little factories of understanding

Unknown-3A highlight at the ICPIC Conference in Vancouver was to hear and meet Kieran Egan, philosopher and educator at the Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and the founder of Imaginative Education Research Group.

Egan is regarded as one of the most original ‘big thinkers’ in education and his address was titled Engaging Children’s Imaginations by Teaching Them Lots and Lots of Useless Knowledge.

His primary message was that we need to crucially evaluate the curriculum, the practice of teaching and the very nature of school.


Egan calls for imaginative approaches to learning and challenges the current performance model of teaching and testing which sees education as a process of accumulating knowledge and skills that are uninvolved with emotions, intentions and human meanings.

Egan further challenges the accepted norm that curriculum should start with what the child is familiar with and gradually move to the unknown. As Sue Lyle[1] so succinctly puts it – it’s like asking a fish what’s it like to live in the water – it can only begin to reflect once it’s lifted out of the water’.

He presented his idea on the nature of knowledge and claims that the only knowledge is the human mind. There are codes of transmitting knowledge – books, the internet etc., but that the only true knowledge comes from our own minds. He argues that schools confuse the codes of transmitting and true knowledge by testing the codes rather than seeking meaning from these codes.

This led him to talk about the important and power of imagination and thinking as he called for a focus on cognitive tools rather than knowledge or psychological development. Imagination says Egan is the great primary workhorse for learning and children’s minds are porous to the power of imagination. ‘The more you know the easier it is to be imaginative’.

Egan has written numerous books and the reader would be well advised to read what is written rather than my limited notes from a thrilling presentation. But these were my takeaways as they relate to the young child.

  • Children are abstract as well as concrete thinkers
  • Children’s thinking is powerfully affective
  • Children readily understand content when organised into story forms
  • Children are readily engaged by forming images from words
  • Children are prodigal producers and consumers of metaphors
  • Children’s learning can proceed by forming binary oppositions and mediating them

UnknownConcerned that presenting content to children without context leads to a road to nowhere, Egan is working on the LIDS (Learning in Depth)[2]. In this project, children from the very early years become true experts in a field of their choice and the project brings learning to life and empowers children from their very first year at school. By the end of the project, children graduate as true experts in a chosen field. The detailed notes on the SFU website below outline how to implement LIDS.

So why was Egan speaking at a Philosophy for Children conference? Because the cornerstone of his work is the focus on the tools we can use to build children’s understanding and make their curriculum more meaningful and engaging. These tools he refers to are the foundation stones for Philosophy in Schools.
[1] Lyle, Sue; Imagination in Education – the neglected dimension: the world of Kieran Egan.



it’s not about ‘me’ but ‘we’.


As I review today’s photos I understand why Suzanne Axelsson, a philosophy teacher at the Filosofiska Förskola (philosophy preschool) in Stockholm is so highly considered as a practitioner for philosophy with very young children.

I have been following Suzanne through her blog Interaction Imagination for some time but it was magical to observe the way she communicates with children.

Philosophy is at the core of this preschool centre. Suzanne begins the week with a philosophy discussion and this sets the agenda for the week. How this program will develop depends on the children’s conversations and the teacher’s observations.

As an example the previous week they discussed the story of Hansel and Gretel. From this they explored forest animals and which animal would make a good leader, made a trip to a local museum to gather more information, built a Hansel and Gretel house out of blocks, photographed it and then reconstructed it using only the photos. And throughout the week’s activities, the dialogue continues ending with a recorded activity in their logbook. Much more on Suzanne’s blog on this exercise.

I observed a structured philosophy lesson.

  1. Suzanne gathered her class (only 7 as 4 had left for the holidays) and passed a box around.  After some guessing a note was revealed.  Why do children go to preschool? What did you think?
  2. A discussion commences which she continued to extend with new questions.  There was a continuous involvement by all children for more than 20 minutes.
  3. An assistant who had scribed the conversation then read the dialogue back to the group. This was greatly enjoyed and several children made corrections where they had been misunderstood.
  4. The session finished with a bubble activity – an exercise in listening (I’ll call out who goes next), self regulation, turn taking and group dynamics (catch the bubbles but make sure you don’t touch anyone else).

