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Thinking Moves, philosophy and creativity with Roger Sutcliffe

Metacognition made easy


How did you start your adventure with philosophy for children? What has brought you to this amazing work field?

I was actually a standard math teacher. But at that point in my career, in my mid 30s, I was thinking that there must be more to life than teaching maths, even though that's important. I decided to leave teaching and go out into the big wide world. And in the interim, between deciding to leave my job and actually doing it, quite by chance I saw the BBC documentary on Philosophy for Children – ‘Socrates for Six Year Olds’. Since I didn't have any other clear plans at the time, I thought, ‘why don't I go over to America and explore that?’ It just looked really interesting and important. Soon after I packed up my teaching bags for the time being, I went over to America. I spent a few months there and got hooked. Then I came back to the UK. And for a couple of terms, I just did voluntary teaching at local schools to practice P4C, to see whether it ‘did what it said on the tin’ - whether it worked. And the results were good enough for me to go further with this. And off it started. That was back in 1990.

Have you met Mathew Lipman there?

Surely, I went over to Mendham twice. I met him and admired him. I don't say I built up a close personal relationship with him, but certainly a respectful professional relationship.

What was it about him that so many people were attracted to, to learn from him?

I think I'll answer that in two parts. One part is, as a person, he wasn't hugely charismatic, whatever that means. He was actually quite a quiet, very deliberate person as I understood him. But clearly very thoughtful, and very dedicated not just to philosophy for children, but to philosophy, and the future of education. In a way, of course, it's quite hard to separate the impact of Matt Lipmann, from the impact of Ann Sharp, because she was certainly outgoing. You couldn't miss her. And she, in many ways, I think, was the chief advocate for P4C. But clearly, the two of them work closely and intensely together. As a pair, they were very impressive. There's no doubt about that.


The second part of my answer would be around just the sheer vision of the man. I mean, if you read his autobiography, you’ll see. Just look at his personal journey into this field, which he'd never expected to go into - he always intended to be an academic philosopher, teaching students at university. But I think that partly for social and moral reasons, partly for personal reasons, he began to realise that education needed something more - particularly American education at the time. It really was this simple but powerful idea: that philosophy had been more or less excluded from school curricula, when naturally it should be at the very heart of it. But to translate that into meaningful and adopted practice at the end of the 20th century was, and even now, is a huge challenge, because so many people are ignorant of the philosophical tradition, philosophical purposes. And of course, the value of philosophical thinking.

You have also met Edward de Bonno, who’s been celebrated as the creative thinking expert.

I did go to his two-week workshop in Malta at the height of his fame. That was as a result of seeing him speak at least twice at the International Conference on Thinking. He and a couple of others were big names in the field in those days. I admired his work for quite a long time then, but I also think that later he ran out of steam. He just kept repeating similar ideas, to the point where, by the time I'd heard the same speech, virtually word for word, at three consecutive conferences, I was a bit disenchanted - because, you know, this is the expert in creative thinking!

I’m sure you’ve learned something from him too. How does the creative thinking and philosophy intertwine? What's the connection between creative thinking and philosophy?

Philosophical thinking, at its best, is best conceived as reconceptualizing. We all have concepts, big or small - concepts that we develop through our lives. We develop them from our experience, from what we're told, how things are explained to us, then we find more information and so on. I don't differentiate as Vygotsky does between scientific concepts and everyday concepts. Concepts are concepts, and we build all of them in much the same ways. There's just a specialist focus in science or history or whatever.

The process of reconceptualising is essentially one of making new connections, either an idea to another or to further experience. So, we say, ‘Oh, I never realised that! I always thought of x as such and such, but I can see that it's such and such’. We do this from experience, or from what other people write and say: it's all grist to the intellectual mill. Provided that we keep an open mind and that we're constantly striving for better understanding, then I think we're inevitably in a creative process or a recreative one.

SOPHIA network, philosophy for children Ireland, P4C Ireland
Roger Sutcliffe (in the middle) has been a speaker at SOPHIA network meeting 2019 in Galway Ireland

An interesting aspect of creative thinking is what we think of as ‘new’ ideas. There is a common inquiry in philosophy as to whether any ideas are really new. My own view is that any new idea we express is inevitably made up of words or symbols that already exist, ideas that we've taken from others. For sure, if you look at the narrower field of, let's call it, ‘artistic’ creation, it can be argued that it is possible to come up with a wholly new vision of how to represent a scene, or how to present a dance, or something like that. And those may be like „aha! moments” where the almost seems to come out of nowhere. Personally, I would still argue that even those huge insights or new ways of thinking and looking at the world emerged from past ideas, and therefore you were just putting things together in a different way.

In this vein, the English word 'composition', comes from the Latin 'to put together'. So, let’s say, when a musician, a composer creates a new piece of music, if it's any good, nobody would have heard of it before - and not just a new tune, but a new arrangement perhaps, or whatever. But actually, when you think about the tools that they're working with, and the tools that everybody works with, they're just literally putting them together in new combinations, new ways. And I think that goes for artistic creation as well as all other creation. The brain is constantly connecting, reconnecting. If you have an open and constructive mind, then it isn't just that a connection sort of hits you, you are actively looking for new ways of thinking, new ways of changing your ideas.

I think similarly about my creative process. It was always recombining things in new ways, sequencing them differently into new visions. But they would always come from something I came across in life earlier, from the past experience and things I've learned along the way. I don't think there's anything wrong with looking at creativity in that way at all, recycling things and ideas. Sometimes people would say, creativity is about inventing and creating something completely new. And if you don't do that, you're not creative. But I think this recreating is very much of an essence of creativity itself.

People underestimate the amount of creativity in everyday life, especially in young people. There is something very wonderful about when very young children utter their first sentences. What they're doing is essentially putting words together in a meaningful way: subjects and predicates. What they’re doing is choosing to talk about X, and to say Y about it. When a child does that, and creates their first sentence, very likely the sentence has been uttered by hundreds, thousands, millions of people before. It could be as simple as „ball hit me”, or whatever. But for the child to take that step in their head, of representing in words something that happened out there, is a recreation, it's a creative moment.

To go back then to the original point about how philosophy connects with creative thinking, then, philosophical inquiry stimulates each and every member of the community to play with words and phrases and come up with different recombinations. It may be serious play, but we hear this comment from one person and another from another person, and our brain is continually working to make the sense of it all. And when we use the phrase „make sense” this „making” is creating. We're just doing it in our own way. And it may or may not be a lightbulb to other people. But if we've made sense of it for ourselves, then we've created something very special.

I've recently finished a three weeks’ course on thinking moves. I first heard of it from your presentation at the SOPHIA meeting in Galway in 2019. And I have been admiring how those little moves that you propose in the book, and in the course based on this, open the door to creativity as well. So, can you tell us a bit more about where this idea comes from, and what's in it?

Well, one of the big names in the thinking skills movement was, and may still be, Arthur Costa. For the benefit of others who might not be familiar with him, he has a program called Habits of Mind. It's a very admirable program. He identifies 16 habits or processes of the mind that he believed were common to successful people. I had and have issues around that notion of what counts as a successful person but let us just consider what it is to be a good or successful thinker. Then some of his habits of mind are not only admirable but very sensible: wondering, listening, persisting, etc.

I didn't make one-to-one correspondence between his scheme and the processes of philosophical thinking, and I don't think he would have intended it to be used in that way. He was talking about the very generic, all-purpose, habits of mind. But I thought it was interesting enough to go learn what I could from him and connect it with my own work. So, I went to a workshop he ran and talked about developing skilful thinking. And he made the point, as we do in Philosophy for Children, that we tend to underestimate the skill with which even very young children can think. It's not that they don't think - they can think very well. Nevertheless, at any age we might be able to improve our thinking, especially if we thought more precisely about the process - what we actually do when we're thinking.

In one of his slides, then, he presented what he called thinking verbs. There happened to be 26 on the slide, but I didn't realize that until afterwards. What I did notice was that the list was in alphabetical order, with three or four beginning with A. Instantly I recognised that two of them – analyze and apply - were two of the six in the well-known hierarchy of Bloom's taxonomy

Of course, most teachers have been introduced to Bloom at some point, and I was well familiar with it. But I had never applied (!) it in my own teaching, and I'd never seen it used well by anyone else. So, I thought, well, that is interesting. There's obviously some common thinking here - Costa, Bloom, etc. – but I was thinking to myself, is there a definitive or authoritative list of thinking verbs? And because Costa’s list was presented in more or less alphabetical order, I thought to myself, wouldn't it be great if we just had the basic moves of thinking in a memorable A to Z?


I played around with this idea at the time – nearly 10 years ago - and in succeeding years I kept coming back to it, making a little progress each time. I began thinking maybe this was just like a fool's errand, because it seemed almost impossible. Why on earth would the basic moves of thinking be reducible to 26 words, each one of which begins with a different letter of the alphabet? I was well aware that other people would think the idea was just misconceived. However, I stuck at it and then about four years ago, I had a bit of a breakthrough and I realised that it was indeed possible.

It took me another three or so years to make sure that the particular choice of 26 was as comprehensive as possible. Then I put it out for people to critique. Happily, many people helped me at that stage, including Jason Buckley and Tom Bigglestone, and of course, my colleagues in Dialogue Works, Nick Chandley and Bob House, and my wife and various other people. And then I finalised and published it. We began to put it out into schools, and things were going really well. Then of course, COVID hit us. The value of it, I think, and this is a bit immodest of me, it is the best thought-through taxonomy, or scheme for thinking, that there is.

I think it's also pretty accessible and comprehensible.

Yes, that was a key element of it. I wanted comprehensiveness, but I wanted comprehensibility as well. Because I'm a teacher, I wanted tools that teachers could work with and students could use. And that's why the first two are as simple as they could be, AHEAD and BACK. You can't get simpler than that. But also, you can't get much more comprehensive, because most of our thinking is either to the future, or to the past. There's also thinking in the present, but that's dealt with as well - by LISTEN / LOOK, the equivalent of Costa’s ