Education Innovation

“Philosophy for Children” In South Africa: Example Of Ukama

How is philosophy applied to education from a South African perspective?

By Giulia Massella

We are used to thinking that philosophy is an abstract school subject that can serve no practical purpose. Above all, we commonly associate the discipline philosophy with coming from cultures and thoughts of the Western world which usually remain relegated only to university classrooms. What if I told you that philosophy in African cultures has a very lively role to play in practice and that it can be taught to children to understand cooperation and collective action?

During my university studies, I understood the importance of philosophy within the educational context, especially in schools. Since I was always against the teaching of philosophy as history or evolution, I have always preferred a more dynamic and critical learning. So, I was pleasantly surprised to have found a very interesting project which uses philosophy as a tool to understand reality and not merely as a set of historical origins of some ideas.

It is important to make a distinction between “philosophy” as a body of knowledge and  “philosophizing” or, doing philosophy. In fact, Lipman uses the notion of “form of life” to indicate a philosophy practiced.(1) With philosophy, people start to reflect upon and question their existence and the value of existence. In the traditional African context, philosophy can be used as a solution to or for investigation of social issues. (2)

“Philosophy for Children” is an educational project in South Africa that proposes the inclusion of philosophy into the educational system with the aim of developing critical and creative thinking skills in children. It is especially designed to be worked with children from the ages of 4 to 18 with the goal of developing and stimulating higher-order thinking.(3)

“Community of Inquiry” is an important pedagogical practice connected to this project. It can be described as a group of individuals who use dialogue to investigate problems, find their limitations, search for solutions, and generate possibilities of ideas. So, in the context of “Philosophy for Children”, the Community of Inquiry recognizes the class as a group in which thinking is important and is promoted as a critical, creative, caring, and collaborative activity. This project makes students independent and able to build close connections with one another.(4) Participants of this project learn to value individuals and respect cultural differences by using  their potential to develop critical inquiry.

In several African societies and cultures, individual thinking is related to the community. This concept of community is understood as a series of interactions and interconnections within the cosmos and not as an individual existence.(5) In particular, in a South African group called Shora, we find the concept of Ukama. It indicates being a person in relation to other human beings, as well as relationships between people and things that share some bonds and commonalities. Ukama is also a concept related to the family, the basic cohesive unit of a society. 

Consequently, the concept of Ukama makes sense in the context of Community of Inquiry in the programme “Philosophy for Children”. Ukama is a kind of cooperation. For the Shora, in order to know something, one person has to participate cooperatively in a dynamic process involving mutual sharing with others, since knowledge is not exclusive of the community. Individuals have to work with others in order to know anything. In this sense, the community learns together.

In African cultures, sharing is an important value based on the understanding that people have different qualities, talents, and resources. They share the spirit of cooperative living in a positive way.(6)

The Ukama ethic can be viewed as the foundation of conceptualising philosophy in Africa. The practice of Community of Inquiry can be an important process in making philosophy part of children’s education. With this concept, a novel set of  fundamental ideas for a philosophical community of inquirers can be achieved. It can develop tolerance, open-mindedness, mutual respect and harmony which characterises the Ukama ethic. This is the goal of the Philosophy for Children project.(7)

As a whole, “Philosophy for Children” creates a relationship between philosophy and childhood. By introducing philosophy in children’s education, they would become more open-minded, tolerant and able to cooperate with each other. While introducing this, a community of inquiry is created in which people are connected to each other to think about different aspects of societies. The importance of this project is that it makes the Ukama identity stronger – people share their knowledge and the values of this culture. This project is crucial in order to create a strong sense of community, enabling people to collectively resolve social issues they might be facing. 


1. M. Lipman, Philosophy Goes to School (1988), Philadelphia: Temple University Press, p. 12

2. P. Higgs, African Philosophy and the transformation of educational discourse in South Africa (2003), Journal of Education, 30, p. 5-22.

3. Amasa Philip Ndofirepi, Philosophy for Children: the quest for an African perspective (2011), South African Journal of Education, Vol 31, 246-256

4. Ndofirepi, op. cit., Vol 31, p. 250

5.  Amasa Philip Ndofirepi & Rachel N. Shanyanana (2016) Rethinking ukama in the context of ‘Philosophy for Children’ in Africa, Research Papers in Education, 31:4, 428-441

6. Ibid., p. 433

7.  One of the examples of project

Cover photograph by Tina Floersch

About the Author:

Giulia Masella was born in Verona in 1996. After graduation in Philosophy at University of Verona, she moved to Bologna to study History and Oriental Studies. In Falun, she is doing a master in African Studies. She occasionally teaches Italian in a high school in Falun. She is also involved in the Student Union at Dalarna University.

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