IMG_3544It all seemed so simple and normal.

When I started philosophic discussions with this group a year ago they initially lasted around 10 minutes but now they are comfortable to talk for up to 25 minutes, said Suzanne.

Suzanne reiterated what I had heard from both Maaike and Sara. Philosophy is not difficult for young children and need not be difficult for teachers if they are open minded and ready to approach a discussion from child-up rather than adult-down, if they are skilled in asking open-ended questions and if they recognise a philosophy session is not ‘just talk’ but has a clear structure and purpose.

Children enrol at filosofiska, a private non profit making centre in Stockholm, from their first birthday and even in this pre-language stage,  basic skills are practiced that are essential when they engage in a philosophic dialogue. They include:-

IMG_3612learning to give and receive

taking turns


making choices

awareness of others

Suzanne laments we are not training children to be listeners. Communications is made up of talking, reading, writing and listening yet listening, which is the principal method of communicating, ranks lower in percentage of time taken in schools than the others. Perhaps we could also lament that we as adults are not good listeners.

So why do philosophy in the early years? Because it will open teachers up to the possibilities of young children. This is the way they will really understand and know their children, says Suzanne and she made references to Alison Gopnik’s research findings.

What I see at Filosofiska and at Sara and Maiike’s schools, where practitioners are explicitly introducing young children to philosophy, is a challenge to the accepted views of a child’s social and cognitive development.

I returned to Sue Lyle’s research and the point made that by uncritically accepting these views, we may be holding children back.

IMG_3563I refer to Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby and her conclusion that we have been significantly underrating and misperceiving the mind of a baby and that very young children learn more, create more, care more, and experience more than we had ever have imagined.

But is this Philosophy?  I ask Suzanne.

Certainly. We do not ‘teach philosophy’ but we use the practice of philosophical inquiry as a tool to develop creative, critical and caring thinking in young children. 

I talked with Suzanne about The Eyes of the Child project, which demonstrates that the process of ‘thinking’ can take many forms. She has written extensively on this on her blog.

After the children had left, I talked with the staff and together we shared our views on training.  That’s for another blog.  Thank you dear Suzanne.

philosophy is everywhere

IMG_3536Not only can we do philosophy with very young children but we must do it for it is the evidence that we are listening and respecting children’s dialogues.

I visited Maaike Lahaise, the Director of skrubbelund barnehage (scrubland preschool), a government owned, Reggio Emilia inspired centre of 70 children and 18 adults with the children in three groups – 1-3 years, 3 to 4 years and 5.  Maaike ‘caught the passion’ for philosophy after seeing it in action and has now pioneered this in the centre where she is responsible not only for the centre but also for those children who will start formal school within a year.

I was so warmly welcomed with hellos, high 5’s and a smattering of English words from her class of 4 to 5 year olds. A small group of girls delegated themselves as my minders – one to carry the notebook, one the pen and one my camera and off we went to explore their outdoor area.

Photo by Charlie (4) with Margaret and Maikke and two friends.Of particular note was the amazing confidence the children had with me, the stranger who could not speak, and how quickly they accommodated me. Charlie (4) offered to take my photo with two of my new friends.

We are a family, said Maaike, and the children are free to go into any space including the teacher’s spaces.

Prior to the philosophy lesson, we all sat together to get to know each other and shared a meal – homemade bread, cheeses, meats, spreads water and milk.

IMG_3525M:          Kate, do you want to say something before we eat?

K:          Yes. I want to say thank you for letting me visit, thank you for the food and thank you for being so friendly.

M:          Does anyone else want to say something?

C:          That’s what we do at home but we talk about Jesus too.

And so a conversation began even before the bread was broken and I realised we were in a community of inquiry.

C:                   Hmmm this looks good so it must taste good

M:                   Can something look good and not taste good?

C:                   No. Everything looks bad if I’ve not tasted it, but when I know what it tastes like then it looks good.

M:                  Is there a difference between food that looks good and food that looks bad?

C:                  Yes something might look good but taste bad

M:                 Can you give me an example?

C:                  Well the food the Sami people eat looks bad like blood pancakes but they taste good. I saw that in a video.

