Monthly Archives: September 2014

Philosophy Club – a parents guide

So you want to set up a philosophy club for your child or children.

What is philosophy and why do it?

This is a big question and not easily answered but I’m going try to give a snappy response – snappy for a philosopher anyway.

A good place to start is that philosophy is about thinking. Next, we might say that it is thinking about thoughts and thinking itself (but not how a psychologist does). Here’s a bit more: inspired by the ancient Greeks, philosophy can be said to be a rational attempt to better understand ourselves, the world and our place in it. Philosophy’s main questions can be broken down to these four:

1) What is there? (Reality or metaphysics)
2) What can be known about what there is? (Knowledge or epistemology)
3) What matters in what there is? (Value or ethics/politics/aesthetics)
4) What can be said about what there is? (Logic, language and meaning)

Plato not Play-doh, Peter Worley's TEDx talk, can children do philosophy?

Plato not Play-doh, Peter Worley’s TEDx talk, can children do philosophy?

Philosophy also has certain characteristics that I have tried to capture in the 4 Rs of philosophy (for more on this see my TEDx talk, Plato not Play-doh):

Response: first of all there has to be something that is puzzling and this is often accompanied by a pre-reflective, intuitive response (E.g. ‘That’s not fair because he’s not sharing!’)
Reflect: then there is a ‘standing back’, a reflection, often of the form ‘What is X?’ (E.g. ‘Hang on, what exactly is fairness?’)
Reason: Then there is an attempt to answer the reflective question through a process of reasoning (E.g. ‘So, fairness is… because…’)
Re-evaluate: and finally there is the all-important and ever-present further reflection upon the reasoning. (E.g. ‘But is that right? Because, actually…’)

The relationship between reasoning and re-evaluation is what makes philosophy, in my view, fundamentally dialogic – in other words, a kind of conversation, either with others or oneself.

Often, at some point, a judgement is made, but the judgement is only ever provisional because of the ever-present re-evaluation rule. The good outcomes, or added value, of doing philosophy are that there might well be clarity, insight, or, a certain smaller problem within ‘the big problem’ may even get solved. In which case there might be a fifth R: Resolve?

When doing philosophy with children the emphasis is on the ‘doing’. So, they will not be learning about philosophy (the ‘who-said-what-and-when’) – and this should be reassuring if you don’t know much about it anyway. Instead, they will philosophize with each other. For this, they already have everything they need to begin (a brain, ears and a mouth). However, it’s up to you to make sure the conditions are right for them to be able to begin.

For more on ‘Why do philosophy in schools?’ go here:

‘The First R’
‘If understanding and wellbeing are central to education then philosophy must be taught in schools.’
‘Class Act’

Who’s it for?

Philosophy ClubYour child, obviously. But there should be others too as this is going to be discussion-based. Try to find children who want to be there, although, this will, to some extent, be down to how fun and interesting you can make it.

So, how many then?

Remember that it is very difficult to sustain a philosophical discussion with just one or two children because children don’t usually have a sufficient diversity of ideas to keep a philosophical discussion going. A group of children is much more likely to have the necessary diversity of ideas. So, I recommend a group of no less than 8 children and probably not much more than 18. 12 would be perfect (this is just a guideline so it could be amended depending on the children attending).


Find a place with lots of space. You may just need to push a few things out of the way to get the space you need in a front room, for example. If there is a larger space available to you then try to use that but it should not be too large as discussion is difficult in echoey places such as church halls.

Sit in a horseshoe shape so the children can talk to each other.

Sit in a horseshoe shape so the children can talk to each other.

How should I set things up?

Set up some chairs to form a horseshoe shape and, if possible, have a flipchart, some different coloured pens and a pile of A4 paper.


One day-a-week after school is probably the best time. Otherwise, a Saturday morning could be good. Anytime that’s convenient for all is likely to be the time you fun The Philosophy Club.

How long?

