Philosophical quests with Brila and Natalie Fletcher

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

I’m always looking for inspiration for myself as well as for others, who are interested in philosophical enquiry with children and in creativity. I was hoping that you could share some projects that you’ve been working on. You are the founder of Brila. What mission lies behind it?

Happily! Brila is an educational charity based here in Montreal, Canada, and our mission is to inspire youth through philosophical inquiry and creative experimentation in ways that promote critical thinking, shape social responsibility and enhance self-efficacy.

children P4C Philosophy play with Brila Canada
Children engage in conceptual play during philosophical dialogues as part of Brila’s empirical studies on Philocreation

We’re actually in a big transition period right now as we enter our fifteenth year—we’ll be redoing our website, launching a new online training platform, publishing our games and pedagogical materials, and starting a whole bunch of initiatives. But essentially, what we’ve done over the years is build on the classic Philosophy for Children (P4C) model developed by Matthew Lipman and Ann Margaret Sharp, and slowly developed an approach we call Philocreation. For myself, I think I can say I’m a P4C purist in many ways: all of Brila’s team has had the great privilege of being trained at the original Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC), and I am a huge proponent of its Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI) model. I’ve used it for years across age groups, from preschool through college, whether with little kids or in my university courses, and even with the elderly.

Yet since we work in so many different contexts, in order to respond to the needs of our diverse audiences, over time we’ve been inspired to align the classic CPI spirit with different forms of imaginative engagement—so the “pure vanilla” version, as our friends at the IAPC call it, with some Brila sprinkles added! On any given day, we can work with the children of professionals and also with new immigrant or refugee youth, who sometimes have their first experience of Canada in one of our philosophy programs. We also work with at-risk youth, Indigenous youth, neurodiverse youth, queer youth—not just in schools but also through extra-curricular programs, and with local or international community partners, ranging from science centres to art galleries to youth theatres. And we always work in at least French and English, if not also in other languages. So there’s a huge variety!

Children workshop philosophy through movement P4C Canada
One of Brila’s philocreation workshops at Montreal art gallery exhibition that encourages children to think through movement.

Given this diversity, what we’ve found is that the classic CPI approach—as much as we love it—doesn’t always translate well in some specific situations. For instance, how can we do philosophy in a theatre with 300 kids and their parents who have just seen a very provocative play? Or how can we get kids thinking about the ethical issues behind tech innovations during a hands-on project at a science centre? This range of contexts compelled us to develop an approach that would respect the integrity of the original CPI model—especially its rigour in terms of facilitation and philosophical principles—while being flexible enough to adapt to any context, whether a one-time workshop at a comics festival or an ongoing weekly program in a school over multiple years. So Philocreation is a fusion of philosophical inquiry and creative experimentation—in no way does it claim to reinvent the P4C wheel but rather to complement existing methods through specifically designed dialogue types (like thought experiments and ethical problem-solving inquiries) and collaborative projects that can mould well to the diversity of contexts in which we work.

During the pandemic, a lot of activities involving those kinds of projects would have been postponed or cancelled. I’ve read in The New York Times that you are also the initiator of PhiloQuests. Is it inspired by the Philocreation approach?

Yes, definitely! PhiloQuests is an online platform of over 100 free activities for youth of all ages, inspired by the concepts that have been most alive for them during the pandemic, from solitude, worry and boredom to hope and resilience. The initiative is hugely inspired by Philocreation since it invites children and teenagers to go on adventures in their minds by exploring concepts that matter to them through games, creative missions and family discussions—all feasible even during lockdown.

A prominent dimension of Philocreation is conceptual play, and one way we do this is by imagining concepts as if they were living, breathing creatures. So even very small children can be immersed in a world of concepts and start to understand their significance through the ways they intuitively personify them based on their own experiences. Concepts can seem very abstract and even alienating, but by transforming them into characters with thoughts, feelings and motivations, we can get to know them better, reveal our assumptions about them and build toward more robust conceptions.

‘Keeping the kook alive’ is Brila’s way of translating the spirit of self-correction to young thinkers.

We can also learn a lot about one another by discovering what concepts fascinate us: for instance, in our card game “Kookception,” one prompt is to imagine which concept you’d like to take out for dinner and why. What burning questions would you ask the concept? How might it respond? What kind of evening would you have together? What would you eat? These kinds of playful experimentations with conceptual thinking take the form of “idea stretching” activities within each of the PhiloQuests—by deliberately using their imaginations, kids can do philosophy without even realizing it!

