SOPHIA Network - Advancing philosophy for children in Europe
Updated: Nov 4
A conversation with the President of SOPHIA Network, Emma Worley.
You are the President of SOPHIA, a European network of philosophers working with children, which I had a pleasure inviting to Galway last year. How did your personal adventure with philosophy for children begin?
My personal adventure with philosophy for children began when I met Pete back in 2001. He was a guitar teacher at the time, but wanted to do philosophy with children because philosophy had helped him back into education, and he thought it might help children develop understanding across more subjects. I hadn’t even heard of philosophy when I met Pete, so this was all new ground for me. I encouraged him to try it, and he got in touch with the schools he was working in as a guitar teacher to see if they’d be interested – they were and the rest is history!
Pete and I decided to set up a social enterprise called The Philosophy Shop in 2007 to train other philosophy graduates to do what Pete was doing, and hopefully reach more children in schools. We also wanted to use philosophy in other areas – such as philosophical counselling, and in the community and business. We set up a monthly adult philosophy group which continues to this day, now online!
In 2010 The Philosophy Shop changed it’s name to The Philosophy Foundation and became a charity – although we still had the same aims and objectives: to bring philosophy and philosophical skills to everyone.
Can you tell us a little bit of history and the mission of SOPHIA Network?
The SOPHIA Network – or ‘The European Foundation for the Advancement of Doing Philosophy with Children’ (to give it its full name!) was set up in 1993 in the Netherlands. Throughout the 1980’s a number of centres were established to advance philosophy with children (pwc) in different European countries. Some had grown independently, and some were established to replicate the work Matthew Lipman was doing in the States.
Catherine McCall tells me that SOPHIA formed partly out of trying to not be like Philosophy for Children (Lipman’s P4C), because people wanted to try different ways of doing philosophy with children, or felt that Lipman’s material didn’t translate so easily into different European countries. And so, although many had trained with Lipman or worked at Montclair with him, they wanted to explore other ways of doing things. It’s moto is closely aligned with the EU’s moto of ‘Unity Through Diversity’, which is a good way of describing communities of enquiry I think. It’s a pluralistic organisation, which is what I find really refreshing about it.
SOPHIA’s gone through lots of institutional changes, but now it's a network run for the members by the members, a place where people can share practice, try out new ideas and work together with other practitioners and academics to help us all improve and develop.
Do you know how many countries have their representatives in the network?
That's a very good question. I'd say around in 20 European countries are currently part of the network. There are 14 European countries represented on our map, but I know we have people from other countries not listed on our map. Now our meetings have gone online we also have a handful of other countries from outside Europe, which adds to the diversity.
To your best knowledge, Emma, which country would you say has the philosophy for children (in whatever way you understand it), best embedded in the education system? And what could we replicate in other countries and how? Is there any good example somewhere in Europe?
You know, that's a really difficult question to answer because each organisation and individual have their own ways of trying to work within their own countries educational system. I know it's quite big in Spain, but that's mainly from the Lipman perspective. There's quite a lot of philosophy embedded in the Spanish curriculum. There's lots of philosophy embedded in the French Baccalaureate and the International Baccalaureate. Obviously, Ireland has its new philosophy curriculum placed in the secondary curriculum. I believe there was some work done in Belgium on trying to get it in the curriculum officially. In the Netherlands they are working on trying to create a standard for philosophy practice that can then be taken to more school. In Scotland their curriculum has an underpinning of philosophical thought and understanding, and in England it has been a ground-up practice of training teachers, or sending in philosophers to help deliver philosophy to more children.
I think philosophy is there in lots of different ways and in lots of different places throughout Europe.
I personally am unsure about the idea of governments becoming involved in saying philosophy needs to be part of a country’s curriculum – mainly because the bureaucracy of such a top down move could spell disaster for the movement. However, supporting and encouraging teachers / schools to adopt it would be helpful.
It's a very unique bunch of people. I've known many people with philosophy degrees, but there is some unique atmosphere to our annual meetings. Very warm, friendly, almost family-like feeling. Do you think there's a character trait that some people practicing philosophy with children share? What makes it unique?
I think there are shared character traits within Sofia (but also the diversity of individuals!). It is the openness, the willingness to listen and learn from one another and a passion for philosophising with all. This has come to us from those who helped set it up in the first place, people like Catherine McCall and Pieter Mostert, who are still a part of SOPHIA today.
What is unique about SOPHIA and its members is their demonstration of philosophical inquiry, through their actions and behaviour: the constructive, friendly criticism, the collaboration. For me, it's the openness, which is the most important thing. People come from all over Europe, we've all got different cultures (I’ve never quite figured out how many times the Dutch kiss as a greeting!) and different ideals. But we all spend time getting to know each other, and find out about our differences and similarities, rather than merely criticizing each other's practice – although this happens too! We question each other and make sure that we're doing the best we can under the circumstances that each country allows.
