1. Introduction

The Effective Altruism movement can benefit from programs for young people that (1) introduce them to EA topics, (2) help them practice skills useful for engaging in EA projects, and (3) teach them how to communicate with non-EAs about these topics and projects. In this forum post, I’m going to describe one tradition that I think is especially fruitful for constructing such programs: the Philosophy for Children (P4C) movement’s Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI) method. 

I’ll begin with a description of the P4C/CPI tradition. Then I’ll describe how the EA movement can benefit from it. Finally, I’ll introduce myself and clarify motives for writing this post.
 

2. What is the CPI Method?

In the 1960s, philosophers Matthew Lipman and Ann Sharp founded a movement called Philosophy for Children (P4C). Based on the American Pragmatist philosophy of John Dewey, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce, Lipman and Sharp facilitated groups of children in philosophical dialogues in response to philosophically rich, age-appropriate texts. From the beginning, they shared a goal of using philosophical dialogue to help children become better democratic citizens who can interact with one another on terms of equality while exploring important philosophical puzzles. 

Although there is considerable diversity in how facilitators manage dialogue, a basic model for facilitation emerged within, and was later promulgated by Lipman and Sharp’s organization: the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). This model is known today as the Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI). A typical CPI begins with a presentation of a stimulus, which, traditionally, was an excerpt from one of Lipman or Sharp’s philosophical novels. After the stimulus is presented, the students suggest philosophically interesting questions inspired by it (e.g., what is causation, is there a moral difference between hurting someone and letting someone get hurt, and what is love?) and select one to discuss through voting. 

After a question is selected, a facilitator gently guides the students through a search for the most reasonable answer to the question. The facilitator’s job is to help the students engage in three kinds of thinking: caring thinking, creative thinking, and critical thinking. 

There are two kinds of caring thinking: care for the community and care for the inquiry. Care for the community ensures that everyone engaged in the inquiry feels comfortable sharing ideas, while care for the inquiry ensures that everyone in the group focuses solely on the inquiry question and no other questions. Creative thinking, in this context, is the process of coming up with new theories, counterexamples, thought experiments, etc., or applying or combining previously existing ideas in new ways. Finally, critical thinking, to put it roughly, is the process of evaluating the fruits of creative thinking. 

Not all inquiries fit into the traditional CPI method as I have formulated it. For example, an early innovator in the P4C movement, named Gareth Matthews, departed from it in a variety of specific ways. He drew widely from children’s literature when selecting stimuli for inquiries. Matthews also wrote stories that incorporated the contributions made by children during inquiries. He would write the beginning of a story that presents a philosophical puzzle (e.g., a story where characters argue about the Euthyphro Dilemma) and then discuss the puzzle with his students. Between the initial inquiry and the next one, he would continue the story by incorporating the arguments and examples put forward by the students. Matthews would continue this process until it had reached a satisfactory conclusion. Additionally, Matthews would often present students with a stimulus designed to guide them to a specific question (e.g., a dialogue about the Euthyphro Dilemma) rather than an open-ended stimulus. 

In my own work, my facilitation team and I have experimented with a variety of stimuli. Short stories about dystopian possibilities, film adaptations of famous thought experiments, musical performances of challenging works, a 5-mile run through the woods at night in which principles of Stoic philosophy are experimented with, the actual correspondence one of our members had with a famous, convicted murderer, and, in one classroom, the aftermath of a fist fight have all served as stimuli.

 

3. EA and P4C/CPI

This brings me to the main point of this forum post: the ways that the EA movement can benefit from the techniques developed in the P4C movement. I’m going to discuss 3 of them. 

First, methods from the P4C movement can easily be adapted to introduce young people to the movement by building age-appropriate on-ramps to the conversations that EAs are engaged in. I will never deny that specialized training and expertise are prerequisites for participating productively in many conversations happening within the EA movement (e.g., high-level debates about AI alignment). At the same time, the basic puzzles can be presented to children of a variety of ages in ways that shape their lives and, in some cases, our shared long-term future (i.e., if the on-ramps lead these students to engage fruitfully with EA topics going forward). 

Kindergarteners can start to think about moral circle expansion through discussions of stories about friendships between humans and non-humans, and older elementary school students can think more deeply about the criteria for inclusion within the moral community. Middle school students are capable of engaging with simplified versions of Peter Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality. High school students can, depending on their level of training and aptitude, engage in increasingly esoteric debates about wild animal suffering, longtermism, methodological puzzles about assessing the efficacy of charities, and even AI alignment. 

