Creative Education
2011. Vol.2, No.3, 296-304
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/ce.2011.23041
The Incidence of Philosophy on Discursive and Language
Competence in Four-Year-Old Pupils
Marie-France Daniel1, Jean-Charles Pettier2, Emmanuèle Auriac-Slusarczyk3
1Department of Kinesiology, Université de Montréal, Montréal (Québec), Canada;
2Department of Philosophy, IUFM of Créteil-UPEC, Paris, France;
3Department of Education and Psychology, IUFM of Auvergne/Université Blaise-Pascal,
Clermont-Ferrand, France.
Received March 5th, 2011; revised April 10th, 2011; accepted April 22nd, 2011.
Can philosophical dialogue foster the developmental process of certain language and discursive capabilities,
such as decentering and abstraction, in four-year old children? And if so, to what extent? In this paper, the au-
thors examine discursive and language competence in a group of four-year-old children during a four-month
philosophical praxis (experimental group), compared to that of a group of five-year-old children that experi-
enced no philosophical praxis (control group). The analysis was conducted using two instruments: 1) for discur-
sive competence, the typology of exchanges put forward by Daniel et al. (underlying criteria include the pres-
ence/absence of a common problem to solve, centering/decentering of thinking, complexity of interventions and
cognitive skills, etc.) and 2) for language competence, the language markers that emerged from the transcripts
(“I”, “we”, “he—particular”, “they—general”, “you”) These two instruments contributed to situating the chil-
dren’s discourse within a process of increasing complexity related to decentering and abstraction. Results indi-
cate that the children in the experimental group engaged in diversified exchanges (three types: anecdotal,
monological, dialogical) with a predominance of the monological type and the use of language markers related
to the general “they”, while the children in the control group engaged in anecdotal exchanges with a predomi-
nant use of “I”.
Keywords: Discursive and Language Competence, C hi l dh ood, Argumentative Discourse, Philo s o p h i c a l
In most societies, formal schooling begins at age six. One
questions then whether children aged four are capable of de-
veloping a capacity to listen to their peers and to enter into
dialogue with them, and whether they are capable of participat-
ing in a “philosophizing” process.
The Philosophy for Children Approach (P4C)
Educational methods intended to stimulate children to phi-
losophize in the classroom have their theoretical foundations in
the Philosophy for Children (P4C) approach conceived by
pragmatist philosopher Matthew Lipman in the early 1970s
(Lipman, 2003; Lipman et al., 1980). P4C is said to be “phi-
losophical” in that it presupposes thinking concerning a shared
problem based on peer collaboration, and attempts to attain
inter-subjective and consensual truths (Daniel, 2005). Here,
philosophizing is not a product, but a scaffold ing process (Daniel
& Gagnon, 2011; Queval, 2010) that is built through philoso-
phical (or critical) dialogue among peers. This process is de-
manding in that it relies on skills related to decentering, ab-
straction, argumentation and negotiation. P4C springs from two
traditions: Aristotelian logic—which became “applied logic”
through the contribution of American pragmatists in the middle
of the 20th centu ry—and Socratic maïeutics that uses questioning
to meet citizens’ requirements for greater well-being and better
ways to live together. In the Lipmanian sense then, phil osophy is
not understood from its traditional perspective (i.e.: an instru-
ment of conservation for the history of ideas) but rather as a
method for structuring the world in order to create a better future,
that is, as an ins trument of change and creati on (Danie l & Auriac ,
2009; Nussbaum, 2010; Rorty, 1989, 1999).
Lipman’s program is intended for youngsters aged 6 to 15
years. Our contribution consisted in adapting the program to
children five years of age (Daniel, 2002, 2003, 2009) to show
how, even at this young age, children were able to participate
actively in a dialogical semi-critical type of exchange with their
peers (Daniel & Delsol, 2005, 2010). In France, a team of edu-
cators spurred by Pomme dApi, a magazine for preschool-aged
children, went one step further, experimenting with philoso-
phical discussions in a group of four-year-old children (Pettier,
2008; Pettier & Dogliani, 2009; Pettier et al., 2010). In this text,
the authors analyze an exchange1 that took place between the
four-year-old children in this group during a philosophy session
after four months of praxis. Th e goal was to u nder stan d w heth er
these exchanges could be considered to fall within a philoso-
phizing process based on criteria of decentering and abstraction.
Discursive and Language Competence: At What
Age Should They Be Fostered?
