The Case for Philosophical Inquiry in K-12 Classrooms

Image of Dr. Britta Jensen
Image: Dr Britta Jensen is a linguist, philosopher, and educator with experience teaching at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. She has expertise in philosophy of language, syntax, linguistics, logic, and language acquisition.
Image of Kate Kennedy White
Image: Kate Kennedy White is a dedicated philosophy teacher in a public primary school and an accredited teacher trainer in Philosophy with Children methodology.


The terms inquiry and critical thinking appear in syllabus documents throughout the country. The Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority(ACARA) identifies creative and critical thinking as one of seven cross-curricular (K-12) general capabilities. As such, creative and critical thinking (CCT) is recognised as part of an essential skill set needed for living and working successfully in the 21st century. According to ACARA, the development of students’ thinking tools is as important as content delivery. However, ACARA does not endorse any particular methodology or offer suggestions as to how to teach CCT or how to promote thinking tools. There is growing support for the use of philosophy in the classroom to achieve these ends. After all, philosophical inquiry lends itself to the careful examination of abstract topics, including the study of meaning and logical reasoning.

Philosophy for children has an enviable track record for promoting higher order thinking in children. This is a tried-and-true methodology that has been implemented across all ages, across all key learning areas (KLAs), and in several countries. Furthermore, using the strategies of philosophic inquiry promotes collaborative classroom dialogue and contributes to ethical understanding as well. Interestingly, there is also some correlation between pedagogical strategies used in philosophical inquiry and those identified by Hattie as having a significant impact on student achievement (>0.4 effect size).These include meta-cognitive strategies (0.69), self-verbalisation and self-questioning (0.64), problem solving teaching (0.61) and cooperative learning (0.54).

… philosophy involves converting the classroom into a community of cooperative inquiry, where all are democratically entitled to be heard, where each learns from the other, and where the spoken dialogue among the members of the class, when internalized and rendered an inner forum in the mind of each participant, is the basis of the process known as thinking.

Matthew Lipman, Philosophy Goes to School

We would like to share our experience using philosophical inquiry with Australian primary and secondary students and illustrate how using philosophical methods in the classroom supports students’ development of CCT.

Thinking skills should be explicitly taught and practiced

Just as we learn to speak and read, we also learn to think. Speaking and reading are explicitly scaffolded and nurtured in the classroom and we ought to dedicate time to nurturing thinking tools as well. In doing so, learners become self-critical and aware of prejudices and assumptions.

In order to engage with philosophical inquiry, learners must be able to formulate and engage with interesting (divergent) questions. Being able to pose and critically examine questions is a complex task and requires several discrete skills. What are these thinking skills? Here is a short (non-exhaustive) list:

  • discriminate between types of questions
  • compose conceptual (divergent) questions
  • give reasons (to justify)
  • make distinctions, suggestions and inferences
  • define concepts and test their definitions
  • hypothesise
  • examine generalisations
  • identify (underlying) assumptions
  • use examples and counterexamples
  • create and test criteria.

Through explicit introduction and subsequent practice, students become familiar with and eventually use the metalanguage of thought. For instance, they demonstrate skills in classifying types of questions using the Question Quadrant and identifying the ‘big questions’. They use metalanguage to reflect on their thinking moves, and they become aware of the moves of their peers. As a consequence, they become more rigorous in their thinking and display awareness of prejudices, generalisations and assumptions when presenting an argument. In short, they begin to think about their thinking. As teachers, we should take care in developing the language of thought in our classrooms, just as we explicitly teach grammatical metalanguage to our English students.

What is the link between critical inquiry and philosophy?

Arguably, the best way to promote students’ knowledge, understanding and skills relating to critical thinking is to draw upon the tools and methodology of philosophy. There is a long-standing connection between philosophy and thinking. In recent history, philosophers and educators such as John Dewey, Matthew Lipman and Philip Cam have adapted philosophical methods and thinking strategies for engaging school children (Cam, 2006). This interactive methodology, known as a community of inquiry, (COI) has been readily taken up in many corners of the globe, including schools in the United States, Britain, Europe, Turkey, South America, Asia and Australia, among others. Where it has been implemented, inquiry has proven to be a valuable and versatile methodology for implementing dialogic and reflective classroom talk, thereby explicitly meeting the criteria for syllabus outcomes across a range of stages and KLAs, for example, the outcomes relating to reflecting on learning in Objective E of the English K-10 syllabus.

Successful engagement with inquiry not only yields desirable academic outcomes but it also results in positive community-building effects including an increase in respect and tolerance (D’Olimpio, 2014; Jensen, 2013).

