Using P4C to teach students learning, life skills

The Grade 4 students of Shanghai United International School camp up questions with during a Philosophy for Children (P4C) lesson on their unit of inquiry. 

Why would we reject certain people? Why would we want to send people in need away? Can we create safe communities without being exclusive?

These are some of the questions that Grade 4 students of Shanghai United International School came up with during a Philosophy for Children (P4C) lesson on their unit of inquiry — “Human migration is a response to risks, challenges and opportunities.” This open inquiry brought their questions to the forefront and deepened their conceptual understandings. 

Questions in primary are impossible to stop. Walk into any Primary Reception to Grade 3 classroom and you’ll have a hard time getting a word in edgewise for all the questions. But walk into a Grade 12 classroom and it’s a different story. Something happens between the end of primary and their exit exams in Grade 12. Something has silenced their questions, internalized their thoughts, and it limits their ability to engage in discussion, to make connections. The momentum of their inherent inquiry has been halted, but by what?

From Personal Social Health Education to conflict resolution, to deepening and stretching understandings, the hands-on experiences of our teachers speak volumes about the way that P4C has transformed the way we teach and the way our students learn at SUIS Hongqiao-Gubei. 

P4C is the result of the work of Professor Matthew Lipman and his colleagues in 1972 at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in Montclair University, New Jersey. As is often the case with educators, there was an overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with the way things were being done. There was a sense that the curriculum lacked the thinking and reasoning skills to prepare them for life-long learning. Lipman and his colleagues embraced the idea that education wasn’t just about preparing for adult life but acquiring the processes of learning to carry them into the future.

Lipman saw P4C as more than merely a program for logic and critical thinking, rather he saw it as the practice of philosophizing about life and felt that learning should be provocative and relevant. 

Using P4C to teach students learning, life skills

SUIS Grade 6 students at English lesson unit of inquiry — “Story telling can often challenge expectations and beliefs” 

The philosophy has since been taken forward and has proven to be a tool for building deeper connections and more reflective practices for teachers and students alike. Inspired by pragmatist philosopher, Charles Pierce, Lipman grasped the idea of P4C creating “a community of enquiry” in which not only are the ideas of others respected, but also that individual members contribute their perspectives. The emerging pillars of P4C communities of enquiry are the four Cs: caring, collaborative, critical, and creative.

As an IBO school, we find Lipman’s approach synchronizes implicitly and organically with what we are trying to accomplish.

The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.

The first thing that leaps out is the notion of enquiry, seeking new ideas, new perspectives and caring for those differences with respect. The inherent idea of respect for differences is embedded in our curriculum and strengthened by P4C which promotes the concept that our class discussions are not debates, but rather discursive explorations in which we scrutinize and evaluate opposing and sometimes conflicting points of view and practice seeing the implicit value in all perspectives. 

P4C is a toolkit for teachers to bring to life their passion for holistic education, strengthen students’ ability to listen, collaborate, communicate, empathize and build understanding and compassion. 

As a PR-12 school, our biggest challenge has been bridging the gap between our programs. Our IB Primary Years Program, middle school and IB Diploma Program curriculums are rigorous and challenging, and have accelerated the learning of our students in many ways, but the challenge of getting students to link the common ideas, skills, and attitudes towards learning from Reception to 12th grade has long presented certain gaps, over which our students have had to be dragged by frustrated teachers, pushed by distressed parents, and rescued by our pastoral team who work so hard. Largely these come down to a gap in learning skills — the ability to process knowledge learned, question assumptions, and offer ideas. 

Using P4C to teach students learning, life skills

Rebekah Hommel is head of English faculty at SUIS Gubei.

As more of our teachers are trained in the tools for facilitating inquiry, we see a common thread that is being pulled throughout our school, woven into our community, and strengthened through connections and ever more complex layers of questioning, as it becomes a cord that will carry them across the gaps they face, and into their life long journey of learning, listening and transforming the communities of inquiry they contribute to in their lives to come. Our mission is no longer to prepare them for middle school, high school, university, or their first step into their chosen career, but to give them the philosophical skills to participate in the construction of their communities.

As our students progress, they will practice the skills of listening, collaborating, reflecting, and questioning through routines and cycles of enquiry that they can use to construct habits that will build confidence and give them the tools they need to scale the walls they face in their learning and lives.

It is a daily scraping away of the calcification of our paradigms about what education is, what assessment is, and what it means to be a successful teacher, and an excellent learner; paradigms that at times limit our ability to have an open mind, to be caring and respectful of others’ perspectives. It requires a vulnerability balanced by questioning and deepening connections.

It is a state of mind that has allowed us to build strategies for more meaningful inquiry. We became teachers so we could empower young people to be thinkers, innovators, and caretakers of our world. P4C encompasses visual thinking, respectful listening, inquiry, design and reflection, and meaningful discussion.

For our school it has proven the key to the door of true inquiry, and bridging the gaps our students face.

(Rebekah Hommel is head of English faculty at SUIS Gubei and Karen Mathieson is PYP Coordinator at SUIS Hongqiao campus.)

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