In a number of education programs, including Quebec’s,
1Each week, the pupils participated in a philosophy session that lasted one
hour on average. By “exchange”, we mean verbal activity that took place
during one of these philosophy sessions.
discursive and language competence are considered fundamen-
tal to the child’s development. Similarly, in school programs
and instruction in France, language, identified as the heart of
learning since 2002, was still considered the cornerstone of
academic success in 2008 (Auriac & Maufrais, 2010).
The development of discourse and language has a positive
impact not only on a pupil’s learning, but also on structuring
his identity, his thinking, and his socialization.
“Language contributes to forming concepts and ideas; it
gives access to knowledge and comprehension. A primary tool
in structuring and expressing thought, it plays a key role in the
development of the pupil’s world view and personal identity. It
is also an instrument of liberation and power because it allows
one to express thoughts and to influence those of others. In a
democratic society, voicing an opinion is an act of citizenship
and of participation in a collective way of life as well as an
instrument of conflict resolution.” (MELS, 2004: p. 72).
In general, formal learning of language does not begin before
the age of five (MELS, 2006) or six (MEN, 2008) years. To
adherents of traditional psychology, which thinks the intellect-
tual development of children occurs in stages, inspired by Pia-
get (Piaget & Inhelder, 1966) and by Kohlberg with regard to
moral development (Moessinger, 1989), a preschool-aged child
is limited in his language and social interactions, which are the
basis for access to argumentation and dialogical discussions.
Likewise, a child of four or five years is often presented as
having “magical”, “playful” or “magical-realistic” thoughts
about the world (Lévine et al., 2004).
Conversely, social cognition researchers, influenced by the
theses of Mead (1972), Vygotsky (1985) and Bruner (1983),
have shown that the child is not a passive observer of the world
that surrounds him, but that he is capable o f part icipat ing i n p eer
interactio ns and of neg otiating with peers. W hen the child joi ns a
social network, he puts into practice particular forms of interac-
tion—generally those that he has learned at home—and manag es
to establish stable and permanent relationships with some of his
peers (Denham et al., 1994; Dunn, 2004).
In this perspective, developmental psycholinguistic research
(among others: Auriac, 2007; Bergeron et al., 2009; Golder,
1996) has shown that children involved in a stimulating social
context begin, at around four years of age , to orga nize n arratives
without, however, being able to establish a stable order among
the situations that they juxtapose. Internal coherence in the
narrative occurs only around the ages of six or seven years.
Verbal argumentative behaviors appear at an early age. At ap-
proximately four or five years, children use justifications by
enumerating facts and they can decenter enough to formulate
arguments that are understood by the interlocutor. They have a
theory of mind, and are aware that others may have thoughts that
differ from their own (Gauthier & Bradmetz, 2005; Pons &
Harris, 2003; Pons et al., 2004). At approximately five or six
years, children begin to integrate discursive rules (respect for
taking turns speaking and adhering to the theme) (Florin, 1999).
And at around eight or nine years, cooperative argumentation
develops (decentering, common referent, reciprocity) (Florin,
1999; Golder, 1996).
Based on previous empirical studies, carried out with “phi-
losophizings” among pupils aged five years (among others:
Daniel & Delsol, 2005, 2010), the authors propose a few ques-
tions: Can dialogue within a community of inquiry, the very
essence of P4C, foster the developmental process of certain
language and discursive capabilities, such as decentering and
abstraction, in children as young as age four? And if so, to what
Although numbers and percentages are used, the analysis is
qualitative as it involves a case study (Laperrière, 1997; Sa-
voie-Zajc, 2004; Van der Maren, 1996, 2006).
There were two groups of participants, each comprised of 26
kindergarten pupil s from an underp rivileged socioe conomic are a
in a Paris suburb. At the classroom level, it is important to
mention that the teaching context in a Priority Education Zone
(Z.E.P. in French), such as this, introduces social particularities,
both from a pupil’s perspective and with reference to teaching
strategies (Bautier, 2008; Charlot, Bautier, & Rocheix, 1992;
Bautier & Rayou, 2009). Research work, first conducted in
secondary and then in elementary schools, has shown that pu-
pils’ enrolment in school varies mostly according to family
background, and that pupils in a Z.E.P. have a “utilitarian” rela-
tionship with school. Pupils from the experimental group, aged
four years, had been practicing the “philosophical dialogue”
approach on a weekly basis for four months. Those from the
control group, aged five years, had never experimented with the
philosophical approach. For pr actical r easons, we were unab le to
gain access to a control group of chi ldren age d fo ur years, so our
control group (with no philosophical experien ce) was comprised
of children from the same socioeconomic background (Z.E.P.)
but aged five years.
