Engaged Inquiry with Children: Fostering Empathy and Perspective-taking

Principal Investigator: Dr. Barbara Weber

Co-Applicant: Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl

Funding: 74 265 CAD


The primary purpose of the proposed research project is to investigate the impact of the philosophical Community of Inquiry (CoI) on fostering children’s experiences of empathy and perspective-taking. The CoI has long been used as an inquiry-oriented teaching method since its development in the late 1970s, when the Philosophy for Children Program (P4C) was developed by Matthew Lipman at the Montclair State University. Numerous empirical studies have shown that CoI has a significant and positive impact on critical thinking, cognitive abilities, reading, and communication skills (Daniel et al., 2000; Topping and Trickey, 2004; Lim, 2006; Fisher, 2007; Lyle & Thomas-Williams, 2012). As a result, many countries have devoted considerable resources to developing a CoI curriculum and implementing it in schools and other education programs. The philosophical CoI is now used in over 60 countries, and its curriculum materials (philosophical novels & pedagogical manuals) have been translated into over 40 languages. Above and beyond improving these aforementioned technical skills, the CoI is believed to have a positive impact on children’s ability to perspective-take and experience empathy (Schertz, 2007; Sharp, 2009; Gardner, 2011; Weber, 2013 c), i.e. competencies that are likely to lead to an increase of prosocial and altruistic behaviour (Davis, 1983; Batson, 1991, 1997; Batson et al., 1989; Galinsky, 2000; Zhou, et al., 2003; Oberle, et al., 2010; Schonert-Reichl & Oberle, 2011; Schonert-Reichl, et al., 2012).

However, to our knowledge, the impact of CoI on empathy and perspective-taking are largely based on theoretical deliberations. There is only one study that shows the improvement of perspective-taking through the CoI (Gardner, 1998). And while it is intuitive that the more critical thinking-oriented approach of the CoI fosters perspective-taking, the question is, if it also increases a more emotional-based competency like empathy. To advance knowledge in this area the specific objectives of the proposed study are to determine to what degree the CoI helps children a) increase their ability to perspective-take, and b) foster their ability for empathy in the sense of an ethical emotion (i.e. leading to examples of altruistic and prosocial behavior).


This study will involve implementing an established philosophical CoI program to young children (grades 6 to 7) in 12 classrooms in Vancouver (B.C.). Data collection will include pre- and post-test surveys, teachers’ reports on students’ prosocial behaviour, and video-taped students’ classroom discussions of the CoI.

Anticipated Outcomes and Impacts:

This study will provide insight into the degree to which children participating in the CoI intervention program a) experience greater empathy and improvements in their ability to perspective-take; and b) show more altruistic and prosocial behaviour over time, compared to students in controlled groups. The results of the study will also contribute into the field of social-emotional learning, by demonstrating whether a critical-thinking-based program like the philosophical CoI may have a positive impact on children’s emotional development.

Last, but not least, perspective-taking and empathy are competencies that not only improve children’s social and emotional well-being, but also help them be capable of communicating and understanding across and despite differences in an increasingly complex and diverse multi-cultural society, such as in B.C. This potential civic benefit provides a strong incentive to include elements of the CoI in B.C. education programs in order to educate and prepare children for a pluralistic society in a globalized world. Thus, a positive result could potentially lead to the implementation of this program more widely in BC schools as well as the Teacher Education Program at UBC.

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