Cognitive Modifiability in South African Classrooms: The Stories for Thinking Project

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Cognitive Modifiability in South African Classrooms: The Stories for Thinking Project

Lena Green

This chapter presents a strategy for the enhancement of children's cognitive functioning based on the work of the philosopher, Matthew Lipman. It explains and discusses Lipman's approach and compares it with that of Feuerstein and his colleagues. It then describes the adaptation of Lipman's ideas to accommodate the current contexts and needs of teachers in South Africa, and the application and empirical evaluation of these modified learning materials in selected classrooms. The final section discusses the value and challenges of this type of intervention.


This chapter describes an approach to cognitive modifiability that emanates not from psychology and education but from the discipline of philosophy. It describes the Philosophy for Children program designed by the philosopher, Matthew Lipman (1988; 1991; 1993), and explains and discusses two key characteristics, namely, the classroom community of inquiry and the use of story texts to stimulate thinking. It briefly reviews international applications and research findings before discussing work with teachers in South Africa who are experimenting with some of Lipman's ideas within a project entitled “Stories for Thinking.”

Although he might find the label “cognitive modifiability” unfamiliar, Lipman shares with Feuerstein and Vygotsky the belief that children (and adults) learn how to use the cognitive abilities made possible by the human brain and nervous system. His program is a mediational tool the aim of which is “not to turn children into philosophers or decision-makers, but to help them become more thoughtful, more reflective, more considerate, more reasonable individuals” (Lipman, Sharp & Oscanyan, 1977, pp. 69–70).

The materials he developed were designed to be used within a standard framework, but are far from prescriptive. The facilitator is responsible for ensuring that children's genuine interests are reflected in discussions, and for drawing attention to the philosophical dimensions of their questions. In addition he or she must help children to acquire and practice the thinking tools used by philosophers as they attempt to clarify difficult issues through dialogue. Lipman would agree with Feuerstein that the role of the human mediator is central to the process, particularly in the early stages, and that the mediator's ultimate aim is to become superfluous.

Lipman believes that even young children do wonder about serious philosophical questions and are capable of reflecting upon them. It is worth noting that he first maintained this at a time when psychology in North America and Europe was dominated by Piagetian stage theory. He argued in the 1970s that engaging in philosophical conversations, or “doing philosophy” enhances children's thinking ability and is a vital part of their education. It was, in fact, his observation that children in North American schools were not being taught to think that prompted him to develop the program. Lipman's materials are not specifically designed to mediate underdeveloped cognitive functions with children who are struggling with academic demands, but to enable all children and young people to acquire the cognitive tools that promote the development of communities of reasonable, caring persons. He would argue, however, that if schools and classrooms become such communities, academic functioning is more than likely to benefit, and there is some research evidence to support this assertion.


Philosophy for Children program consists of a set of story books for children and young people aged between approximately six and seventeen.

The chapters in each storybook are planned to be used in sequence over a school year and each text is accompanied by a substantial manual for the teacher. The content consists of everyday happenings in the lives of a group of North American school children. The same children feature throughout one book, displaying their personal characters and cognitive styles over time. Individual chapters portray the children reacting to either direct experience or incidents that they observe or hear about. Teachers or parents sometimes, but not always, take part in their conversations. The content of the stories is not philosophical in itself, but designed to raise questions that have their roots in issues that are the traditional concern of philosophers.