How successful were the PhiloQuests during the pandemic?

It was way more than we ever could have expected, to be honest! As well as being the founding director of Brila, I’m also an affiliate professor at the University of Montreal within the philosophy department, where I run the Institute of Philosophy, Citizenship and Youth. The dean’s office tasked me with creating something online that could be used by our partners during the pandemic: it had to be free, it had to be doable by kids stuck at home, with bit of parent help with set-up, but not too much. And so, along with my truly stellar team, we developed the PhiloQuests platform with our youth participants in mind—kids with whom we were already working but could no longer see in person. But it kind of exploded and got a lot of media attention! One of our leading newspapers Le Devoir did a whole series of articles over the summer, where every week, a journalist and a member of our team would virtually visit different families and test their experiences with PhiloQuests. So we got to meet a bunch of new families and make new connections with teachers and educators. It started as a little thing we were doing for our partners but then became much bigger!

I looked it up last year, it was really entertaining visually, as well as content-wise. It seems that you’re connecting a lot of philosophy and creativity. So what’s the common ground between philosophy and creativity?

I love that question and it’s been enlivening me since the very beginning. In the past, I’ve talked about philosophy as a creative act and creativity as a form of philosophical thinking. But with Philocreation specifically, creativity becomes the vehicle for enabling deep philosophical reflection because of its accessibility: imaginative engagement is readily within reach in our mind’s eye and can be activated in hands-on projects. So if we can find creative ways of getting kids connected with their mental landscapes, then philosophy is an organic means of exploring that inner territory and finding common ground.

Philocreation projects – like conceptual theatre – also extend to undergraduate courses in philosophy at the University of Montreal

When I first started in P4C, I was working primarily with Indigenous youth here in Canada—in Quebec and Ontario—and with at-risk populations from very troubled backgrounds. What I was finding is that the last stage of the classic P4C approach—the “further responses” stage that encourages metacognitive assessments and art or action projects—was what felt most meaningful for these particular young people, who expressed a real need to creatively explore their own perspectives on the concepts that mattered to them after getting to talk with each other. With those groups, I was doing classic CPI dialogues on tough concepts like violence, discrimination and toxic relationships, but also reserving a lot of time for creative responses, in this case through slam poetry, photography, street art—in sum, for that last stage that often gets overlooked.

Why do you think that this particular aspect of the approach is missing?

I think it’s because adults—whether they’re teachers or coaches, or however they’re working with kids—often lack time. It’s already hard to find space in their schedule to do philosophical dialogues, so if you tack on a project, it’s just too much. And I really empathize with those time constraints!

But that constraint changes when working beyond the formal schooling context, like in a weekend workshop or one of our summer camps. Originally, the idea with Philocreation was to do a creative project after every philosophical inquiry dialogue to enable kids to figure out for themselves what they think about the questions and concepts explored.

P4C project children designing ideal school
Brila’s ‘owl challenge’ projects invite kids to use philocreation techniques to think through a real-world issue; in this case, designing the ideal school!
In my view, creative projects offer a really special moment in time for kids to ingrain the existential meaning of what they’ve explored on a more personal level.

We always say that P4C is about learning to think for yourself but alongside others. So there’s seemingly a paradox there! It’s of course crucial to learn to listen attentively to others’ views and co-construct arguments, but it’s just as valuable to learn to determine and articulate our own positions in light of our dialogues with others. So creative projects can forge a space for kids to work out their own thoughts and impressions after thinking together. It’s like asking, “What will this mean for me in my own life?” So the original impetus for including creativity in our programming was to support philosophical quality—and by extension, the overall aim of autonomous thinking.

And yet, the more we experimented with doing philosophy creatively, the more we realized that creativity has this power to make philosophy so much more accessible, which is necessary when kids are choosing to do philosophy during their free time. They have to like it! They have to find it irresistible, especially when we’re competing with so many other enticing activities they could decide to do during their leisure time or vacations. So we started infusing creative experimentation and imaginative engagement into every aspect of our programming. We kept the major collaborative projects—what we call our “Owl Challenges”—since they enable kids to practice the same thinking tools and procedures they use in philosophical dialogues, but we’ve also added many other elements to form the Philocreation approach.

philosophy ezine for children p4c
Brila’s ‘philozines’ offer kids thinking prompts to help them reflect creatively about their philosophical questions during dialogues.

