytic discourse are at the heart of P4C. (Soter et al 2008 pp. 372 – 391).

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