The standard format for a Philosophy for Children class begins with the shared reading aloud of the story. The ideal context is a circle of teacher and children, each with his or her own text, taking turns to read. When this is not possible, a teacher or pupil can read the chapter, or part of a chapter, depending on the needs of a particular group. Thereafter it should be established that everyone understands the story. The next step is to construct an agenda for discussion. The teacher asks the children to generate questions that the story raises for them. At this point there may be small group discussions or pairs work or an individual task, as the teacher sees fit. The texts are designed to reflect issues thought to be of interest to children and young people and to tap into their genuine concerns, thus motivating engagement in discussion. Each proposed question is listed where everyone can see it, together with the name of the person who asked it, thus emphasizing personal ownership of the desire to understand something. The group then decides together whether some questions can be combined, or rephrased, and in what order they will be addressed. The subsequent discussion takes the form of a classroom community of inquiry. The teacher uses the manual to suggest possible questions if the children are slow to do so, but needs to be careful not to impose topics that are not of intrinsic interest to them. The manual also supplies a number of exercises or activities from which the teacher may select if the discussion seems to be losing focus or energy. The manuals are rich sources of ideas and activities but provide no direct guidelines for teachers, who are expected to make judgments about what is appropriate in particular contexts. Finally, the teacher may decide to link the philosophy lesson to other aspects of the curriculum, of which language and literature are the most obvious, but by no means the only, possibilities.


The notion of a community of inquiry is central to what Lipman hopes to accomplish by having children “do philosophy.” He maintains that through participation in a classroom community of inquiry children learn to think for themselves and become more effective creative, critical and caring thinkers. Lipman (1991) attributes the idea of a community of inquiry to the American philosopher Charles Pierce, who used the term to refer to a community of scientists with a shared interest in pursuing some aspect of knowledge. Sutcliffe (2003) points out that Lipman expands this idea to refer to a group of people responding together in a conversation to some form of common experience in order to generate greater understanding. A community of inquiry is characterized by respect for persons, for truth and for the procedures of inquiry. Any group that hopes to develop over time into a community of inquiry needs to generate and agree to certain ground rules before it can operate.

Respect for persons implies that the opinions of each individual must be carefully heard and understood. If necessary, clarification must be requested. Impatience, humiliation and a dismissive attitude have no place in a community of inquiry, although there may not be agreement. Lipman maintains that the experience of having one's opinion respected, by peers and by adults, develops not only motivation to have and articulate opinions, but also self-esteem. Haynes (2002, p. 134), writing about children's experiences of philosophy, states that “One of the strongest points to emerge in reviews carried out with children is the emphasis they put on having an opportunity to speak, to have their point of view taken seriously,” which seems to support Lipman's claim.

Respect for truth implies that participants are more interested in developing deeper understanding than in being right. They will be prepared to change their minds in the light of well substantiated arguments. They will over time become aware of the criteria they use to establish truth.

Although they may at times wander from the original direction of an inquiry, they will persist in the search for understanding of a particular question, because finding out really matters to them. Clearly many important questions, particularly those of interest to philosophers, do not have simple answers. Understanding can, however, be deepened through becoming aware of the complexities involved. Regular involvement in a community of inquiry develops understanding of a variety of concepts, for example, justice, truth, authority and freedom, and, in addition, cultivates the abilities and dispositions that underlie good judgment. These characteristics are likely to make academic learning more successful and insightful but are ultimately valued by Lipman as qualities essential in citizens of a democracy. He argues not only that philosophical questions are of genuine interest to children (if presented in ways that are meaningful to them), but that this type of question frees children to express opinions because there is no obvious “right answer.” This is not to say that all positions are equally valid, but that all should be considered in a search for the most trustworthy form of understanding. The means to achieve understanding are the procedures of inquiry, or thinking practices, developed by philosophers.

Respect for the procedures of inquiry implies a concern to use the thinking practices employed by philosophers, such as questioning of assumptions, asking for and offering reasons, evaluating reasons, examining inferences, being aware of criteria, and avoiding errors of logical reasoning. Sutcliffe (2003, p. 73) describes typical behaviors in a community of inquiry, such as questioning each other, asking for reasons for beliefs, building on each other's ideas, offering counter-examples to the hypotheses of others, pointing out possible consequences of particular ideas, utilizing specific criteria to make judgments, and cooperating in the development of rational problem-solving techniques. Sharp and Splitter (1995) provide a longer list of thinking practices and Lipman himself (1985) maintains that “thinking skills” is a term that can cover the almost limitless range of thinking activities of which the human mind is capable. The purpose of mediating, through guided practice, the use of the procedures of inquiry is to promote the desire and the capacity to exercise “good judgment” so that it becomes a personal habit (Yos, 2004). Critical thinking is one aspect of “good judgment” but Philosophy for Children is not simply a strategy to develop analytic skills. Lipman emphasizes the interdependence of critical, creative and caring thinking. Emotion and reason, imagination and critical analysis, are not considered to be opposites, but aspects of thinking that interact and influence each other. The story texts offer opportunities to notice this interdependence and the suggested activities in the manuals include creative as well as analytic tasks.