Usually an hour is a good time for philosophy, however, getting them to sit and discuss for a full hour is going to be tough, especially after school when they could be doing something more fun. So, here’s my recommendation for how to divide up the hour:

First 15-20 minutes:
Assuming that they won’t all turn up on time have some thinking games ready that they can play in pairs, threes or fours as they come in. See Robert Fisher’s Games For Thinking for some ideas. I would have little strategy games ready like Nim (and its many variations), Fifteen etc. See Fisher’s book and The Philosophy Foundation website for how to play these (and other) games. You will need more props for these games such as a deck of cards or two, beads or pebbles etc.

Discussing 'Aliens in underpants' interesting philosophical questions around knowledge and ethics.

Discussing ‘Aliens in underpants’ interesting philosophical questions around knowledge and ethics.

Middle 35 minutes:
Use this for the PhiE (philosophical enquiry), which should follow this procedure (NB: the philosophy is not the procedure described below; the philosophy happens in good quality dialogue around philosophical topics, the procedure is there merely to try to create the best conditions to allow philosophy to happen):

1) Present the stimulus (story, scenario, puzzle, activity etc. see resources below) and ask the Task of Start Question (see The If Machine and/or The Philosophy Shop for explanations of these).
2) Give children Talk Time – 1 or 2 minutes of time to discuss the question with a partner.
3) Show sign to begin discussion – see Stop Look and Listen Rule below in ‘Rules for the group’.
4) 2-5 minutes of discussion (Try to identify diversity by asking for a ‘Yes’-response to the question, a ‘No’-response and a ‘something else’-response such as ‘yes and no’, ‘I don’t know’ and so on. This helps to bring the controversies out. Also see imaginary disagreer below.)
5) More Talk Time – it’s always good to give them more time to talk with each other once a greater diversity of ideas has been voiced. There’s more to talk about then.
6) Return to group discussion – let them explore different ideas first (‘I think X…’) and then they can move to justifying them (‘So, does everyone agree with all the ideas we’ve heard?’)
7) Move between discussion and Talk Time as many times as necessary or until the 35 minutes elapses.

Bippity bippity bob - great ending game

Bippity bippity bob – great ending game

Ending 10 minutes:
Play a game to end with that involves the whole group and which will get them standing up. The following games are favourites of The Philosophy Foundation and can be found on our members website, which is free to join: Twenty-One, Random Words, Samurai, Bippity-Bippity-Bop and The Sitting Down Game.


It’s always a good idea to bribe children with snacks! However, I recommend leaving the snacks to the end or you’re likely to have a major sugar-rush problem on your hands for the next hour!

Rules for the group (the children):

The Ball Rule helps with speaker management

The Ball Rule helps with speaker management

• Speak one at a time (I use a ball that I pass to speakers to make this visual). – The Ball Rule
• Listen to whoever is speaking. – The Listening Rule
• Hands up if you want to speak; hands down when someone else is speaking. – The Hand Up/Hands Down Rule
• Respect each other (usually: don’t be rude, don’t make fun of and don’t laugh at others’ ideas – unless it’s a joke of course!) – The Respect Rule
• They should know that they are free to disagree with each other as long as they do so with respectful language. – The Free-to-disagree Rule
• They are to stop, look and listen immediately when the facilitator holds the ball in the air. – The Stop Look Listen Rule
• Those that persistently break the rules will be asked to leave The Philosophy Club.

Rules for the facilitator:

• Shut up! – you must not say what you think about the issue. Don’t get involved. Ask another adult to listen in to see if you’re sticking to the rule (and the other rules, for that matter).
• Listen! – always make sure you are actively listening (listening to understand).
• Question! – question in order to understand (this follows on from the listen! Rule) The main ‘opening-up’ questions you will ask should be:

o Justification (E.g. ‘Would you like to tell me why?’)
o Elicitation (E.g. ‘Can you say more about that?’)
o Clarification (E.g. ‘Can you say what you mean by?’)
o Exemplification/counter-exemplification (‘Can you give an example?’ / ‘Can anyone think of an example where not X?’)