Second, the CPI method, if used well, can provide opportunities for young people to practice skills that are useful when working on the challenges that EAs work on. Practicing care for the community involves practicing skills useful for collaborating with others and creating environments where all team members can make contributions. Care for the inquiry is important for at least two reasons. First, when we practice sticking to a single line of inquiry for an extended period of time, we’re learning to discipline ourselves rather than to chase after distractions. Second, when you have the experience of being forced to stick to an uninteresting or fruitless inquiry a few times, you learn about the importance of selecting good questions and pathways. To be clear, my claim isn’t that one can become infallible in assessments of the fruitfulness of research questions, but simply that a few experiences sticking to an unsatisfying question for an hour or two can impress upon young people the importance of being thoughtful and doing one’s best to select better questions.

There are obvious reasons for future EAs to practice creative and critical thinking: creativity, in the selection of problems and methods, is a useful skill when trying to make progress on some of history’s most challenging puzzles; critical thinking is useful for the hard work of distinguishing between promising and unpromising solutions to problems, developing the former, and discarding the latter.

Third and finally, the CPI method can be used to train young people how to talk to others about EA topics. A CPI involving high school students who have advanced training in computer science can proceed at a high level of esotericism and employ the jargon of the field. Such CPIs are valuable, and could be a component of an EA P4C initiative. However, putting future EAs into CPI sessions with their untrained peers would provide them with experiences that are valuable for contributing to communications efforts in the EA movement. In particular, they would practice distilling the puzzles that motivate them into digestible summaries and connecting them to the deeply held values of their peers in emotionally salient ways.

I’ll conclude this section with two caveats. First, my view is that the CPI method, though valuable, is insufficient on its own to constitute a complete educational method. The value of the CPI method doesn’t detract from the value of explicit training in philosophy, computer science, and other relevant disciplines, individual and small-group projects, and competitions designed to identify and reward particularly promising young people.  

Second, although I have made my case with respect to educating children, my experience teaching college classes and working with young adults more generally suggests to me that the approach I’ve described here could be useful in improving the EA fellowship. I’ll put together an additional post that goes into that (and draws from other literature in management and educational theory) in depth. 

 

4. Who am I?

I’ll close this post by introducing myself and my motivations. My name is Aaron. I’m a PhD Candidate in philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where I work primarily in applied ethics and philosophy of social science. I’m the director of a P4C project that I co-founded 5 years ago called Madison Public Philosophy, and that experience has taught me how to write lesson plans, facilitate inquiries with children, train and manage other dialogue facilitators, manage and resolve conflicts, and build relationships with community partners. I also sit on the Advocacy Committee of the Philosophy Learning and Teaching Organization (PLATO). While building my skills as an academic philosopher and P4C practitioner, I’ve interacted occasionally with the EA movement: co-organizing giving games and an EA careers conference, lecturing about EA topics like moral circle expansion, and examining the neglectedness criterion in an academic publication. 

These two pursuits have been, for the most part, separate. However, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I should combine them into a coherent picture. I would welcome any feedback on this post or suggestions for how to do that. 

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This is interesting! Would you have any evidence-based evaluation of whether the Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CPI) and such projects were successful? I'm also interested in how they guarantee that children themselves are "safe" notably in the sense that there are no imposed beliefs on them?

Thanks, Caroline!

I saw your comment this morning, and it's been in the back of my mind all day. I’m going to respond with two comments. This one will be about evidence and the next one will be about safety. I’ll be brief at first, and I’m happy to continue the conversation and expand on any point. 

First of all, despite what many of its proponents say, I wouldn’t pitch a program of P4C classes using the CPI method as an intervention that will lead to statistically significant increases in math and reading scores (that result wasn’t found in the best relevant study: Link). What’s more, my impression is that hardly any of the studies that have been conducted about the efficacy of the method are of a high enough quality to warrant generalizations about its efficacy (here's a page with links to a fairly comprehensive list of studies: Link .) 