Those familiar with the work of Vygotsky (1962; 1978) will recognize that Lipman's program is a strategy for the acquisition of what Vygotsky would call the “higher mental processes,” and that Lipman makes a number of assumptions with which Vygotsky would agree. Like Vygotsky, Lipman emphasizes the developmental importance of a shared social context and the centrality of language. He anticipates that children who engage in a conversation in a community of inquiry will eventually internalize its procedures and become capable of using them effectively in the conversations with the self that constitute thinking. These procedures, established over time by philosophers as a means to approach truth, are humanly constructed ways of using the mind and can be acquired by each new generation. As a result of his belief in the constructed nature of thinking “skills,” Lipman, like Vygotsky and like Feuerstein and his colleagues (1991), assigns a highly significant role to adult mediation, a position generally assumed to be different from that of Piaget, although there is reason to believe that Piaget might not entirely agree (Piaget, 1971). There is, however, a faintly Piagetian flavor to Lipman's assumption that children, given the necessary thinking tools, can be counted upon to arrive, with their peers, at logically and morally justifiable conclusions. Finally, Lipman, like Vygotsky, Feuerstein and Piaget, emphasizes the importance of the active involvement of the developing individual and of peer interaction.


This is a unique element of Philosophy for Children. Other authors, for example, Fisher (1998) and Haynes (2002), recommend engagement in a community of inquiry using much the same arguments as Lipman. But they suggest various forms of initial stimulus, including pictures, music, novels, drama, and current events. Although not opposed to Lipman's texts, they expand the range of routes towards philosophical discussion in a community of inquiry.

One obvious advantage of specially constructed stories is that they can be tailored in considerable detail to the real contexts and interests of children and young people. It is highly motivating to recognize one's own classroom community in a written text and to find fictional individuals who articulate some of one's own local concerns. The same children feature again and again, displaying over time their personalities and thinking styles, thus offering opportunities for identification. Lipman's stories show the children as real characters with individual thoughts and emotions. His careful attention to the nature of the stimulus material reflects his belief that thinking is motivated by passion, and that reason and emotion are not mutually exclusive, but interdependent, and his faith in the inquiring nature of the human young.

A second advantage is that the texts can be designed to model engagement in a community of inquiry for both children and teachers. In this respect the story texts at times represent classroom communities not as they are, but as they might be. The thoughts of the fictional children tend to be reported with greater clarity than most children would be capable of and their conversations are occasionally rather more formal than is usual. The teachers portrayed are possibly more patient and reasonable than is often the case. Lipman is at pains, however, to maintain a balance between a believable classroom setting and a depiction of what is possible and, on the whole, he succeeds. Children build on each other's ideas but they also abandon conversations; they offer reasons, but not all of their reasons are “good reasons;” they wonder about “deep” questions but they are also fully immersed in the practicalities of everyday life.

Thirdly, specifically created materials make it possible to select and manage the philosophical content. Lipman has ensured that the major issues of concern to philosophers are incorporated across the range of texts. But they do not appear as dry “philosophical issues.” The texts show children and young people wondering, imagining, speculating and asking about questions that have many philosophical implications. But these are not moral tales. Each chapter raises, but does not resolve, a number of issues, many of which reappear in other forms in other places across the set of texts. The group or class reading the stories interprets the text, decides together which of their concerns a particular story has elicited or articulated, and initiates its own exploration, the outcome of which is in no way prescribed.

