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 lea