Some Key Influences



Socrates lived in Athens around 400 years BC. It is claimed that, when not actively pursuing a military career, he spent time engaging citizens in conversation in the Athenian market place. His style of discussion has been called ‘Socratic Dialogue’ and involves using probing questions and posing counter examples to ‘draw out’ understanding in the minds of his acquaintances. He preferred activating the minds of those he met by forcing them to confront contradictions in their thinking rather than outright statement of an opposition view. This behaviour was not always popular with the authorities and Socrates ended up being tried by the Athenian state. Rather than accept banishment he chose to die by drinking hemlock. Socrates did not leave any written material. His pupil, Plato, documented aspects of Socrates’ work in his Dialogues. Plato established the first academy, a forerunner, perhaps, of modern philosophy departments. There are many sources of information about Socrates, try:

Monk, R and Raphael, F eds. 2000 The Great Philosophers. London: Orion Books.
Russell, B. 2007 History of Western Philosophy. London: Routledge Classics.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss developmental psychologist, died in 1980. His work has had a major impact on education and learning theory. For the present purposes, consider some important concepts in his theory of cognitive development. These are ‘assimilation’, ‘accommodation’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’. The first of these refers to the act of fitting new information into our present ideas about the world (simply moving a few deck chairs around without upsetting the fundamental arrangements of life on the deck of the Titanic). Accommodation, on the other hand, refers to radical reordering of our cognitive framework. Cognitive dissonance refers to the situation where we are forced to rearrange our cognitive framework because the information coming in seriously contradicts our present thinking. This is reflected in the practice of P4C which places importance on the notion of ‘problematising’ everyday experience in order to stimulate deep thinking (consider the storybooks of Anthony Browne, for example.)

John Dewey (1859 to 1952) was part of the American philosophical tradition referred to as ‘Pragmatism’. He promoted the key principle that humans learn through interaction with the physical and social environment. Along with other animals we share the ability to behave instinctively. Over and above this we are able to reflect upon the consequences of our actions. Furthermore we have developed language which, among other things, allows us to work symbolically and ‘test out’ ideas without actually putting them into practice.

Human learning is much more than just trial and error, it involves an inquiry process. Dewey argued against a spectator view of knowledge which describes the development of understanding as moving ever closer to a complete view of the world. He claims that what we know is always open to doubt and is about understanding relations between actions and consequences. Exploration of actions and consequences through inquiry is stimulated by the perception that there is a problem with our current view of things. The stages of the Deweyan inquiry model bear a close resemblance to the stages of an enquiry in P4C.

‘I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself.’ P84 of Dewey, J. ‘My Pedagogic Creed.’ In The Early Works (1895 to 1898)

Dewey, J. 1910 How We Think. Boston: Heath and Co.
Dewey, J. 1916 Democracy and Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.

In the early 1960s Matthew Lipman left a department of philosophy and established the practice of P4C which utilized an enquiry method and highlighted dialogue and rational thought in a collaborative setting. His approach is strongly Deweyan in that the starting point for P4C enquiry is a stimulus which engages the participants emotionally and employs their creative question-forming powers. During the course of the P4C enquiry, the aim is to disrupt thinking through pointed questioning and dialogue and to develop skills of argumentation in the process of rebuilding deeper understanding. The final stages of an enquiry usually encourage participants to reflect on the implications for them of any increased understanding.

Lipman, M. 1988 Philosophy Goes to School. Philadelphia: Temple Press
Lipman, M. 1991 Thinking in Education. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Some general references for the practice of P4C:

Cam, P. 1995. Thinking Together; Philosophical Inquiry for the Classroom. Hale and Iremonger: Alexandria, NSW.
Haynes, J, 2002 Children as Philosophers; Learning through Enquiry and Dialogue in the Primary Classroom. Routledge-Falmer: London
Lewis, L and Chandley, N eds 2012 Philosophy for Children through the Secondary Curriculum. Continuum: London
Stanley, S. 2012. Why Think? Philosophical Play from 3 – 11. Continuum: London

Murris, K and Haynes, J. 2000 Storywise; Thinking through stories. Dialogue Works: Newport, Pembs
Sutcliffe, R. and Williams, S. 2000 The Philosophy Club; an adventure in thinking. Dialogue Works: Newport, Pembs.