Students Facilitate Philosophical Conversations Among K-12 Students

While the Philosophy for Children (P4C) adjunct class may seem like a regular philosophy class for Colorado College students, it is so much more than that. This class teaches CC students how to facilitate meaningful conversation among K-12 students, using age-appropriate tools, which helps to develop their communication and critical thinking skills.

“I believe helping young people ask good questions, think critically, communicate clearly, and listen respectfully, which are the primary goals of P4C, is important for civil society and human flourishing. I doubt democracy can survive without citizens with such capacities,” says Steve Kern, who instructs the class along with Alberto Hernández-Lemus ’87, associate professor of philosophy.

Students can repeat the adjunct class for credit and are referred to as “veterans.” Veteran students are expected to facilitate discussion in a local school under Kern and the local partner-teacher’s guidance. There were eight students who took this adjunct class last fall, and four of them are taking it again.

While many people engage in philosophical discussions, even without realizing it, Kern feels that it is not always cultivated or encouraged. “In fact, formal education can sometimes blunt the curiosity that fuels a spirit of philosophical inquiry,” Kern says.

Kern, Hernández-Lemus, and students begin most P4C initiatives in schools with a stimulus, such as a piece of art or picture book, which the kids are genuinely interested in. Students are then invited to raise their own questions and express their opinions with the facilitator. The facilitator does not lecture or explain, and instead limits his or her comments to asking clarifying questions or making brief comments to keep the conversation going among the students.

“A good picture book, say, often raises questions about fairness, or friendship, or right versus wrong, and, ultimately, a successful P4C discussion will move in a natural way from the particular stimulus to these broader, more abstract, philosophical concerns. Philosophy for Children is not about teaching children about philosophy, but instead about doing philosophy with them in a student-centered format,” Kern says.

“I had an absolute blast taking P4C last semester which is why I was so excited to take it again this semester,” says Jaxon Hoskinson ’24, a veteran student in the class.

Hoskinson’s favorite parts of the class are the in-class facilitation and discussions among the CC students, and being able to co-facilitate a discussion in a local school. The in-class discussions are modeled around the style of discussion they use with students in local schools, which gives the CC students a chance to practice before going into schools.

“While that is modeled for the children we work with, it does an amazing job opening up our own discussions, and despite being an adjunct, P4C has the best discussions I've had at CC,” says Hoskinson, who double majors in political science and philosophy.

Students in the course are required to attend weekly class sessions, where they learn about the theory and practice of P4C. Additionally, students design their own P4C activities and practice on each other during these sessions.

“Such experiences reawaken in CC students their own sense of wonder and love of ‘big questions’ without having to employ the technical jargon or conceptual density of some professional philosophy,” says Kern.

Hoskinson’s other favorite part of the class is the visits to local schools to watch facilitations and facilitate discussions themselves. Last semester, Hoskinson went to Steele Elementary School to observe Hernández-Lemus facilitate discussions several times, and at the end of the semester, he was able to co-facilitate a discussion there.

“My students absolutely loved their time with Alberto. They were engaged and benefited from opportunities to practice conversational and higher-level thinking skills. Making the time for these deeper, more thoughtful conversations was a gift. They looked forward to P4C time and were always excited to see what the next session would bring,” says Kristen Fuller, regarding the P4C discussions with her third-grade class at Steele Elementary School last fall, facilitated by Hernández-Lemus.

At the start of the year, Fuller works with her students on numerous skills, many of which are critical for P4C discussions, such as active listening and respectfully disagreeing.

This semester, Hoskinson, along with the other veteran students, will be in charge of facilitating a class at Steele Elementary School during Blocks 6 and 7.

“We allow the students to share their own thoughts and questions about a topic and let them be in the drivers’ seat of the discussion. We hope that this gives them confidence to ask questions and wonder about the things they are learning in the rest of the time in school. One of the biggest benefits is the way it helps them build discussion skills. By the end of the last semester, I was watching almost entirely autonomous discussion between third graders where they were asking follow up questions to their peers, agreeing and disagreeing respectfully with one another, returning to points previously made in the discussion, and providing evidence for why they think what they do,” Hoskinson says.

Last spring, Kern facilitated P4C discussions with Hannah Joiner’s class at Chipeta Elementary School on Wednesdays, which the fifth graders soon began calling “Steve Day.”

“I saw my students grow in their speaking and listening skills; they grappled with some really tough topics like driverless cars and ethical dilemmas. It helped them learn to ask relevant and high-level questions. It gave them a chance to engage in a highly intellectual activity without the constraints of written assignments, due dates, and required reading. It was undoubtedly a highlight of their year,” says Joiner.

P4C was an incredibly positive experience for Joiner’s students. Kern will return to Joiner’s class at Chipeta this spring, and some of Joiner’s students from last year, who are now sixth graders, are hoping to go back to her classroom to join in on the P4C discussions.

“They absolutely loved the chance to help steer the discussions. That's the beauty of P4C; the teacher is the facilitator, rather than the leader. Not a day went by where there wasn't laughter and joy as a result of our discussions! Students regularly commented on how our talks really made their brains work harder. I always followed up with parents by sending an email that recapped the day's discussion and highlights. Many parents wrote back, saying how they wished they themselves could've participated in something like this when they were students,” says Joiner.

There are P4C initiatives in many parts of the world, often associated with colleges, universities, or other academic organizations. However, there is no centralized authorizing body that oversees or otherwise sponsors P4C initiatives.

“Philosophy for Children is a de-centralized movement, very entrepreneurial,” says Kern. “There is a lot of variety in approaches. Ultimately, we’re linked by the belief that children can – and should – have philosophical conversations. There are periodic conferences and many websites that can provide informal support, but it’s up to local people to decide how to make it work.”

Several P4C participants mentioned the benefit of having an extended P4C experience, rather than having just a few sessions. Typically, sessions last 45-60 minutes and occur once a week for several months, as building rapport is important. This spring, Kern will try five sessions on consecutive days at Chipeta.  

“In order to have more meaningful discussions, norms need to be established and practiced; this takes time. I found that as the weeks went on, the students were increasingly more engaged and animated in our discussions. Not only were the discussions during P4C richer over time, I saw the students utilizing many of the strategies and skills required in these higher-level discussions during our regular lessons, including literature discussions. They were, without being explicitly asked, applying their newfound skills in a different arena,” says Joiner. “Isn't that ultimately the goal of education?”

“Before P4C, I had not worked with elementary school kids, but I must say, it is truly a joy! They are still so curious, so engaged, so willing to ask questions, to wonder – when effectively encouraged,” says Kern, who retired from high school teaching in 2017 after 34 years. For most of that time, he was an English teacher in the IB Diploma program at Palmer High School.

“As an education minor, I got a lot of experience learning about the current education system from various perspectives; however, it wasn't until I took Philosophy of Education that I really began to think more deeply about the purpose of education and what it means to be educated. I think that learning how to think philosophically is an incredibly valuable skill set, and whilst taking that Phil Ed course, I only wished that I had begun this process of really interrogating the institutions which shape and determine our behavior,” says Linden Heffelfinger ’23, who is auditing the class due to traveling abroad during Block 7. “Hence, when Professor Kern came to our class to advertise this adjunct, I was compelled by the idea of facilitating philosophical dialogue with young people who are naturally so curious and creative and, possibly, less jaded than those of us who have become more accustomed to the ‘banking method’ of education.”

“Philosophy broke my mind many times! We talked about what makes us curious. I am glad we talked about what makes us feel awe for something,” an elementary school student who participated in weekly P4C discussions said.

Report an issue - Last updated: 03/23/2023