A challenge for evaluating the method is that the most important outcomes haven’t ever been measured very well. For example, in the study I linked to above (the one I called the best relevant study), “teachers who took part in P4C reported feeling that the programme had a positive impact on pupils’ social, thinking and communication skills, and found it particularly helpful for children who were less self-confident.” On the one hand, those reports match my experience (and the experiences shared with me by the veteran teachers I've collaborated with). We've seen students get better at talking to other students collaboratively about challenging philosophical questions after practicing these skills every week. On the other hand, that study didn’t make the sorts of measurements that you would need in order to actually measure changes with respect to these outcomes in children. I’ve looked at scales for measuring social emotional learning outcomes in children, and that experience has made me more optimistic about the prospects of conducting a study that will answer the open questions suggested by these positive reports from teachers. 

That said, I think that the claims I’m making in my forum post are modest enough to be plausible. At the very least, the dialogues are enjoyable activities (this study and the one I cited above both reported that) that could be used to introduce EA topics to children of a variety of ages (that's a claim about the kinds of lesson plans I can create) while also giving them an opportunity to practice using skills that are relevant to EA projects that they might engage in down the road. More speculatively (because better research needs to be done to substantiate this beyond positive reports from teachers), but still plausibly, practicing these skills will make students better at them.

Here’s my second comment (in case they get out of order).
 

I’d like to frame the question about safety like this: all teachers need to figure out how to impose without imposing too much. Does the CPI method get the balance right?

Any time you insist on waiting for your turn to talk, using evidence and arguments to evaluate claims, or sticking to the topic at hand, you’re imposing your beliefs about (1) how we ought to communicate, (2) what counts as evidence, and (3) how broad the topic is. I’m not saying this to be pedantic. I actually believe that these procedural facilitation moves are substantive because all three of them relate to things about which reasonable people disagree: in some cultures, interrupting is part of the dance of the conversation; in some kinds of social justice-oriented spaces in the US, people are discouraged from critically evaluating some kinds of claims that are being made; I’m sure that if you and I were to talk for long enough we’d have at least one disagreement about the scope of our topic. 

The CPI method does involve these kinds of impositions, but something like this is inevitable if you’re educating (or even merely socializing) children. One difference between the way these kinds of impositions happen in CPI contexts than in most other educational contexts, though, is that the method itself allows the participants to evaluate them. You can have a CPI about questions like the following:

  • how should we interact with people from cultures where interrupting is the norm?
  • when someone reports that they have experienced a traumatic event and cites that as evidence for a philosophical claim, how should we respond if we disagree with the philosophical claim?
  • what criteria should we use to determine the scope of a topic?

The answers to those questions can then influence future CPIs in the group. 

Let’s talk about the imposition of controversial, political beliefs. I’m going to contrast the CPI method with the Socratic method. There are two methods that Socrates used: he sometimes questioned people until they realized that they did not know what they were talking about; he sometimes used questions to lead people to a particular answer. I’m talking about the second method, which is often used by activists and proponents of religions to get people to believe their claims. I’ve used that method during activism, but the only times I’ve used it with students are when (1) I’m trying to get my students to understand an idea rather than to believe it and (2) they’re old enough to understand the difference. So I might use it with college students when I’m trying to teach them Kant’s formula of universal law or Mill’s defense of utilitarianism, but that’s because we can then critique the steps of reasoning. I would not use it to teach 8-year-olds that God doesn’t exist. It's too manipulative.

That kind of persuasion is unavailable to facilitators in the CPI method because facilitators aren’t allowed to argue for positions. Their role is to keep everyone on track, clarify positions, make sure that people are respecting each other, push students to critique positions that are being accepted uncritically, etc. This is one reason why a lot of facilitators don’t enjoy facilitating topics that they’re passionate about. It’s hard to be in an environment where you can’t do activism for your favored position. 

To be clear, there are still ways to subtly shift a discussion in the direction you want without actually advocating for a position. You can, for example, keep redirecting students to your favored position or ask for counterarguments for a position you personally dislike. But if someone does that, they can be critiqued from within the method because they’re not doing a good job of facilitating a CPI. And, at any rate, this is something that could happen with any method of teaching children. An advantage of training facilitators in the CPI method is that we are explicit about disallowing those moves. 

To be honest, I expected that I’d get criticisms from the other direction: the CPI method isn’t a method for convincing students to accept a particular set of propositions, so how is it supposed to convince students to become EAs? My answer to that question would have been that I’d like it to be part of a larger educational project that includes all of the other things I mentioned in the second to last paragraph of section 3 from my forum post above.