• Enthuse! – be enthusiastic and show interest in their ideas while remaining neutral.
• Allow time! – don’t rush them or ask too many questions; one clear question and time-to-think is all they will probably need.
• Encourage peer conversation – don’t have conversations with the children; get them having conversations with each other.
• Use ‘the imaginary disagreer’ (see below), not devil’s advocate moves, or else you’ll be doing the thinking for them.
• Echo what they say – if you say anything at all; don’t paraphrase (‘So, you’re saying…’) or interpret (‘So, what you mean is…’) what they’ve said.
• Don’t answer questions that children ask; get the group to do that.
• Use closed questions (‘Is the mind the same as the brain?’) but remember to ‘open them up’ (see the list under the Question! Rule).
• Draw out controversies/tensions (but they must see controversies for themselves!) You should be: providing the conditions for the children to see, for themselves, philosophical controversies for them to then try to solve.

A useful classroom technique: the Imaginary disagreer

This is where, when you want to introduce an alternative position that the children may not have thought of, you activate them to do so instead of doing it yourself with the usual ‘devil’s advocate moves’. This is how you do it. When necessary or appropriate simply ask: ‘What do you think someone would say if they disagreed with you?’ and then follow this up with: ‘What reasons do you think they might have for thinking that?’ Have this strategy ready to help the group create it’s own diversity and thereby create it’s own controversies. Usually the children will be motivated to think of contrary ideas to those of their peers but if/when this doesn’t happen then use ‘the imaginary disagreer’ – he/she can be very useful.

Last Word: at The Philosophy Foundation, when philosophy with children is done formally in an educational setting, because of the special educational aims and objectives, we usually recommend that philosophy facilitators be philosophers (that is: have studied philosophy). But in a more relaxed atmosphere such as a parent-run philosophy club, where the main aim is to be social and fun as much as intellectually stimulating, a background in philosophy is of less importance. That said, it will not harm to read up on dialogue facilitation and philosophy (see resources). Listen! keep an open, inquiring mind, and remember to have fun and to make it fun!

What resources should I use?

Games For Thinking (Games) **
The If Machine (Guidance and lessons) **
The Philosophy Shop (Guidance and lessons)
Plato Was Wrong! (Secondary/late primary)
Philosophy For Young Children (Early Years)
Provocations (Secondary/late Prep)
Once Upon an If (For storytelling skills and ideas)
What Makes Me Me (BBC films resource)

Big Questions (films made by The Philosophy Club)

Online article: Socratic Irony in the classroom
Online article from Creative Teaching and Learning magazine: The Question X

If you only have money for one or two books then go to ** to get started.

We recommend the following websites and podcasts to learn more about philosophy:

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps

Philosophy Bites

Philosophy Now

The Philosophers Magazine

Join our website and see sessions modelled.
Listen to Philosophy Now podcast of children doing philosophy and this blog that accompanies it.

Books for the children to read in between Philosophy Club days:

The Philosophy Files
The Philosophy Gym

Sophie’s World

See more books for young people on our resources pages

The blog was originally written for the Parents Show and Keystone Workshops.


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Book review: Once Upon an If

The Philosophy Club

Once Upon an If cover

The Philosophy Foundation has a track record of producing a kind of book that’s in short supply: truly innovative contemporary guides to teaching critical and creative thinking to children. Peter Worley’s Once Upon an If: A storythinking handbook – a companion to The If Machine and The If Odyssey – is a valuable addition to an exemplary series of books. It further equips teachers to facilitate philosophical enquiry in the classroom, using stories as a springboard for exploring challenging ideas.

The opening chapters of Once Upon an If offer a practical guide to storytelling and ‘storythinking’, while the remainder of the book is devoted to a collection of stories pitched to primary school children, accompanied by suggested discussion questions.

Dense with ideas, yet eminently clear and well-paced, Once Upon an If is replete with practical advice drawn from scholarly research, richly informed by classroom experience. Worley has an enviable…

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Filed under Education, Guest Blogger, Michelle Sowey, Philosophy in Schools

Mine Do It Already: Nought To Reasoning In 60 Seconds

Are your children reasoning in the lesson? Not sure? Or maybe you want to prove that they are?