Both groups were invited by their respective teachers to re-
flect upon and exchange on the theme of love; in February for
the experimental group and in Jun e for the control group. Both of
the exchanges analyzed were recorded using a video camera3.
The recordings were transcribed integrally, verbatim, by a third
Two data collection instruments were used. The first instru-
ment was based on the typology of exchanges from Daniel et al.
(2002, 2005). An analysis of each child’s intervention4 was
conducted, comparing it to those of the child’s peers, in order to
verify whether it was related to them or not. If the intervention
was not related to the interventions of peers or to previous in-
terventions, it could be considered either an anecdotal or mo-
nological type of sequence5. If the intervention was related to
those of pee rs or to prev ious inter ventions, the seq uence could b e
understood as dialogical (non critical dialogical, semi-critical
dialogical or critical dialogical). The criteria inherent in each
3The exchange in the experimental classroom was recorded by the team
that filmed the documentary “Ce n’est qu’un début” (2010), Cilvy Aupin,
Jean-Pierre Pozzi, Pierre Barougier, and Jonathan Martinot. We thank them
for allowing us to use it.
4The author sconsidered an “i nterven tion” to be any st atement (s entence o r
group of words) that mobilized language activiti es that we nt b eyond simple
single-word answers (i.e.: “yes”, “no”, etc.).
5A sequence is a group of interventions of the same ty p e.
type of exchange, which are presented in the following section,
served as reference points for the analysis.
The second instrument examined the use of language markers
(Auriac, 2007, 2008; Auriac-Peyronnet & Daniel, 2002). First,
the pronouns used during the children’s exchanges in both the
experimental and control groups were extr acted. These language
markers were then organized on a continuum that reflected
progress according to two criteria: decentering and abstraction.
Finally, based on this continuum (i.e.: from centering to decen-
tering and from concrete/particular to abstract/general), the in-
creasing complexity of language was analyzed in both groups of
Description of the First Instrument: The Typology of
This analysis was based on previous research results with
pupils aged 10 to 12 years, in which dialogue was shown to be a
process that developed within a philosophical praxis according
to five types of exchanges: anecdotal, monological, non-critical
dialogical, semi-critical dialogical and critic al dialo gical (Danie l
et al., 2002 , 2005). Th e following de finitions underlie the criteria
that were used for this analysis.
An exchange is said to be anecdotal when pupils speak in an
unstructured manner about particular and personal situations.
Pupils are not engaged in a research process, do not have a
common goal and are little or not at all influenced by peer in-
terventions. Thinking skills are simple and come down to ver-
balizing of beliefs or perceptions.
An exchange is deemed to be monological when the pupils
participate in a research process that is essentially oriented
toward searching for “the” correct answer, which is intended to
satisfy the t ea ch er (or to d em onst rate one’s value to one’s peers)
rather than contributing to advancing the group’s perspective.
Each pupil’s intervention, generally simple and descriptive, is
independent from those of others.
An exchange is said to be dialogical when pupils explore to-
gether various avenues to discover and construct knowledge,
meaning or representations. They form a “community of in-
quiry”, by elaborating on their p erspectiv es with the he lp of their
peers. They construct a general (vs. specific) and conceptual or
abstract (vs. concrete) reflection, and are motivated by a shared
problem to b e solved. There is a dial og ical exchange when there
is an interlocutory sequence of statements (Trognon, 1999) that
results in an increasing complexity of viewpoints. A dialogical
exchange is not a priori critical; it may be non-critical, semi-
critical or critical.
An exchange is said to be non-critical dialogical when pupils
are involved in a co-construction of knowledge or meaning, and
respect differences of opinion. However, pupils do not see the
relevance of evaluating peer points of view, or the validity and
viability of the criteria or premises at issue. In this type of ex-
change, thinking skills become increasingly complex: justifying
points of view, questioning, making analogies, etc.
An exchange is semi-critical dialogical when, in a context of
interdependence, some pupils are sufficiently critical to call into
question the s tatements of their peers . However, th e latter are n ot
sufficiently open to criticism to be cognitively influenced by the
process. As a result, criticism is not used to mo dify or reo rganize
the initial perspe c ti ve.
