Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Tricky Parts of P4C(?)

One of CEWC-Cymru's P4C Level 1 Trainers, Martin Pollard writes for our latest blog update; reflecting on the role of facilitator and the challenges we sometimes face.

During my Level 1 courses, I often ask trainees to consider a range of scenarios that they might face while facilitating philosophical enquiries in the classroom. One of these scenarios – based on a real situation that I observed in a primary school in Cumbria – is the following:

Pupil A: I saw a thing on TV that said we all come from apes, and it took millions of years, so God can’t have created the world in 7 days.
Pupil B: Yeah, but it says in the Bible that he did. And the Bible is the truth, isn’t it?

I find this a helpful means to explore the idea of truth, and that interesting area of tension between belief, faith and reason. Both pupils in this snippet are holding something to be true. One appears to be a scientific truth, the other a religious truth. In this sense they may both be seen as ‘right’; and neither is ‘wrong’ in a purely logical sense.

But let’s push this idea a little further. At a recent course, I suggested to my fellow enquirers that perhaps their reaction as a teacher/facilitator to this brief dialogue might depend on the context in which they encountered it. For example, they might nudge the discussion differently in a Science lesson (where evolution is of major importance) or a Religious Studies lesson (where accounts of creation can lead to fascinating discussions of a different sort). Shouldn’t we maintain some kind of distinction?

Several colleagues felt that I was wrong: P4C is all about open-ended discussion, they pointed out, and it is not up to the facilitator to judge the ‘truth’ of any particular statement or belief. It would be stifling children’s creativity and search for understanding if we closed off a particular line of enquiry.

I agree with that as a general statement, but I am less certain about its wisdom when applied to the world as we know it. It is, after all, simply not the case, that “every opinion is as valid as any other”. On a facile level, I might hold the opinion that “everybody in the world hates the colour blue”; it’s an opinion I am entitled to hold, but it is clearly false. On a more philosophical level, it would be pretty difficult to argue that “it is a moral duty to torture other people”. Simply put, some ideas work better than others – and it is part of the facilitator’s duty to help young people understand the various merits or drawbacks of what they say. (Not all the time, of course – creative flights of fancy are useful alongside hard-edged critical thinking.)

Turning back to our initial discussion, it would certainly be justified to discuss both evolution and creation in terms of a question like “Where did we come from?” or “Did God make us?” But that does not mean that we should treat the scientific theory of evolution and the religious belief in creation as equal and opposite. There is the obvious point that many scientists believe in God, and that most Christians (for example) are happy to accommodate evolution within their religious beliefs. In addition, “We evolved from apes” and “God created us” are simply different kinds of statement. There is no such thing as ‘the science of religion’ (religious people do not need their faith to be proved experimentally); nor is there such a thing as ‘creation science’, no matter how much some fundamentalist Christians would like there to be.

More pointedly on the scientific side, though, I feel that it is a teacher’s duty not to cast doubt on something as real and well evidenced as the theory of evolution. Certainly there may be a place for the doubters’ voices – but would we really be doing our job as facilitators if, in the quest for philosophical openness, we simply let those points stand as equal in validity? In the world-as-we-know-it, evolutionary biology is, to all intents and purposes, scientific fact. There is no serious disagreement over gradual evolution as a description of how species develop and diverge. In this way, it is similar to climate change – where science teachers now have an equally important duty in highlighting the 99% of scientists who believe that humans have brought about the change, rather than the 1% who don’t – except that the theory is now more than 150 years old.

Philosophy – or at least the kind that helps us become more reasonable people, contributing positively to society – should not take place in a vacuum of conceptual arguments, divorced from the real world. In a P4C enquiry, it may be inappropriate for the facilitator to say “You’re wrong”, but it is entirely appropriate at times to say something like: “But don’t some people think differently?" Or, in my view, to go further and introduce some hard-and-fast fact about the world (“But almost every scientist supports the theory of evolution”) as a stimulus for further discussion and reflection. Let’s not allow our wonder and excitement at young people’s ideas to outweigh their need to develop the rational tools of philosophical investigation.

Free P4C Resource:

Wiser Wales highly recommends the Google Logo Animation 23.11.11 created to mark the  60th anniversary of Polish science fiction author, Stanlislaw Lem's  first book, The Astronauts.
"Stanlislaw Lem's work looks at the relationship between technology and mankind, questioning the motives behind creating such technology. A theme that becomes increasingly relevant in our current age," said Emma Hayley, publishing director at SelfMadeHero. (Source: Guardian Newspaper 23.11.11)


  1. Thanks for this post. I totally agree with Martin's comments. I don't think philosophical inquiry is the same thing as 'anything goes'. We are failing young people if we facilitate in a wishy-washy 'all opinions are of equal value' way. I think it is really important that we challenge young people to reflect on their assumptions and perspectives. I think P4C and critical literacy are great bedfellows, as they have been linked in the Open Space for Dialogue and Enquiry project:

  2. Hi

    I am currently embarking on a research project at my uni as part of my PGCE.

    Having encountered P4C at a school I used to work at as a HLTA, I decided that this would make an interesting topic for research.

    However, I am still deciding on what 'problem' to research.

    One aspect that interested me at the aforementioned school was that it was hard to 'delve deeper' in enquiries as the children there were entrenced in their religious beliefs.

    Unfortunately (from my point of view as a facilitator), it meant that the search for truth was always self-defeating within the community because nearly all the pupils had the 'truth' instilled in them from an early age.

    I am interested to hear what your views are with regards to this. I can't shirk the feeling that faith is a barrier to philosophical enquiry, based on this experience. And funnily enough, your blog is the only mention of the impact of P4C on RE (and vice versa) that i've come across!!