Here is a simple activity that is fun for the children and shows you – or anyone else – how they are reasoning. Before I go on to explain it, it may be useful to give a definition of reasoning that we can use here – just so we know what we are talking about.

Reasoning is described this way by ACARA, the Australian curriculum authority:
‘Students are reasoning mathematically when they explain their thinking, when they deduce and justify strategies used and conclusions reached, when they adapt the known to the unknown, when they transfer learning from one context to another, when they prove that something is true or false and when they compare and contrast related ideas and explain their choices.’

A simpler, neater, definition is that when we reason, we use information that we already have to prove information that we don’t have. So, for example, we use DNA evidence to reason that someone must be guilty. We use the lengths of a polygon’s sides to calculate its area.

It also helps to define something negatively – in this case, to say what is NOT reasoning. And here are some examples:


Not that those things are bad in themselves. Sometimes we have to guess to get started. Sometime the best thing to do in a given situation is just copy someone who seems to know what to do. And sometimes it is great to realise that you know the answer because you remember it from before. That’s all fine. It is just that where we rely on these strategies we are not, at that point, reasoning.

Here is the activity…

The simplest way to explain is to say that it’s 20 Questions, but with numbers. So 20 Questions goes like this:
• One individual thinks of a type of object at random – such as ‘chair’.
• The rest of the group can ask him/her questions. The individual will only answer Yes or No.
• If the group can guess the word in 20 questions or less they defeat the individual.

For maths, the individual thinks of a number instead of an object. Usually I say it has to be between 0 and 100. With Year 2 or lower, you might want to set it at 1-20. Also, instead of a limit to the number of questions, our goal is to get the answer in the lowest number of questions, improving our score with practice.

If you play this game you will be able to see the reasoning of your class and the people in it. At primary level, the person who finally guesses the answer often wants to claim maximum credit from the others even though he or she may have contributed very little to the hunt. That is a sign that reasoning – using reasons to move from one question to the next – is not taking place, at least with that person.

Between each game, I ask the children to say which questions were good and why (so it’s a good idea to write the questions, or short forms of them, on the board as you go). At the beginning, some may say that ‘Is it 17?’ was the best question because the answer was 17. But gradually the children will start to spot that the final shot was the easy one as all the other numbers had been eliminated. And if not enough numbers have been eliminated then glory-seeking stabs in the dark like ‘Is it 17?’ are a waste of a question (unless the questioner happens to get lucky). The class often takes a while to articulate the idea that a good question ‘narrows it down’. In other words, it reduces the possibilities to a narrower range.

Children also fail to realise, to begin with, that a ‘No’ answer is not worse than a ‘Yes’ answer, necessarily. If you ask ‘Is it an odd number?’, then either a Yes or No answer gives you exactly the same amount of help. And there are some Yes answers that tell you very little. For example, if you ask ‘Is it a two-digit number?’ the answer will probably be ‘Yes’ but it doesn’t get you far because you still have so many possibilities left. Now, you may still feel that ‘Is it a two-digit number?’ is a pleasing answer for you the teacher, because it shows the children recruiting prior knowledge to apply to the task (i.e. they’ve been learning about one/two/three-digit numbers, have remembered it, and are trying to apply that knowledge here). I couldn’t agree more, so you may want to praise some questions while preparing to nudge the questioner towards a more effective strategy.

After a few runs through, I ask the children if they can come up with a strategy that will always get them the answer in a set number of questions – so, can they guarantee to get the answer in 10 questions, or 5? Children then explain their strategies and we try them out. This is crucial because they are now thinking about their reasoning.

