SOPHIA Network - Advancing philosophy for children in Europe

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

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.

People engeged in philosophical inquiry
Dr Catherine Mc Call, one of the original founders of SOPHIA delivering CoPI session during the network meeting in 2019 at NUIG

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