Many of the Philosophy for Children stories were originally written in the 1970s, which means that they are inevitably a little dated. The lives and concerns of children and young people have changed and the details that originally created verisimilitude are now sometimes inappropriate. Moreover, the stories were intentionally located in the context of North American schooling and were never entirely suitable for other learning contexts, especially in less privileged parts of the world. Nevertheless, many of the issues, even if presented in an unfamiliar context, are still relevant, and children still identify with some of the characters.


As clarified above, Lipman envisages the teacher as a mediator. The topic to be explored arises out of the real interests and concerns of the group. The process of exploration is guided by the teacher, who explains and models thinking practices and reminds learners to practice respect for persons, truth, and the procedures of inquiry. As Sharp and Splitter (1995) note, the teacher's role should gradually diminish as the group becomes a more effective community of inquiry, able to manage itself. In the early stages, the teacher is required to provide considerable structure.

It is also the teacher's responsibility to “nudge” learners from their practical questions towards the philosophical questions that underlie the issues that they raise. According to Lipman, questions that are of ongoing concern to human beings, although they cannot be finally resolved, offer the richest opportunities for developing thinking. It is also worth noting that the introduction of philosophical questions can be very empowering for young participants. Many children and young people assume that knowledge is fixed and in the possession of adults. This approach shows them the limitations of human knowledge and validates their right to hold opinions, as long as they can justify them. Teachers are often tempted at first to use the community of inquiry as an opportunity to instruct. This is not at all what Lipman had in mind. A teacher may ask questions, after the manner of Socrates, but the purpose of the philosophy lessons is to develop in children the ability to arrive at conclusions on their own. The teacher can question the quality of the group's thinking, but is not there to provide the “right answer.”

Besides responsibilities during the actual philosophy lesson, the teacher must plan carefully, anticipate possible scenarios, and be sufficiently familiar with the manual to be able to select exercises depending on how the community of inquiry unfolds in a particular lesson. The manuals do not give explicit instructions to teachers, but trust the judgment of the teacher. Some teachers may feel anxious because there are no definite guidelines. Others may revel in the fact that they have the freedom to “go with the flow” and choose what suits their context and the needs of any particular group. Philosophy for Children emphasizes the rights of both learners and teachers to make choices, something that makes it particularly attractive to education systems in countries that have recently introduced democratic practices. It does not require all teachers to be experienced philosophers, but it does need teachers who are prepared to think for themselves and who have the self-confidence to allow their students to do so. Like any other carefully designed intervention, it is most effective if the teachers who implement it have been fully trained and have adequate support.


Philosophy for Children has been introduced in a number of school districts in the United States and also in Australia, Iceland, South America, the United Kingdom, and various European countries. In Southern Africa there are some isolated pockets of interest, one of which will be discussed in greater detail below. As with any complex educational intervention, it is not easy to evaluate its success. This may partially explain the fact, noted by Mercer (2000), that there is not a great deal of evidence to support or refute the claims made for a classroom community of inquiry. Large scale quantitative studies that impress policy makers and funders tend to be limited in what they can measure with the required degree of certainty. Qualitative findings are often dismissed as “anecdotal.” Quantitative research findings in the United States based on the New Jersey Test of Reasoning Skills (which has been shown to correlate highly with academic achievement) indicate that the program tends to develop reasoning skills and improve academic achievement. Lipman (2002) provides a summary of recent research. The work reported by Camhy and Iberer (1988) with primary and secondary school children, Murris (1994) and Haynes (2002) with primary school children in the United Kingdom, Jackson (2001) with primary school children in Hawaii, Palsson (1996) with primary school children in Iceland, and Sigurthorsdottir (2004) with preschool children in Iceland suggests the range of applications and identifies a number of positive qualitative outcomes, including improvements in reading and growth in self-esteem.