Most classes latch onto 0-50 as the first question before long. Either that or ‘Is it even/odd?’. However, it can go in two ways from there. Usually, you have two different strategies being used within the class. For example, after ‘Is it between 1 and 50?’ with the answer No, we might get:

Is it odd? Yes
Is it between 50 and 75? Yes
Is it in the 3-times table? No

Now it is quite hard from here to work out which numbers that leaves. Try it yourself! It’s better to stick to one strategy. So:

‘Is it between 0-50?’ halves the possibilities should be followed by a question that halves what’s left in a predictable, memorable, way. So if the answer was No, then the next question should be either 50-75 or 75-100, and so on, halving each time. For example:

0-50? No
50-75? Yes
50-62? Yes
50-56? No
56-59? Yes
56-57? No
58? No
The only remaining number is 59.

Using the ‘halving’ method outlined above, the class should be able to guarantee to find any number within 7 or 8 questions. You may able to refine this further. I’ve only had a couple of classes who got that far (I generally teach primary).

When I’m playing the game, though, I’m content for the children to circle gradually closer to a strategy like this, and don’t worry if they never quite nail it. What I’m interested in is them looking at a task and saying to themselves: ‘How do I make this simple? How do I work steadily towards the answer?’.

One side issue that comes up here is a problem with the edge of the range. For example: is 50 itself between 0 and 50? You might be sure that it is. But imagine if you have a group of children sitting in a row in this order:

Floriana, Luke, Chester, Adibola, Polly.

We wouldn’t say that Floriana is sitting ‘between’ Floriana and Polly (we’d say that Luke, Chester and Steven were). So the word ‘between’ can be applied differently. You can introduce the word ‘inclusive’ here to help the children, (‘Is it between 0 and 50 inclusive?’) and they will have learned a valuable lesson about the definition of a range. In a similar way, by the way, the question ‘Is it below 50?’ doesn’t make it clear (for some children) whether 50 itself should be judged above or below! You could argue that ‘below’ is not ambiguous at all – 49 is below 50; 50 isn’t – and that’s exactly the kind of precision in the use of terms that we want the children to learn.

If, instead of the ‘halving’ method, children try to extend the ‘Is it odd?’ question into a strategy, another set of problems is thrown up. Because to extend that strategy means using times tables:

• Is it odd?
• Is it in the 3xTable?
• Is it in the 4xTable?

This is much harder to operate, and soon challenges the reasoning of the child. For example, if the answer to ‘Is it odd?’ was Yes, then there is no point in then asking if the number is in the 4xTable (or the 6, 8, or 10xTable, come to that) as odd numbers won’t feature in any of those times tables.

Another issue is that it is very hard to know what numbers are left if you eliminate them through timestables. You could do it with a number line or square, crossing out the eliminated numbers, but few of us could do it in our heads.

And finally, and most fascinating, is that if the person choosing has chosen a prime number, then it is not in any times tables – except of course its own. So you’d have to wait until you got to ‘Is it in the 97xTable?’ to eliminate 97.

All of these knotty problems are rich pickings for reasoning. Lead the children again and again back to a discussion of their strategies. Do that by asking ‘What did the answer to that question tell you?’ to develop the children’s logical thinking. Try not to jump in and tell them – stick to questions. If you feel they’re falling short of what you’d hope, just keep encouraging them – that’s more valuable than getting them to the best strategy fast. After all, it’s only a game – not a SAT.

Trust me, you can spend a whole hour on trying to crack this. Alternatively, you can use it to warm up/down at the beginnings or endings of lessons or weeks. Just remember that its main value as a teaching tool – rather than a mere time-filler – is in developing awareness of reasons, and how a chain of reasoning can solve a problem.

Once they have exhausted the possibilities of this game, you could try some of the games on the NRICH website. I particularly like Strike It Out
…and Got It – where the whole class can play against the computer

I am indebted to Peter Worley at The Philosophy Foundation for showing me this game, and Andy West (also TPF) who reminded me of its value.

For more on how to introduce Enquiry into your set of teaching skills, try my book The Numberverse: How Numbers Are Bursting Out Of Everything And Just Want To Have Fun.

You can also buy it here:

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Filed under Education, Maths, Philosophy in Schools