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Cultivating virtues in schools, P4C Plus with Roger Sutcliffe

A lot of people will be familiar with P4C, but now Dialogue Works offers a P4C plus programme. Can you say a few words about this project?

There are two elements to the ‘plus’. One is what we've been talking about, which is the Thinking Moves. That's like an extra way of enabling facilitators, but also participants in philosophical inquiry, to pause and say, ‘Well, we've got this far... what do we need to do next?’ That might be thinking AHEAD to any consequences or resolutions but could also be thinking BACK to the original question. It could be to TEST a consensus, or to WEIGH UP different solutions. And then within a particular inquiry, we might want to encourage young people to make CONNECTions, or to DIVIDE (make distinctions).

And maybe there are times when the community should ZOOM in on a particular concept and examine it more closely. But at other times, they need to ZOOM out and say, ‘well, what's the big picture here?’ In fact, I think one of the really wonderful gifts that philosophy and philosophical training gives to humans is to balance what I call 'big picture thinking' and ‘little pixel’ thinking. Philosophers are often asking big questions - they want to understand the big picture. But, in a sort of complementary way to that, they also ask what I call ‘little’ questions - to ‘ZOOM In’ on details, and to make sure, e.g., that we have sound evidence or sound reasoning. That analytical approach is equally important. So, ZOOM in and ZOOM out capture what I call the yo-yo of philosophy: you ‘go big’, to the general, and then you ‘go small’ and check out particulars … and then back to the general, and so on.

So, to go back to the big picture (!) of Thinking Moves, I think the scheme provides a very useful tool of analysis and development for philosophical facilitators and enquirers.

But the second element of the ‘Plus’ in P4C Plus is this: that through nearly 30 years of practicing P4C, and trying to promote it as well, I came to the view that it really needed to be seen as more than just an add-on to an education, where we just ‘do a little bit of philosophy’ once a week or so.

If we genuinely believed, as I always had, that philosophical inquiry - and by that, I mean, all the skills involved, not just questioning, but reasoning, reflecting, refining, etc, - is of value in every subject, and indeed, in everyday life, then we need to be much clearer about what elements, in the process of P4C and philosophical inquiry, are of such value. And so I began to think of P4C much more as a pedagogy, or as a framework for thinking, which could be applied in any subject. I analysed it into what I call 'six strands of philosophical teaching'. I'll call it philosophical teaching for a moment, but at the end I'll explain why the full concept and title is ‘philosophical teaching-and-learning’.

P4C Ireland
Roger Sutcliffe speaking about P4C and Thinking Moves at SOPHIA network meeting 2019 in Galway Ireland

INQUIRY is the first of the six strands, as this is at the heart of what we do. The second of the six strands is CONCEPT-CONSTRUCTION - constructing new concepts and new ways of thinking. We do that with particular zest in philosophical inquiry, but it's what's happening also in science. Certainly, a science teacher is teaching facts. But what she or he really wants is for the students to understand the key concepts - of cause or state or evolution or whatever. And these are huge concepts. For sure you need information and facts in order to master them, but mastery involves a lifetime's study, and each person is on a journey only up to a certain point in any and every sphere of human knowledge and understanding. So, concept-construction is a particular focus of philosophical enquiry, but it has application in every subject – and beyond, in everyday life - as well.

Here’s another way of thinking about it. The classroom is like a forum or a place for developing thinking as well as learning. We've long since left behind the idea that teachers ‘know it all’ and just transmit what they know magically into the students’ brains. Most modern teaching accepts the principle of constructivism – indeed, of social constructivism in the Vygotskian sense, i.e. that learning is a social process. It’s a process of helping each other understand or make sense of things.

Then, if you ask, ‘how do you practically advance concept construction in the classroom’, a large part of that is through DIALOGUE, which is a third strand of philosophical teaching. The teacher presents an idea but then encourages the students to talk about it amongst themselves. That's the way that they'll come to ‘own’ the concept for themselves.

More people nowadays talk about ‘dialogic teaching’. But, for me, it is a bit strange to talk about dialogic teaching without dialogic learning, because the whole point is for the teacher and the learner to be in dialogue. Good, dialogic, teaching and learning, indeed, is also about enabling the students to teach and learn from each other, and this has always been a feature of philosophical inquiry, especially P4C.

There are three other strands of philosophical teaching. One of them is REASONING. Who could possibly dispute that philosophers have fine-tuned the art and the value of reasoning? But as well as developing reasoning deliberately and intelligently in philosophy, one can apply the same sort of criteria, and standard procedures, to the development of good thinking in every subject.

Again, here, I reject the Vygotskian notion that scientific reasoning is distinct from any other sort of reasoning. No, it's reasoning. You've got concepts, you're putting them together; either the conjunction is valid or is not valid. The same goes in maths: even though we use symbols, there's a logical or rational process going on.


Reflection is one of the last two strands, and a particular favourite of mine. It was actually built into the title of the society for promoting P4C that I co-founded in the UK - SAPERE. If you unpack that acronym, it's the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry (spelt with an E, but that’s only to make the acronym work), and REFLECTION in Education.

