Socially confident questioning in the Early Years
Stephen Walshe explains how building social confidence in an Early Years Philosophy for Children (P4C) programme leads to cognitive development and genuine critical thinking.
A true student-centred pedagogy
If we are looking for an approach to teaching and learning that is truly student-centered, then I believe that Philosophy for Children (P4C) is one of the best pedagogies to put the student at the center of the education process. In a P4C enquiry session, based on a stimulus such as a short video, storybook, object or picture, students identify concepts and develop questions that are important to them and then vote for the question they would like to discuss in a Community of Enquiry (C of E).
Setting up a Community of Enquiry
The basic set up for the C of E is for students to sit in a circle with the teacher also sitting in the circle in the role of facilitator. The circle set-up encourages community and ensures that everybody can see each other. As the concepts and questions are student generated the discussion that follows will focus on issues that have meaning to them. Moreover, these discussions in a safe C of E have the potential to cater to student’s social and emotional needs, as topics such as friendship, fairness, belonging, etc are discussed among peers.
Caring and collaborative
It will, of course, take time and patience to foster a caring and collaborative C of E where students feel sufficiently safe to bring up and discuss such issues. That is why it is important to provide the space and the time to cultivate community. Although sitting in a circle encourages community, it does not, in itself, ensure a Community of Enquiry. This has to be encouraged and developed over time.
Pre-K to K2 development
This is why we begin P4C in our Pre-K classes and continue developing the C of E through the Pre-K, K1 and K2 years. Teachers, over the course of 3 years, gradually focus on developing a caring and collaborative atmosphere. Students also, gradually, come to understand they have as much responsibility as the teacher for developing and maintaining the C of E.
We begin with small groups for the discussion phase of the enquiry in Pre-K and K1 classes and, over the course of 2 years, gradually expand the group until we have a whole class discussion.
The reason we use small groups is to focus on skills development and, just as importantly, to create a caring, collaborative environment for children to expose their thinking to the group. Children are less intimidated to speak in small groups and the slow transition to a whole class discussion provides children the necessary time and space to develop their confidence to expose their thinking to the group.
The social side of P4C
I would argue that the social aspects are just as important if not more important than the cognitive, critical and creative, aspects of P4C. Because if we do not focus on developing collaboration, by cultivating listening skills to pay attention to the words of others and, caring, to create a safe environment where everybody feels confident enough to share ideas that might be controversial, then we may not be able to engage students in the creative and critical aspects of P4C.
The confidence to disagree or change an opinion. . . .
Students need to feel confident enough to disagree with each other and understand that disagreement is not directed at them but at the idea or point under discussion. As we are all aware, making a statement or taking a position on an issue and giving a reason for that position does not, in many cases, entail critical and creative thinking. The position and reason(s) may be unconscious or, as Socrates says, ‘unexamined’. However, if the position and reason(s) are challenged, not by a teacher or person in authority but by a fellow student in a caring and collaborative environment, then it is more likely that the speaker will critically ‘examine’ their position and reasoning and, as a result, develop a new response, or support their position with stronger or better reasoning, which involves critical and creative thinking.
. . . . comes when feeling socially secure
This then leads us back to the social aspects as the community engages in shared meaning making, in the safety of a caring, collaborative Community of Enquiry, in order to come to a better, shared understanding of the concepts and questions under discussion.
Stephen is Co-Principal at the Fortune Kindergarten in Shanghai and Co-Director of P4C China. He is an accredited Advanced P4C and Thinking Moves trainer. Philosophy for Children, Communities and Colleges, (P4C) and the Community of Enquiry, provide both the pedagogy and the structure to develop ‘Constructive Confrontation’.