A critical dialogical exchange is characterized by reciprocity,
openness to divergence and inter-subjectivity; it is complex and
shows progression. Pupils not only reorganize the initial and
justified group perspective, they also modify it us ing negotiation
or compromise. They consider others as bearers of divergences,
and see them as necessary to enrich their own perspectives. On
the epistemological level, doubt and uncertainty are accepted as
part of an y s ignificant exchange. P eer critici sm is sought after in
itself; it is understood as an instrument of advancement in the
comprehension of a problem. Critical dialogue is not rhetorical
argumentation concerning an already-constructed point of view,
nor is it a debate about competing theses; it is an inquiry within a
community with a view to the Common Good.
Although each type of exchange is characterized by its own
list of criteria, the general typology becomes more complex
based on two main criteria: decentering and abstraction.
Results in Relation to the Typology of Exchanges in
the Experimental Group
The analysis brought to light four types of exchanges in the
experimental group: anecdotal, monological, non-critical dia-
logical and semi-critical dialogical. The exchanges were divided
into sequences each of which belonged to a single specific type.
The number of sequences corresponding to each type of ex-
change, as well as the total number of intervention s of each type,
then enabled us to determine what characterized a particular
exchange (see Table 1). The anecdotal and monological types
emerged on fiv e occas ions ea ch; th e semi-cr itical dialogica l type
came into p lay on four occasions; the non-cr itical d ialogical t ype
was noted on two occasions. No sequences corresponding to the
critical dialogical type emerged in the analysis.
The 5 anecdotal sequences consisted of a total of 17 inter-
ventions; the 5 monological sequences consisted of a total of 27
interventions; the 2 non-critical dialogical sequences consisted
of 13 interventions; and the 4 semi-critical dialogical sequences
consisted of 20 interventions. Thus, comparing the number of
sequences and interventions, it can be said that the monological
type of exchange predominated in this philosophical session.
Illustrations and comments on each type of exchange con-
ducted by the children are presented in the following par agraphs.
In the example of an anecdotal sequence (below), the authors
note that despite the teacher’s general question, the answer is
centered on a particular experience; the thinking skills ar e simple
and concrete (stating various situations); the answer is not di-
rectly related to the question posed.
Teacher: And when were older, we no longer love [inter-
rogative tone of voice]
M20: My grandmother in Algeria sees me often, ok [inter-
rogative ton e of vo ice]/and she doesnt get married () I tell you
that in Algeria I have my grandma a nd my grandp a I went to see
him often with my dad and my mom with my 4x4 we went/they
were already married before I was born because when I wasnt
born my mom and dad had gone to the swimming pool and then
when I wasnt born I wasnt with mom and dad.
In the following example of a monological sequence, the
children’s interventions: are directly related to the question
posed; they are answers intended for the teacher; they are inde-
pendent from each other; they presuppose a reflection that is
Table 1.
Types of exchanges: numb e r of sequences and interventions.
Type of exchange Anecdotal Monological Non-critical dialogical Semi-critical dialogical Critical dial o gical
Number of sequences 5 5 2 4 0
Total # of interventions 17 27 13 20 0
slightly decentered from the particular experience of self and
they show the first signs of conceptualization.
Teacher: () so what does doing philosophy mean [inter-
rogative tone of voice]
M01: We can we can we arent supposed to cut someone off
when the children are speaking.
F02: Thinking.
F19: We are going to think.
M01: We are going to speak.
M01: We have to listen.
M05: We will learn to ask ourselves questions.
The following example illustrates a dialogical sequence since
it is centered on solving a problem and initiating a pooling of
thoughts. The starting point for the research pro cess is situated in
the divergence of viewpoints and in doubts (F22: You mean that
two girls are in love). To sol ve it, the children m obilize cogn itive
skills linked to l ogi cal (con ce p tu ali zat ion ), cr eat i ve (analogizing)
and responsible thinking (observing social conventions). This
dialogical sequence is considered non-critical because it shows
“continuity” within the ideas (it does not show any break of
thought) and evolves thanks to cooperation and mutual aid. On
one hand, F01 and M01 give reasons for helping F22 justify her
position (a girl has to be in love wit h a boy; tha ts the cod e), and
on the other hand, d efining this code occurs through two children:
M05 makes an analogy with th e driving code, which leads F01 to
the term “love code”. Although the dialogical is in itself a rela-
tively complex form of exchange, the content of this particular
sequence is simple because the number of interventions is li-
mited, the inte rvent ions a re bri ef a nd not (indi vidual ly) justif ied ,
and the positions remain dogmatic from beginning to end.
