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.

philosophy with four year olds

Steve in a Philosophy lesson with 4 year olds
Steve in a Philosophy session with 3 and 4 year olds

What an inspiring day. I observed Steve Hoggins, a philosopher and teacher with specialist training in Primary, Nursery and ESL facilitate three philosophy sessions with three and four year olds.  Steve works with The Philosophy Foundation ( a not-for-profit organisation that trains and delivers philosophy programs into schools. Steve is engaged by the Clyde Early Learning Centre in London to deliver three philosophy sessions (one hour per week) for 39 weeks to children in the centre.  The centre has approximately a hundred children from diverse multicultural backgrounds with the majority of children from homes where English is not the first language.

What I saw was impressive.

As we entered the centre, little people rushed over to high-five him. ‘Steve are we going to have Philosophy today?‘  He delivered the three 20-minute sessions in small rooms away from the general hubbub.  The classes are voluntary: one class had 7 girls and one boy, another around the same with 22 attending the final class. It is worth describing the lessons to show the range and scope of what was done with 3-4 year olds.

Lesson One: Who is Pen Man? (philosophic concept – identity)

Steve introduced four identical pencils and after a short game establishing procedures for discussion, he built a Pen Man using a ball for a head, a plastic lunch box for the body and the four pencils for the arms and legs. He used a Paddington Bear soft toy for the children to ask questions and often the child answered the question for PB as well.

Steve:            Ask Paddington Bear who is this?

Child:            Paddington Bear who is this?   He said it was a person.

Steve:            Does someone else want to ask Paddington Bear a question?

This went on in a democratic way and then Steve separated elements of the body and the children discussed a variety of propositions.

Steve:             (legs removed) Is it still the Pen Man if he has no legs?

Steve:             (head separated from the body) Where is the Pen Man now?

Steve:            If you have one leg (or one arm, or no head) are you still a Pen Man?

Lesson Two:   The Three Robbers (philosophic concept – good and bad)

In this lesson Steve read The Three Robbers and the children discussed if the robbers were good or bad. Steve then began improvising further on the story using two children as robbers and the remainder of the class making suggestions on what the robbers (children0 had stolen – my trousers, my shoes, my socks etc., my money? Was the robber who took the money bad? What about the one who took your trousers?

Lesson Three: The Teddy Bears’ Picnic (philosophic concept – sharing)

Steve improvised a story of two bears who went on a picnic. The children added to the story about what they might put in the Bear’s picnic basket. The story continued until  Steve pulled a cake (a round card)  from the bears picnic basket.

Steve:  The bears have decided it’s time to have the cake but there is only one cake. What can we do?

One girl decided that they should cut it up – and cut it into three uneven pieces. She gave one to the first bear and one to the other. The children were concerned that this didn’t seem okay.

Steve: How can we fix this up? Can we make it okay?

After a number of tries, they proposed that they could give it to the Hungry Penguin who was obviously a regularly character, and they then proceeded again to sort out the best way to divide the three unequal pieces.

The children were highly engaged in all sessions even in this hot humid room. There were many elements to the success. One was certainly Steve who had teaching techniques that I had never seen before. He used simple hand/eye movements to give instructions or deal with distractions. He had a very clear set of procedures about listening to each other. He acknowledged every contribution with a thank you (rather than the evaluative response that’s a good idea). He had a very clear idea about the purpose of the lesson. His questioning was highly inclusive but offered choice – ‘Do you want to change something or tell us more’?  The children called him Steve and he totally engaged with the children using a gentle modulated and sometimes singing voice when speaking.

After the sessions, I was invited back to the Worley’s home for a work dinner.  Pete, Emma, Steve and I went long into the night talking about Philosophy and young children. An unexpectedly rich experience. Oh I must mention Katie Worley (4) was there too.