At this point the milk ran out and Maiike asked a child if he could get another carton.

IMG_3526C:                   No. Someone else can get it.

M:                   Are you not able to get it or don’t you want to get it? 

C:                   I have a sore leg

M:                   Does Benjamin not want to get it or he can’t get it? 

More discussion and as most agreed that he didn’t want to get it but one child.  Then a child who had not spoken aloud said,

C:                  But if he does have a bad leg then he can’t get it.


M:                   Okay everyone; in five minutes we can go to have a group chat. Is that a long time or a short time?

And so the discussion continued – even before we had commenced the formal ‘philosophy lesson’.

I considered the point often made by teachers that there is no ‘time’ to do philosophy but that is when philosophy is viewed as a ‘subject’. With young children it is a particular style of conversation – a collaborative conversation between children guided by teachers. To do this, teachers need support on how to recognise the philosophic moves that Maaike does and how to extend the dialogue by giving children practice in thinking skills (giving reasons, giving examples, counter examples, suggestions, conclusions, examples).

It’s actually very simple said Maaike, we must listen to the children. I am a learner too and I learn much from engaging in dialogue with them.

I recalled reading a statement by another outstanding early years practitioner, Sara Stanley in But Why.

You do not have to be a ‘super teacher’ to do P4C – Philosophy for children. You only have to be prepared to value what children have to say, to respect the questions they ask and to provide them with opportunities to develop their thinking. 

IMG_3534After lunch (which the children cleared up)  we went into an adjacent room used for shared talk and drama. Maaike told the children they were going to see a film about animals.  At the first frame one child commented.

C:  But we must have a film in English so Kate can understand it – we know Norwegian and a little English but she knows no Norwegian only English

And from this a discussion began on how we communicate, whether animals can talk to each other, whether animals can they talk at all, whether we could learn an animal language,  whether parrots are really talking? and so it went on again. All in Norwegian but I was able to be understood because children use a variety of ways to communicate if you just listen and watch.

What I have taken away is that

  • Philosophy is everywhere, and even children as young as two can engage in it. I recall a recent conversation by Pip, just two, when asked what should they do next. We have to go to the movies Daddy because the red teddy said so (reason giving) and she will be sad if we don’t.
  • Philosophy is not difficult if you listen to children and are trained to make the philosophic moves through questioning.

But is it Philosophy?

I would say yes because Philosophy is a method of thinking, a learned skill just like reading and writing.  Children have ideas and questions about contestable and abstract concepts and within the collaborative environment and with a skilled facilitator, they can explore them and deepen their understandings.


Sara Stanley, But Why? Developing Philosophic Thinking in the Classroom.

we have the ‘why do’ but where is the ‘how to’?

note pinned on Beate’s wall

I met with Beate Borresen, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education at the Oslo and Akershus University College and a prominent advocate for philosophical inquiry with children. She had been referred through contacts both in Norway and Sweden and the several hours we spent together focussed my thinking on the connection between philosophical practice and teacher training.

Although many teachers been trained in P4C in Norway both by Beate and visiting experts including James Nottingham and Sara Stanley from the UK and Oscar Brenifier from France, Beate found difficulty finding practitioners to demonstrate philosophy in action.

She commented on the disconnect between the theory, the training and the implementation in the schools and suggested the following reasons for this:

  1. Many theorists used ‘many sweet words’ promoting the ‘why do’ philosophy with children but had little or no connection to the ‘how to’.
  2. Teachers found it difficult to conduct philosophical inquiry because they themselves were not critical thinkers. Part of this reason was that the teaching profession no longer attracted intellectuals
  3. The emphasis on outcomes including PISA testings created the perception in teachers that they had ‘no time for philosophy’.
  4. A positive attitude of the Head of the school was crucial to the adoption of philosophy in schools.