It is increasingly recognized that interventions to enhance thinking are unlikely to succeed if certain conditions are not met. As various authors have pointed out, the Philosophy for Children input must be regular and ongoing over a substantial period of time before it is likely to produce positive effects. Moreover, the success of the approach, as of any initiative to “teach thinking,” depends on the quality and depth of teachers' induction, the extent to which the value of this work is recognized by the education authorities, the curriculum time assigned to it, and teachers' own personal commitment.


The Context

South Africa recently celebrated ten years of democracy after a much longer period of apartheid and authoritarian rule. In those ten years, a new Constitution was adopted, a new education policy was legislated, education structures were radically reformed and a new curriculum was introduced. Large scale programs of teacher development have been undertaken, during which education authorities, after a rather shaky start, have begun to develop the ability to reach and support teachers as change agents. The “Critical Cross Field Outcomes” of the new curriculum specifically state that education must develop learners as critical thinkers, and more recently teachers have been exhorted to promote the values appropriate in citizens of a democracy. It is, of course, possible and desirable to integrate values and the dispositions and skills associated with critical thinking into any lesson. But many teachers simply do not know how to do this and can benefit from the experience of programs specifically designed to teach thinking, not only in terms of a theory and practice that they can apply in the classroom, but also as a means to further their own understanding. Philosophy for Children is one such program. Previous publications (Green, 1997; 2000; 2006) have discussed in greater detail its potential in the context of South African schooling.

The program is attractive because it combines the development of concepts (thus being able to incorporate aspects of moral or citizenship education) with the mediation of desirable thinking practices. It recognizes the social nature of knowledge construction and acknowledges the creativity of both children and teachers. It is also relatively easy to relate to other elements of the curriculum, or even to incorporate into such learning areas as language and literature. It has the advantage that it does not limit “values education” to one specific curriculum area as at present in most South African classrooms, where issues of this nature are covered in a subject labeled “life orientation” or “life skills.” Last but possibly most important, Lipman is extremely generous with his ideas and has no objection to their modification or adaptation. In various countries, this has already taken place. Although children in many South African classrooms might find these stories of 1970s children in Western, relatively privileged school settings unfamiliar, the original Philosophy for Children material provides a valuable starting point for working with teachers.

Introducing Philosophy for Children

In 1999 the Western Cape Province funded the Stories for Thinking Project (Green, Faragher, & Faasen, 2000) as part of a broader investigation of how programs that claim to teach thinking might be introduced into local schools. This was a relatively short intervention that did not approach the 30 hours generally considered the minimum for initial training in the use of Philosophy for Children. It was clear that, given the many other demands on teachers' time generated by the introduction of the new curriculum, complete and thorough training as a Philosophy for Children practitioner would be difficult to implement. Moreover, given the many inequities to be redressed and the levels of poverty in many areas, it was also unlikely that the majority of schools would be able to afford to purchase the necessary materials. It seemed, however, that Lipman's ideas might appeal to local teachers and suggest to them some ways of teaching towards the specified Critical Outcomes of the new curriculum.

The first project involved all the teachers at one primary school. They were introduced briefly to a selection of Lipman's materials and given the opportunity to engage themselves in a community of inquiry on several occasions and to notice and reflect on the skills and attitudes involved. Thereafter, they worked in groups to construct and pilot stories that used Philosophy for Children as a model but reflected the realities of their own contexts. This resulted in a set of teacher generated stories, together with some guidelines for their use. The stories do not have the depth and philosophical richness of Lipman's stories but they reflect life in South African classrooms and have proved highly motivating to children. Subsequently a number of similar in-service courses were presented to groups of interested teachers. This project resulted in the publication, in 2005 and 2006, of three story booklets, each with an accompanying manual. The stories reflect conditions in local schools, incorporate but do not resolve a number of potentially “philosophical” questions, and are designed with the National Curriculum Statement for the second three years of schooling in mind. In addition to their local relevance, these stories have the advantage that teachers feel a sense of ownership and are motivated to use them, particularly if they were part of a writing project. This is important in a context where teachers are currently struggling to introduce a new and different curriculum and experiencing considerable stress. Like the manuals that accompany Philosophy for Children, the manuals offer ideas for discussion should the children not raise any questions of their own, suggest activities that may deepen understanding of particular issues, and remind facilitators (or teachers) of their role in the process. Understandably, they are a great deal less comprehensive and complex than the originals on which they were modeled but they do make explicit exactly how the stories can be used within the new South African curriculum.