M01: Because a gi rl can be in love and a boy is no t in lo ve/its
just girls that are in love with with with another girl.
F22: You mean that two girls are in love [int errogative to ne of
Teacher: Wait F22 can you say that again [interrogative tone
of voice]
F22: He means two girls who are in love.
Teacher: Is it possible or not possible [interrogative tone of
F22: Its not possible
Teacher: Why [interrogative tone of voice]
F01: Because you have to be in love with a boy.
M01: Its the code.
Teacher: What is the code [interrogative tone of voice]
M05: Its like the driving code.
Teacher: What is that code [interrogative tone of voice]
F01: Its the love code.
The following example was interpreted as semi-critical dia-
logical, even though the sequence included a limited number of
interventions, leading to argumentation being voiced without
being developed and leading to an error in logic (M05 uses a
concrete example to illustrate and even to validate a generalize-
tion). Nevertheless, the sequence is considered a (rudimentary)
semi-critical dialogical exchange for the following reasons:
there is an assertion of diverging points of view between two
pupils (M05 and M12); interdependence between interventions
(of M01, M05, F01 and M12); the interventions are centered on
a common problem that rises above what is personal/particular;
and the interventions are more elaborate than those in mono-
logical and non-critical dialogical exchanges. Children mobilize
thinking skills that are related to logical thinking (justification
of viewpoints), creative thinking (counter-examples), and re-
sponsible thinking (search for consequences tied to social con-
ventions and pleasing parents).
M01: Because daddies are in love with mommies/and after
they are always in love because they are married ()
M05: If we arent married were still were in love/well my
mommy isnt married shes in love with daddy eh [interrogative
tone of voice].
Teacher: Is it good or not good to be in love [interrogative
tone of voice]
F01: Its good () because some people are married and af-
ter they are happy.
M12: Its not good to get married () because you shouldnt
always get married () you shouldnt always get married be-
cause you have to do it once and after when you arent married
all the time well you come back and get married.
In conclusion, this first part of the analysis brought to light,
among a variety of types of exchanges, a predominance of
monological exchanges associated with a trace of semi-critical
dialogue. The children’s discursive skills were simple, but their
discourses were situated within a movement of decentering and
abstraction. These discourses thus indicate that t he childr en were
beginning to philosophize.
To validate the results obtained using the first instrument in
relation to the decentering and abstraction criteria, the transcript
was re-analyzed using a second, more specific and quantifiable
instrument: language markers.
Second Instrument: The Use of Pronouns
Before proceeding with the analysis of pronouns as language
markers, the authors had to understand their meaning in order to
position them on a continuum. For the sake of consistency and
homogeneity, our complexity criteria remained the same as in
the typology of exchanges: decentering and abstraction.
Analysis of the two transcripts (experimental and control
group) brought to light the use of five pronouns by the children.
These were positioned from the most simple (concrete and
self-center ed) to the mos t complex (abstr act and decen tered) (see
Table 2).
Three markers indicate concreteness and centering: the use of
“I” expresses centering on self and the child’s concrete and
personal experience (I like Nutella). The use of “we” means the
statement finds its relevance outside of simple personal experi-
Table 2.
Emergent language markers.
Marker I We/we must He (specific) They (generalized) and concepts You
Example I like Nutella
In philosophy we learn to
ask questions;
We must love everyone
My friend Jon as he
wears perfume
Parents they love their
Being in love means…
Do you mean …?
Complexity Simple Simple Simple Complex Complex
ence; it implies another person or persons while including one-
self (in philosophy we learn to ask questions) and also implies
the moral rule that has been learned (we must love everyone).
Use of the “specific he” is slightly decentered since it refers to
another person. However, this person belongs to the child’s
immediate circle: in our transcript, the “specific he” was asso-
ciated with a possessive “my” (My friend Jonas he wears per-
fume; my grandmother she lives in Algeria).
Two markers indicate decentering and abstraction: A “gene-
ralized they” is considered to be a complex pronoun that marks
decentering becaus e it imp lies cat egories o f peopl e (pare nts th ey
love their ch ildren)6, to which is added conceptual statements or
statements with o ut p ronominal referent (being in love means…).
Finally, “you” expresses interest in another person as a different
being (do you mean that…?).
Results Relating to the Use of Pronouns in the
Experimental Group
In the experimental group ’s trans cript, there were a tota l of 91
interventions as follows (see Table 3): 12 in terven tio ns used “I”, 24
interventions used “we”/“we must”, 17 interventions used “specific
he”, 31 interventions used “generalized they” or conceptual state-
ments, and 7 inter ventions used the “ you” form.