Beate preferred to refer to philosophy in schools as ‘structured talk’ and she shared teaching materials and lessons plans she was developing to support teachers who wanted to implement inquiry in the classroom. Like Sara Stanley she road tested  ideas and was inspired by the conversations she had with her grandchildren.   Do I see a trend emerging for grandparents?

proposed logbooks for use in schools

I was particularly interested her reasons for printing logbooks (8,000) to be used in schools. These were similar in concept to those I had seen with Sara Stanley (although much more expensive) and would be provided to every child to document in some form the discussions held. Beate felt that if teachers used these logbooks in conjunction with the teaching notes, it would not only encourage  children’s critical thinking but also develop teacher’s critical thinking skills and in some ways overcome ‘the difficulty’ referred to above.
I reflected on how fortunate we were in Australia where many of the philosophy trainers were practicing teachers and particularly how fortunate I had been to have a committed Principal, Michael Jones, at Bondi (point 4) who valued and promoted critical thinking for all students and made the pathway for me to introduce it at Bondi possible.

a universe of learning

Sara Stanley with the wild things

Here we were in Norwich, two grandmothers sitting on the floor opening match boxes holding miniatures – small stimuli that expand into big questions, discussions and ‘a universe of learning’. That quote came from Charlie (4) when he was describing his ‘school for dragons’.

And what a universe of learning is happening at this nursery school in Norwich. Sara Stanley pioneered the Storytelling Curriculum for the Early Years which evolved into Philosophical Play.  Her work is based on 25 years of listening to children. She has scribed hundreds of conversations overheard when children play and noted the philosophic world that children live in.

Children use abstract concepts naturally  – good/bad, right/wrong, sharing/ownership, rights, proof, possibilities, revenge/love/hate, gender, rights/rules/justice/fairness/power,  friendship, trickery and possibilities from the time they have language. And from this Sara developed Concept Cards where children identity the philosophic concepts within their (and other) stories. It’s my turn (fairness) You’re not friend any more (friendship) Not now (time) No that toy is mine (ownership) You’re the baddy and I’ll be the goodie (good/bad). You’re not sharing (sharing).  Don’t scream at me. That’s not what friend do friendship). The fairy is here but she’s invisible (proof). That’s going to be impossible (possibilities). The dragon is going to get you back (revenge). Only girls can play this game (gender).  Sara then connects the children’s imagination and love of storytelling with philosophical inquiry. Her practice is continually evolving and I not only observed Sara in action but had time to theorise with her about her practice and ways to effectively train early childhood teachers. Her method, detailed in her two publications, is replicable.

Sara reading a story written by two year olds
Sara reading a story written by two year olds

On the day of my visit, Sara was giving a two hour session at a disadvantaged Nursery school in Norwich. She started by reading The Fire Monster written and illustrated by a group of two year olds from Reflections Nursery School in Worthing. The children spontaneously started discussing the book until a child suggested he’d seen a monster in the outdoor playground. Here Sara understood this was a philosophic move. She suggested we might go outside to see if we could find clues or proof that a monster was in the garden.

finding evidence of dragons
finding evidence of monsters

The high level of energy, engagement, collaboration and imaginative play went on for more than than an hour. Sara and her assistant scribed what they heard and what stories the children were telling them.  She always acknowledged the author of the story and some children double checked that she did this.

Sara recording Tegan's story
Sara recording Tegan’s story

The children returned inside and Sarah read the children’s stories back to the children.  New discussions started from these children’s texts. Would a monster rather be a monster or a human? Could you be a monster? Are all monsters bad monsters?

… we were fire monsters  too

I followed Tegan (4) who was highly active when it came to finding clues that a monster did live in the garden.  After a while she took chalk and drew her story and then later retold it to Sara who scribed it.   This is transcript of that story by Tegan (4) Tegan:  The monster had a lot of fire. I’m in the story. Ellie May and me. The fire monster killed us because we touched him  and we died. And when we woke up we were fire monsters too. But we blew out blue smoke.  Judy you can be in our story. Judy: No I’m making up my own story. I could go on and on about her methods but they are well described in her two books which I would highly recommend. Stanley, Sara, But Why – Teacher’s manual  – developing philosophical thinking in the classroom. Stanley, Sara, Why Think – Philosophical Play from 3-11  

the trinity of theory+practice+training

the village alms house in Kilmington, Oxfordshire
near my acccommodation  – the alms house in Kidlington, Oxfordshire

I am in Oxford visiting SAPERE, the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education.