Cam and colleagues have successfully implemented philosophy lessons for primary students using inquiry methods throughout Australasia. The Federation of Australasian Philosophy in Schools Association (FAPSA) oversees teacher training in philosophic inquiry and community of inquiry methodology. Some public primary schools in Sydney now have philosophy-trained specialist teachers who engage students on a weekly basis using communities of inquiry.

Lessons typically begin with the presentation of a stimulus, for instance a picture book, a passage of text, or a short clip. Children are prompted to volunteer what they found puzzling or interesting about the stimulus. From this a whole class discussion ensues relating to the great themes of literature and life, such as:

  • What is fair?
  • How should we treat one another?
  • What is equality?
  • Are words as powerful as action?

Children learn how to question, how to examine a question, how to contribute to a discussion, how to refine ideas in accordance with new information, and how to reason. Importantly, children also learn how to respectfully disagree because the focus is explicitly on taking issue with a claim rather than taking issue with a person.

Philosophy in English lessons

Some samples of classroom dialogue and individual written work by students in philosophy-driven English lessons with Stages 1, 2, and 4 is showcased below. It is impressive that even students as young as Stage 1 can capably use thinking tools and the metalanguage of thought.

Child drawing.. Questioning the concept, do animals have human feelings
Child drawing. Reflection texts from stage 1, types of love

Philosophy in a Stage 1 English class

In response to a visual text depicting a mother and baby panda, a student asked, the question: do animals love each other? This particular class had been engaged on a weekly basis with philosophy since starting school and were accustomed to the rigour of a community of inquiry(COI). They spontaneously started a dialogue (EN1-1A) using a range of interactive pedagogical strategies.

A table with two columns. Child comment, thinking move

An unedited part of that dialogue is shown in the first column of the table above. The thinking moves automatically applied by the students in the right column have been identified.

Working within a COI, these students were practicing interaction skills and noting how their own communication adjusted to different situations (EN1-1A). They responded to a visual text about a familiar aspect of their world, shared their own experiences (EN1-11D) and discussed aspects of their own and others’ learning (EN1-12E).

The lesson ended with each child drawing or writing a personal reflection (EN1-10C) on the question. This was made into a class book. The poster remains in the classroom and the dialogue has never stopped. It is clear from this example that philosophical inquiry provides an excellent opportunity for students to engage in rich learning that integrates a variety of syllabus content, modes and skills.

Philosophy in a Stage 2 English class

The class novel for the term was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, a story about a china rabbit who was loved and lost for many years. Year 3 had been practicing philosophic inquiry for three years and by now automatically used the learnt skills to ask open ended questions and to map the shared dialogue when exploring abstract concepts. On this particular day, the students were writing a reflection on the novel. Jackson (name changed) was described as a student who found difficulty concentrating and completing tasks, yet this day he was so deeply absorbed in his writing that he continued despite a lesson change. Later, he asked if he could share his reflection with the class. This is it.

Reflecting on lost love: how children see it

Image of children responses to questions on love

Using a COI within the English classroom not only promotes dialogic, interactive classroom talk, it also provides a forum for students to collaborate in an imaginative, creative, and interpretive manner when responding to and composing texts (EN2-10C). Within the collaborative and reflective community of inquiry, students explored viewpoints of the world similar to and different from their own (EN2-11D).

Philosophy in a Stage 4 English class

In certain respects, Stage 4 is comparable to Stage 1 in that the majority of students at the beginning of their school career have not encountered philosophy in the classroom. Most students in this particular Year 7 class had no prior experience with philosophy or philosophical inquiry. Scaffolding the tools of thought can yield fruitful results even after one term.

In a term-long unit on heroes, Year 7 began with the Oxford English Dictionary definition for hero. First, we ‘problematised the definition. Did it cover all examples? Did it include all heroes? Did it exclusively identify all heroes? What about women? We identified and revised a set of characteristics that are common to all heroes (establishing and testing criteria). Throughout the ten-week unit, alongside reading and viewing texts, which explored the lives (and journeys) of various real and fictitious heroes, students revisited and refined their personal definition for ‘hero’. Literature lessons were interwoven with Harvard University’s Visible thinking routines such as See, think, wonder to hone students’ understanding of description and implication (Harvard, 2014). This series of lessons promoted students’ creative and critical thinking about ideas and arguments in response to texts (EN4-5C) and within these lessons, students explored connections between and among texts (EN4-6C).

In their final projects, students showed great creativity and insight as a result of the ongoing explicit engagement with philosophical inquiry, including establishing and testing the definition of hero throughout a term. For instance, several students chose to create a

Hero-themed board game as a demonstration of their understanding of the concept of heroes. A game board and a selection of some of the insightful question cards the students made are illustrated below.

image of a Hero-themed board game

Typically, it is the teachers who generate divergent questions of this type. With just one term of philosophical inquiry, students themselves were beginning to pose insightful questions such as these and debate the possible answers. Any one of the questions above could lead to a robust and lively philosophical discussion.