For me, even before I was involved P4C, I recognized that inquiry and reflection were the two foundations of good learning. Inquiry enables you to engage with the world. And reflection is the sense that you make of it once you've done your research and got the materials with which to make your understanding of the world.

Reflection is an underestimated skill. Indeed, I think of it as a general virtue - reflectiveness in and for life as a whole. But just in regard to formal learning, I think we simply don't give students enough time in each lesson, or in each unit of the enquiry or learning, to reflect on their learning.

I think this is exactly what Dewey had in mind when he talked about the learning process. He is generally taken to have been the founder of the ‘learning through doing’ concept or approach.

I think he would have disowned that slogan, but my reading of him is that he did think we learned from experience; and insofar as experience is ‘doing’ then, okay.

But much more than that – and he was very explicit about this - is that we learn from doing and ‘realising what came’ from what we did. Now that, in other words, is reflecting on it: we realize that this is the case, or that's not the case, or we should do it this way, or we shouldn't do it that way, and so on. So, it's a general validation, if you like, of what we've learned. Reflection, then, is the fifth strand (though this is not a sequence – they continually complement or interweave each other). Good P4C is reflective and deliberately so.


The sixth strand is not quite original to me, but I am certainly giving it a new emphasis. It’s what I call ‘VIRTUES-VALUING’. I’ve got evidence, from Lipman's videos made at the Reykjavik ICPIC conference 20 - 30 years ago, that he talked about values in P4C. Indeed, he was unashamed that it promoted certain values. But even he, and people ever since then, have tended to think of the values and virtues of P4C as being essentially about process.

For philosophical inquiry to be successful and productive, it is true, the participants need to practice the virtues of open-mindedness, tolerance, empathy, etc. - sometimes called the communicative virtues. And I'm all in favor of cultivating and celebrating those. But my own take, not just on P4C, but philosophy as a whole, is that actually the very heart of the business - the reason why I do philosophy, at any rate - is because I think it helps me make better judgments in life, and hopefully lead a better life.

Granted that ‘a better life’ is a very big and controversial concept. But then, it's what philosophy, including Eastern philosophy, has been wrestling with fundamentally for 2000-3000 years.

So, for me, the aim of all thinking and particularly thinking philosophically, is to understand the world better, and then to make better judgments about how I should act and interact with it. And, of course, ‘the world’ includes both other people and my own inner world.

If you look at it from that point of view, then, P4C isn't just about cultivating communicative virtues - or even just intellectual virtues like precision, and curiosity, which of course, are important, and which schools should be very interested in. It is about developing social (moral) virtues - the recognition that my perspective is mine, and yours is yours, and we sometimes see things differently, but that doesn't mean we have to fall out.

And, of course, it is also about developing the personal virtues that go along with the pursuit of the good life. I mean, if we don't show courage, if we don't show determination, if we just don't care, then we're not going to make much progress as individuals and as members of the human species.


So that's a big vision of P4C Plus. It is what I've been spending the last year or two really focused on: how philosophical teaching can and should be developing virtues - and deliberately and unashamedly doing that.

I just want to say one more thing, picking up my earlier promise in regard to philosophical teaching-and-learning. Good, philosophical teaching, I hold, interweaves the six strands - inquiry, concept construction, reasoning, reflection, and virtues-valuing - so that the teaching is more effective: the learners learn more and better. But the point is that in the process, learners inevitably become better at employing the strands independently themselves.

To this end, I would say, we should not think of the processes as ‘skills’, but rather as dispositions or virtues in themselves, (curiosity, creativity, communicativeness, reasonableness, reflectiveness, idealism) that can be cultivated or grown. A philosophical learner, then, is one and the same as a philosophical teacher, not only because they're engaged in the same human enterprise, of making best sense of things, but because they are practising the same virtues.

Well, that's the package. Of course, these elements have always been there in P4C, but I hope that the 6-strand framework, a bit like the Thinking Moves, makes it more explicit, makes it more manageable. And people can say, ‘Ah, yes, well, that's definitely a plus to what I've been doing’!


He was one of the co-founders of SAPERE, the UK charity for advancing P4C - Philosophy for Children / Communities - and has played a significant role in teacher education ever since. He helped design SAPERE’s teacher education programme, and the charity has trained over 30,000 teachers since it was founded. He also served as President of ICPIC (International Council for Philosophical Inquiry with Children) from 2004 to 2008.

Roger authored the CIE Global Perspectives IGCSE and advised the IBO on the development of its Theory of Knowledge course. He wrote a handbook on Inquiry-based Learning for the Open Futures project, funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust, and was an evaluator of two innovative projects for the Geography Association. He is the author of Thinking Moves A – Z: Metacognition Made Simple, and will be publishing his chef d’oeuvre, on Philosophical Teaching-and-Learning, in 2021.

He has worked extensively overseas. He and his colleagues in developed a P4C / Life skills curriculum for a government in the Middle East, and now support and validate P4C training in several countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, and South Africa. They also run courses of their own in Thinking Moves and in Values and Virtues, as well as in P4C Plus.

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