For example, we make publications with kids, or what we call “philozines,” which act as philosophical artifacts that offer tangible evidence of their reflection efforts. Before, during and after philosophical inquiry dialogues, we give them thinking prompts and creative missions for their philozines that help them work out what we’re thinking about. The prompts can be short and strategic to help the inquiry move along—like imagining a counter-example or an analogy to test or diversify the theory building. Or they can be mini-projects, like writing a postcard to a concept, where kids craft a message that includes the questions they have for the concept or their feelings towards it. The message can be sarcastic, poetic, tragic… depending on how they feel about that concept! They also get to imagine where it might live and invent an address for it, so the end result looks like a typical postcard… but to a rather unconventional recipient.

In short, we’ve kept developing games and creative ways of getting even the most reluctant kid to be like “Yeah, philosophy is cool.” And while we’ve felt that the fusion of philosophy with creativity has been helpful for making it appealing, more importantly, it’s also given kids meaningful opportunities to practice their agency through various forms of creative engagement. Philocreation is not just artistically oriented—we do a lot of activism projects as well. So the idea is they’re creating something that allows them to say, “I have agency in this situation,” and also test their ideas concretely after dialoguing about them. From the outside, I’m sure it can seem quite gimmicky: we have philosophical puppets, conceptual card games, tons of creative materials, lots of props and even costumes!

But the reality is that philosophy is hard—and if we can help ease the process with tactile, visual aids and creative experiments that are designed to support metacognitive thinking and theory building, then the potential for developing reflective dispositions in youth seems all the more promising.
philosophy ideas in lego blocks Lego-Logos
Doing philosophy with Creative Together using Lego-Logos method developed by Jarosław Spychała in Poland

Sounds great. In Poland we have a great methodology, developed by Jarosław Spychała, called Lego-Logos that invites philosophy through creativity. Children use Lego blocks, clay or other art materials to interpret ideas from a philosophically charged text and discuss it with the group. Your philozines remind me a little bit of Janusz Korczak’s “Mały przegląd” (Little Review), the Friday addition to the newspaper written by children. I’m sure you’ve heard of his work, he was a Polish-Jewish educator, children’s author, philosopher and a precursor of the children’s rights movement. He ran an orphanage before and during World War II before they were all sent to the extermination camp. In his work, he emphasised children’s independence and often in his texts inspired children to think philosophically.

But let’s get back to our conversation on P4C. I’m sure you’ve heard about the recent debate sparked by the results from the Education Endowment Foundation in England in the UK. They looked at the impact of P4C on reading and math skills. So they didn’t find any significant improvements there, as it was sometimes advertised before in the UK. This sparked a big discussion—why should we do philosophy with children? I’m wondering what your thoughts are on why we should be doing philosophy with children?

In that study, as I’m sure you know, the impact was more significant for kids who had learning exceptionalities or were at risk in some way than for mainstream students, so that’s an interesting discrepancy. For myself… I don’t know how to say this without downplaying my commitment to education… but I’m a philosopher first. The majority of my studies have been in philosophy and I’ve unofficially loved it since I was a little kid, even though I didn’t learn about it formally until high school. I would have loved to do P4C as a child, for sure. My friends and I would have geeked on all the kinds of philosophical activities that exist for youth now! So I have a relationship with P4C that springs from a very early yearning for existential meaning about what it signifies to be human… even what it means to be an earthling more broadly.

So while I certainly think P4C has educational value that can (and hopefully will!) be further demonstrated through sound empirical research, more than that, I think P4C is essential to being human. It’s part of doing human well—going back to the ancient imperatives of philosophy for better living. I truly believe that philosophy in its purest incarnation—that sense of wonder and awe—creates space to develop the kind of dispositions that can sensitise us to more responsible ways of living. In P4C, we connect these dispositions to self-correction, which involves a willingness to doubt, to question our own beliefs and values, and to be curious and surprised by new ways of seeing things. At Brila, we often use metaphors when we work with kids to get this spirit across: for instance, to convey the irritation of doubt in P4C’s pragmatist roots, we’ll say, “What questions are itchy for us right now— what will relieve our philosophical itchiness?” And over time, the kids developed the motto of “taking your work seriously but not yourself,” which has translated into a rather quirky symbol: the kook! Or that curious, creative voice inside each of us who just wants a chance to experiment without fearing failure.

Children P4C circle discussing philosophical ideas