Enriching student learning across the curriculum

Philosophical methodology lends itself to implementing the English curriculum, but philosophic inquiry can be used in any discipline (Kennedy White, 2013). For instance, it can stimulate students to think mathematically, as working within a community of inquiry provides the time to stand back, re-examine and challenge the habitual understanding of a mathematical concept (number, time, etcetera).

Equally, the tools and practice of philosophic inquiry can support history and science. Rigorous exploration of history demands that students ask relevant questions, critically analyse and interpret sources, and develop and substantiate interpretations. The discourse in a science classroom is markedly enhanced when students use the tools of philosophic inquiry to collaboratively challenge themselves to identify questions and draw conclusions. See the Values and attitudes area of Science K-10 and the text by Tim Sprod (2011), which provides more detail on using inquiry to enrich the teaching of science in the middle years.

Within the library context, philosophical inquiry equips students for meaningful engagement with Guided Inquiry because thinking tools are prerequisite to the path toward information fluency. The beginning of the process of research within Guided Inquiry is to establish and define the research topic or question. For students of philosophy, this is familiar territory. According to Carron and Choi (2013), expectations for secondary students include capabilities to:

  • express big ideas in relation to their inquiry (Stage 4)
  • develop and refine research topic, problem or question independently (Stage 5)
  • investigate problems or questions for which there are multiple answers or no best answer (Stage 6).

Students with training in thinking tools, via philosophical inquiry, can confidently engage with these research challenges.

At present, some Australian schools include philosophical inquiry in select KLAs or with select populations (such as gifted and talented students.) Imagine the conceptual advances (and the increase in CCT) that would ensue when a whole school takes on board philosophical inquiry across all KLAs. Indeed there are success stories of this type in Australia (Buranda State School; Mergler, Curtis, & Spooner-Lane, 2009). Buranda is living proof of the vision expressed in Cam (2010) that philosophical inquiry could become the ‘connective tissue that would enable the different parts of the curriculum to form a more effective whole’.

Given the cross-curricular utility of philosophical methods, and the emphasis on CCT across all subject areas, it would make sense to include training in philosophical inquiry, (including communities of inquiry) in pre-service teacher education. Queensland University of Technology has spearheaded this initiative (Mergler et al., 2009). Experienced teachers may also seek training in philosophical methods as part of their ongoing professional development. Information about FAPSA approved and New South Wales Institute of Teachers (NSWIT) accredited workshops and courses can be found through Kinder Philosophy.

Engagement with philosophy encourages children to become lifelong inquirers.

References and further reading

Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2014, Critical and creative thinking, accessed 15 January 2018.

Buranda State School 2014, Philosophy in school, Buranda State School accessed 15 January 2018.

Cam, P. 2006, ‘Philosophy and the school curriculum: some general remarks’, Critical and creative thinking, Vol. 14, No 1, pp. 35-51.

Cam, P. 2010, ‘Philosophy for a thinking curriculumPhilosophy in schools NSW, accessed 15 January 2018.

Carron, A. & Choi, C. 2013, Information fluency framework, unpublished internal document, Newington College.

D’Olimpio, L. 2014, Why children should study philosophy, The conversation, accessed 15 January 2018.

Harvard School of Education 2014, See think wonder, Visible thinking, accessed 15 January 2018.

Jensen, B. 2013, 21st century teachers should promote thoughtful dialogue: we should establish and sustain communities of inquiry. Poster presented at Department of Education Knowledge Fair, Macquarie University.

Kennedy White, K. 2013, How to embed philosophy into the crowded curriculum. Talk presented at the Australasian Conference on Philosophy for Children, Sydney and International Conference of Philosophy in Schools, South Africa.

Lipman, M., Sharp, M., & Oscanyan, F. 1980, Philosophy in the classroom, Temple University Press, Philadelphia.

Mergler, A.G., Curtis, E.M., & Spooner-Lane, R.S. 2009, ‘Teacher educators embrace philosophy: reflections on a new way of looking at preparing pre-service teachers’. The Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 34, no. 5, pp. 1-14.

Scholl, R. 2009, The question quadrant: a stimulus for a negotiated curriculum, accessed 15 January 2018.

Sprod, T. 2011, Discussions in science: promoting conceptual understanding in the middle school years, ACER Press, Camberwell.

Waack, S. 2014, Hattie ranking: influences and effect sizes related to student achievement, Visible Learning, accessed 15 January 2018.

Keywords: philosophy, critical thinking, creative thinking, thinking strategies, questioning, English

How to cite this article: Jensen, B. & Kennedy White, K. 2014, ‘The case for philosophical inquiry in K-12 classrooms’, Scan 33(2)

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