My interest is to look at the training and the delivery of philosophy in schools. In New South Wales, we run a similar Level One FAPSA accredited course but this is more on an ad hoc basis. One of my concerns has been the lack of follow-up and support teachers are given after this initial introduction and anecdotally I see evidence that the practice is neither effectively implemented or the interest sustained. As a trainer and modeller, I have also been concerned that while the Level One course was effective for the few, there is no strategy in place to promote P4C more broadly to the Learning community, nor is there in place a top-down strategy to offer continued support for teachers and schools.

SAPERE is a registered charity with a network of 60 professional trainers across the UK to deliver P4C training in initial Teacher Education and Continuing Professional Development programs for teachers and schools.

I met with Lizzy Lewis, the Development Manager for SAPERE and who is also the President of ICPIC, the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children.

with Lizzie outside the Radcliffe Camera
with Lizzy outside the Radcliffe Camera

Going for Gold’ is a new initiative that SAPERE offers schools. It establishes a sustainable professional development training program and ensures that Philosophy as a pedagogy is embedded into the entire school.  A school signs up for a three-year P4C program which involves an initial short intensive whole-of-school professional development training (usually a two day Level One training and follow up day ‘Tools for Thinking’) followed by observations of practice and in school mentoring where necessary by the expert trainers.  Examining the evolution of this comprehensive program first hand has been a worthwhile exercise.

Of particular interest was the very recent development of partnership teams between postgraduate Philosophy students and experienced teachers. There is a long running debate on who should be delivering P4C in schools – the philosophers or the teachers. A SAPERE trainer, Grace Robinson ( has developed a team approach where postgraduate philosophy students partner with an interested experienced teacher.  They meet at an initial two-day SAPERE course and then the student works in tandem with the class teacher to deliver a philosophy program (say once a week) in the class.  This is a win win as the student obtains classroom experience and the teacher is exposed to more ‘philosophy’.  This is certainly something I will be proposing when I return.

A follow up from this is the growth of partnerships between academic institutions and specialist trainers.  While there have been discussions in Australia on how to introduce P4C at the pre-service level, there are few examples of specialist trainers being engaged at the tertiary level.  But at SAPERE, there is a notable growth of specialist trainers presenting modules of P4C as part of teacher training and postgraduate modules.  Currently there are more than ten UK universities in partnership with SAPERE.

Two evenings of reading and a growing confidence that there are pathways to deliver more effective teacher training to both pre-service teachers and in-service teachers.

reflections on week one

let's reconsider our views on the relationship between childhood and adulthood
it’s time to critically examine our views on the concept of the child

This week I have been challenged by a range of theories and practices of childhood and Philosophy and to the call to bring an ‘epistemological shudder‘ to the thinking of those of us who work with children.

I have observed two different styles of philosophic inquiry with children – one a dedicated session with a skilled philosophy practitioner, the other an integrated lesson conducted by the existing teacher with some P4C training.  I have discussed at length what the best practice for the implementation of this program to young children could be and will continue this discussion with Lizzy Lewis at SAPERE in Oxford next week.

I read the oppositional argument to the ‘uncritical’ acceptance of the developmental model of child development and the impact of this has on teachers and teacher/child relationships.  There is a strongly held view within the P4C community (Karin Murris, David Kennedy, Sara Stanley,  Joanna Haynes and Sue Lyle to name a few) that the child is a ‘being‘ rather than ‘becoming‘, a full human being rather than on a developmental trajectory towards adulthood and evidence that the latter limits the uptake of P4C in schools.

But I have been presented with convincing arguments on how the introduction of P4C into teacher training can be an effective tool to bring change to this binary conception of adult/child and ultimately to classroom practice. How we do this will be the purpose of my visit to Oxford next week.  I have much more to read and much more to think about.

Lyle, Sue (2000) Narrative understanding: Developing a theoretical context for understanding how children make meaning in classroom settings‘, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 32: 1, 45 — 63

Further reading:

Davies, Bronwyn, Listening to Children

Taylor, Affrica, Reconfiguring the Natures of Childhood 

in the series Contesting Early Childhood Series edited by Gunhilla Dahlberg and Peter