Percentage a nal ysis shows that th e predo minan t m arkers w ere
the generaliz ed “they” or concept ual stateme nts (34%), fo llowed
by “we” (26%). The presence of the “you” marker merits men-
tion, although its presence was minimal (8%).
In relation to the process of decentering and abstraction, it
emerges that although the children’s reflections were rooted in
specific and personal experience (57% of interventions), they
began to decenter and take part (42% of interventions) in the
relativism of others.
In summary, the results of the analysis, completed first from
the discursive and then from the language perspective, indicate
that the children in the experimental group exchanged in a di-
versified manner (anecdotal, monological, dialogical) with a
predominance of monological exchanges. Also, the language
markers used extended across the continuum, but with a pre-
dominance of “generalized they” and conceptual statements.
These results also lead us to argue that the children took part in
the philosophizing process.
Now, do these results reflect the discursive and language re-
alities of children aged five years (the control group)?
Control Group: Results Relative to the Typology of
Following are the results of the analysis of the control group
using the same two measurement instruments: the typology of
exchanges and language markers.
With regard to the children’s discursive competence, the re-
sults indicat e a predom inance of ane cdotal exc hanges (see Table
4). Three monological sequences were identified. No excerpts
displayed dialogical types of exchanges (non-critical, semi-cri-
tical or critical). The anecdotal sequences included a total of 41
interventions; the three monological sequences totaled 9 inter-
Following ar e some exam ples of t ypes of ane cdotal exch anges
identified in the control group’s transcript. The first illustrates a
simple anecd otal s equence tha t include s concr ete s tatements that
are centered on each person’s specific tastes: her little brother,
Nutella, horses.
F01: No but still I do like my little brother (…).
M07: I love Nutella (…).
F05: I like horses.
The second excerpt illustrates a sequence that we might be
tempted to consider as dialogical since F06 and M09 listen to
each other and answer each other. However, the sequence re-
mains on an anecdotal level in that the interventions are not
oriented toward solving a “common problem” because they refer
to M09’s particular behaviour.
Teacher: Are you still in love with M09 [interrogative tone of
voice] and how do you know you are in love with M09 [inter-
rogative tone of voice] (…)
F07: Because he is good looking (…)
M09: Because I wore perfume the first time.
Teacher: Because the first time you wore perfume [interro-
gative tone of voice] And that is why they are in love with you
[interrogative tone of voice] Is that true girls [interrogative
tone of voice]
F06: But actually they didnt smell the perfume/in fact, he
wore perfume to attract the girls.
M09: I put perfume on because I wanted to play with my
friends that’s all.
F06: At the beginning he told me that, he told me that it was
to attract the girls and I laughed.
M10: And now she is in love with me she is always kissing
Finally, the third excerpt illustrates a sequence of a mono-
logical type in that the statements are conceptual and are juxta-
posed in the discursive sequence.
Teacher: What does a boyfriend mean [interrogative tone of
M06: It means a boyfriend who likes another.
F05: A boyfriend is a sweetheart.
Results Relative to the Use of Pronouns in the Control
6Also margi nal us e of a gen eral ized “w e” (a d ivo rce i s wh en we lea v e ea ch
other) was noted. It was consi dered to b e in the sa me categ ory as a “ gene-
ralized they” (rather than as a “we” referring to other and self). The second analysis of the control group’s transcript was
Table 3.
Numbers and percentages of language markers. Exper i m en t a l g r o u p.
Markers I We/we must He (specific) They (generalized) and concepts You
Number of interventi ons 12 24 17 31 7
Percentage 13% 26% 18% 34% 8%
Percentage of decentering and abstraction 57% 42%
Table 4.
Types of exchanges: Numbe r o f s e q u e nc e s a n d i nt e r v e n t i o ns . Control group.
Type of exchange Anecdotal Monological Non-critical Dialogical Semi-critical Dialogical Critical Dialogical
Number of sequences Entire transcri pt 3 0 0 0
Total # of interventions 41 9 0 0 0
conducted based on language markers. Results indicated a total
of 50 interventions7 (see Table 5): 18 interventions used “I”, 6
interventions used “we”, 16 used “specific he”, 10 used “gene-
ralized they” or concepts, and none used the “you” form.
Percentage analysis shows that the predominant marker was
“I” (36%), followed by “specific he” (32%).