I believe there is a spirit of sharing in the work we do with philosophy and children, and a spirit of community. We participate as a community and value everybody's presence. Being a president of this network, you also must believe in the value of philosophizing with children. Why is it important? What does this particular way of teaching and interacting with children have to offer in education?
There are lots of good reasons for doing philosophy with children, which I won’t list here, but at the heart of it is the idea of learning how to think well, with other people. It feels to me that the world needs this more than ever now. The world seems to have become so eristic and combative in our politics and media. People don’t seem to find it easy to talk with others who have different perspectives, how to listen to each other, or how to express themselves clearly. And I think, for me, that's exactly what philosophy in a community as conversation can do. It's about seeing things through, developing understanding of yourself and others as well as the world around you. It can help develop vitally important communication skills, and helps us listen to other people’s ideas. And really listen, not just hear, but truly listening to try to understand another person's perspective. It is only through understanding that we can properly evaluate each others’, and our own, ideas.
We do live in awkward times. We have Brexit, we have Trump. Now we have a pandemic that has touched the lives of so many people, and I suppose it's been difficult for many people in the education networks generally. And do you think it affected people doing philosophy in schools as well?
Yes, hugely. I know lots of people in our community are struggling to find work, because a lot of them obviously are independent. So they work by themselves for themselves. And they go into schools and either train teachers or they go into schools and deliver philosophy with children. And if they're not allowed external visitors in schools, what are you going to do? Because it's not seen as a core essential thing that children need to be doing, schools can shut the doors on us right now. We have to sit and wait to see if they will bring us back when things get ‘back to normal’ – if we ever get back there.
But I think that the last SOPHIA meeting gave everyone hope. We explored ways in which we can be reaching out and doing philosophy with children online, which is what we've doing at The Philosophy Foundation since lockdown. I know lots of people across Europe are doing as much as they can to continue to do philosophy with children, making do where we can with what we've got, and creating new ways of working with children.
This was my next question. How did philosophers and practitioners adapt to the new environment and what strategies have worked? The main topic of our last SOPHIA meeting was philosophizing in pandemic. So do you think there any particular tools or ways of interacting with children that worked for some practitioners?
I can't talk generally, but from our perspective, at The Philosophy Foundation, we're really finding the interactive-ness of Zoom, was one of the best ways of continuing to be able to have sessions with children that resembled our classroom practice.
Although, as you know Lukasz, we also developed 110 Thought Adventures for children from ages 5 to 16 (10 for each ‘year group’) to use at home, putting our stories online and setting up questions in worksheets for children. (Let me share my favourite one with you all here, it’s ‘Acorn’, originally written by me for The Philosophy Shop book, told and animated by our wonderful philosopher Tim Beardmore-Gray: https://vimeo.com/419980201/ee498f77eb). Natalie and the brilliant team from Brila Projects also created interesting resources for parents and children to use at home, which they presented on at the SOPHIA meeting.
Steve Williams, from p4c.com, has been doing quite a lot of what Ben Kilby from Australia was talking about at the meeting: asynchronous learning, which is really interesting. Using platforms for discussions and learning at different times. We haven't tried that yet. I'm not sure we would want to because there's something about the conversation that I think is important. For us, and for many people I know in SOPHIA, Zoom has been one of the best tools.
Any plans for Sophia? Is there a vision for the future? And the next meeting, as is it all in here.
The SOPHIA vision is driven by its members, so I’m not going to lay out here a big plan. One of the interesting things we have set up this year is a working group on standards across member groups. The group will be contacting members about this soon, and I hope they’ll present next year.
Now we’ve gone online there is also more opportunities for regular meetups, to help people connect outside of the yearly meeting.
We've now got three host countries lined up for future meetings, which is great. But the trouble is, we don't know when we can say yes to any of them. We hope at some point over the next three years to be able to have a live meeting again. But until then we'll probably do it online. And I have a plan for our next virtual conference…but I want to keep it a little hush hush because I'm researching it at the moment. But it's going to be really, really exciting and possibly the best online conference anyone has ever been to! ;-)
This sounds fantastic. Thank you, Emma. We are all looking forward to it.
Emma Worley is co-CEO and co-founder of The Philosophy Foundation, a charity based in England. Emma was named as one of the top 100 Women in Social Enterprise in 2017 and was also highly-commended for her leadership role in the Social Enterprise 100 Awards that year. She is President of SOPHIA: The European Foundation for the Advancement of Philosophy with Children and a Visiting Research Associate at Kings College London. Emma was awarded an MBE for services to innovation in the 2020 New Year Honours.