Do the South African children whose teachers engage them in community of inquiry discussions develop as thinkers? While formal proof is difficult to obtain, there is some evidence of change (Borman, 2005; Green 2006; Roberts, 2006). According to the teachers, who were free to choose when and how to introduce the new ideas, the children do acquire some of the characteristics valued in a community of inquiry. They become more respectful of each other and appreciate the structure provided by negotiated ground rules. They become more reflective. Their responses are more thoughtful and less impulsive. They begin to develop sensitivity towards areas of agreement and disagreement and to appreciate the need to offer and examine reasons. But by far the most frequent and significant change noted by teachers was in the children's willingness to own and express opinions. This necessary precondition for thinking and learning cannot be taken for granted in South African classrooms. The country's history of oppression and authoritarian educational practices has had a pervasive effect on the self-concept of individuals and of entire communities, something that still shows itself in certain social norms. Adult teachers who themselves were deprived of the right to speak are still discovering how to make this possible for the children in their care. As one teacher said, “[this is] a challenge to our community to express themselves. This is the hardest thing that the so called “Colored” community is faced with—not speaking up … living under the former repressive regime gave impetus.” A classroom breakthrough occurred when one young boy said to another, “Never mind if it's right or wrong, just think!” (Green, 2000).

TABLE 7.1 Reported classroom changes.
Nature of the changeExample
Higher expectations of children“I must admit that two pupils surprised me.”
“I became aware that children also think
and am pleasantly surprised by what
they say.”
More engagement by children“Children who are normally very shy
and who had nothing to say are also
participating and responding.”
“They express themselves more and
eagerly answer the questions.”
More structured interactions“They have learned to wait their turn
and listen when someone else speaks.”
“Things are more settled and structured
—pupils now remind each other of the ‘rules’.”
More interpersonal respect“They have learned to disagree
“Learners are working better with one
Greater awareness of thinking“They are now more aware that they
need to give a reason.”
“They are now aware that they cannot
just shout out an answer.”

It is always tempting to imagine that the introduction of a particular program can solve all the problems of education. Even if it were possible to introduce them on a large scale, Philosophy for Children, or its South African offshoot, Stories for Thinking, would not be a panacea. A short introduction to Lipman's ideas does, however, appear to be a source of some immediate classroom benefits in terms of the changes reported above. It would be unrealistic to expect that teachers without a background in philosophy can offer philosophy classes with the expertise of experienced philosophers. But research and experience suggest that they can use this approach in potentially fruitful ways if provided with adequate support. The contextualization of Lipman's ideas and practices in collaboration with local teachers is one way that South African schools can offer mediated experiences of learning to think. If we believe in cognitive modifiability, it is essential for education to offer such experiences, especially in the least privileged of learning contexts.

Given the current conditions in education in South Africa, it may well be the case that Lipman's approach is of greatest value as a nonthreatening means of mediating thinking to teachers so that they begin to conceptualize themselves as thinkers and connect this understanding to their professional role as mediators of thinking. Teachers discover in the community of inquiry that in some respects thinking is a game that is made more pleasurable through mastery of its rules. They learn that they already possess, although they may not recognize or label, certain thinking skills and dispositions, and that they can add to their repertoire of thinking processes, both analytic and creative. Thinking is demystified as metacognitive awareness develops.

In this way teachers become the kind of persons who can critically and creatively implement the new curriculum, using a variety of means that may include Philosophy for Children, rather than simply learning a new set of rules about their professional behavior. As Duffy, cited in Mangieri and Block (1994, p. 22) says, “We cannot advance thinking unless we put teachers in the position to be thinkers themselves.”


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Cognitive Modifiability in South African Classrooms: The Stories for Thinking Project

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