In relation to the process of decentering and abstraction, it
emerges that the children’s interventions are in large part (80%
percent) personal and specific. Conceptual statements and in-
terest in others is displayed in 20% of interventions.
In summary, t he e xchange in the control grou p is rooted in the
anecdotal, based on the use of language markers that are per-
sonal/specific (80%), with a predominant use of “I”.
Results show a g reate r vari ety in the types of exchan ges in the
experimental group, and a more b alanced use of pronouns on our
continuum—and this in spite of the developmental gap between
the groups of pupils (four years of age vs. five years of age).
These results indicate that th e practice of philosophical di alogue
affects these capabilities as early as age four (experimental
group)—effects that are likely to stimulate young childr en to use
underlying cognitive strategies that are currently scarcely sus-
pected in traditional psychology. If we move away from Piaget’s
traditional model of development in stages, what is the progres-
sion of these young kindergarten pupils, in a Z.E.P. context, with
regard to the discursive and language competence being studied?
In this section we examine the context for both groups of pupils
(specifics of kindergarten classes, teaching conditions in a Z.E.P.,
characteristics of the philosophical discussion group). We then
present our results.
The Kindergarten Class
The experimental group was comprised of middle-section
kindergarten pupils. At this level, the activities usually sugges ted
to the children are closely related to daily life, and are often
determined by a concrete project with a short-term goal. For
example, they are aske d to complete a book cov er for Mo ms and
Dads. To make this cover, they must color it without coloring
outside the lines. On the other hand, philosophical activity
requires an abs tract orientat ion: one must reflect, think, question.
Apparently this abstraction did not pose a problem for pupils
aged 4 years.
The Underprivileged Conditions in a Z.E.P
Usually, in a Z.E.P. context, the pupils’ motivation to a dis-
cipline is related to its practical and immediate application. The
problem is reinforced by teachers who, in trying to interest
pupils who have difficulties at school or who come from so-
cially underprivileged backgrounds, unconsciously accentuate
the utilitarian relationship to school. In the experimental group,
however, the activity was explicitly recognized as an abstract
discipline—philosophy—and was appreciated as such.
The Philosophical Discussion Group
Despite its philosophical nature, the session was not per-
ceived by pupils as useless. For example, the children’s in-
volvement in the exchanges was clear in that their spoken
words expressed concrete and assumed positions that reflected
their dialogical relationship to others. To children, “speaking”
means “doing” something (Austin, 1991); it is engaging in a
serious activity. If, as maintained by the pragmatists (Dewey,
1925; Lipman, 2003; Rorty, 1989, 1999), thinking is useful, we
understand in reading the children’s interventions that this use-
fulness is not necessarily to be understood as immediately iden-
tifiable. Indeed, we note that the teacher did not ask the pupils
if they were in love, or with whom they were in love. She fos-
tered a more abstract practice of discourse in speaking of love.
Beyond Piaget’s Model
One might expect that, faced with the theme of love, each
child would essentially mobilize his own experience (Piaget’s
egocentricity) expressed as specific anecdotes. One might
imagine the child describing love using expressions such as: “I
am in love with…”, each child superimposing his own personal
experience onto the experiences of his peers, with no other link
than thought association. Inspired by Kohlberg’s interpretation
of the development of moral judgment in children, one might
7Many of th e children’s an swers to th e teacher’s q uestions were f ormulated
in a sing le word or few wor ds (yes, no, etc.). These were n ot considered to
be interventions in our analysis.
Table 5.
Language markers. Control group.
Markers I We/we must He (specific) They (generalized) or concepts You
Number of interventi ons 18 6 16 10 0
Percentage 36% 12% 32% 20% 0%
Percentage of decentering and abstraction 80% 20%
expect reflection guided by the “fear of punishment” principle,
expressing itself through approval-seeking answers to the teacher’s
questions instead of reasoning intended for peers.
Analysis of the experimental group’s transcript shows that
development is not that linear. Although 13% of interventions
were directly stated using “I” and more than a quarter used
“we” (which implies adding others to self as well as compliance
with socially-induced rules), nevertheless 8% of the interven-
tions used the “you”, manifesting a consideration for or an at-
tention to the words of peers. In this sample, this foothold in the
use of “you” distinguished the experimental group from the
control group. Although the children’s interventions identified
persons very close to them (i.e.: family and schoolmates) and
although resorting to concrete examples seemed intended to
support or validate a generalization, a use of the “generalized
they” (“daddies they are in love with mommies”, not “my daddy,
he is in love with my mommy”) was observed. The beginning of
generalization and abstraction, noted in several interventions,
indicates that some children may have temporarily transcended
an egocentric position, displaying in their words a pre-relativis m
usually attributed to children aged 8 to 9 years (Daniel et al.,
Furthermore, analyses brought to light a variety of types of
exchanges in the experimental group, from the anecdotal (spon-
taneous narratives of personal and particular experiences) to the
dialogical critical (shared problem to be solved using divergent
points of view) with roots in the monological (reflection slightly
decentered and independent from that of peers). If the narrative
is set up around age four years (and co nti nue s ap pro xi mate ly u ntil
pre-adolescence), the monological exchange is unexpected prior
to age five or six in that it requ ire s a praxis that en ables the child
to disregard his own perceptions in order to interpret and pro-
duce inferences that are connected to, but also slightly distinct
from, the theme being discussed. This is unusual in that dialogic
cooperation in kindergarten is ex pected to be in k eeping with th e
theme (Golder, 1996; Florin, 1999). As to the manifestation,
although rudimentary, of four brief sequences of semi-critical
dialogical exchange, this is situated far ahead of the complexity
continuum expected at this age. Attaining this type of exchange,
even sporadically, implies a complex language conduct of
sharing and evaluating knowledge or meanings; it requires
thinking skills and attitudes such as: doubting, questioning,
justifying, and stating a divergent position. The results tend to
indicate that these complex skills, usually associated with ado-
lescence, when occasionally manifested by young pupils may
reveal unsuspected cognitive strategies (Daniel & Gagnon,
2011). It should be noted that the semi-critical dialogical ex-
change does not require capabilities relating to negotiation. The
latter is manif ested onl y in critic al dialogic al exchanges , and this
type of exchange was not observed in the experimental group’s
The thinking mobilized during the exchanges is also situated
beyond the c lassica l Piage t defini tion in that i t was char acteri zed
not only by closure but also by openness. Closure was expressed
by thinking which did not yet cons ider nuanced po sitions, which
opposed clear-cut opinions without justification, and which
instantly and definitivel y represented experience, the world, and
people. Openness was present in questionings, in doubting
(“maybe”), in traces of justifications to explain the reasons
behind their position to ot hers, as well as in reason ing that differs
from “ready-made”, “magical”, “playful” or “magical-realistic”
thoughts. The exchanges were characterized by coherence with
regard to the question, by involvement in the beginnings of a
problem-solving process, and by some children’s concern for
preciseness when attempting to clarify words or situations.
The case study that was conducted showed the limits inhe-
rent in this methodology. Our results have yet to be validated in
other groups of children aged four years, within larger sam-
p-lings or with control groups of the same age. It would be in-
teresting for psycholinguists to study specific elements in the
construction of discourse: re-use, reformulation, addition, order
of arguments, diversity or redundancy of justifications, validity
of statements or of the biases they contain, lexicological pre-
ciseness, etc.
The two continuums on which our analyses were based, re-
lating to the types of exchanges and to language markers, en-
abled us to observe a process of increasing complexity in the
children’s discourses as early as four years of age. Indeed, the
transition from “I” to “they”, then to “you”, as well as the tran-
sition from anecdotal narration to monological conversation
then to dialogue, implies the mobilization of complex thinking
capabilities linked to decentering and abstraction.
The results indicate that these two capabilities, contrary to
what Piaget stated, can be mobilized, albeit in a rudimentary
and non-systematic manner, by children who participate in
philosophy sessions as early as four years of age. The analysis
of exchanges in the control group shows that these two capa-
bilities were not directly mobilized by children aged five years
who were from the same underprivileged socio-economic back-
ground but who did not have the benefit of philosophical praxis.
Given the gap in the results regarding the predominant types
of exchanges (monological for the experimental group and
anecdotal for the control group) and the language markers used
(simple and complex for the experimental group and simple for
the control group), the authors maintain, in line with the works
of Mead, Vygotsky and Bruner and the theses of social cogni-
tion and developmental psycholinguistics, that children four
years of age are capable of productive involvement in discur-
sive social activities. Precisely because these dialogical activi-
ties require a certain decentering, they encourage young pupils
to practice exchanges of a dialogical, and even of a semi-criti-
cal dialogical, type. These activities allow them to participate
cognitively and linguistically in the meaningful context of a
“philosophical community of inquiry” constructing and pursu-
ing a common problem defined by the pupils with regard to
their knowledge of the world.
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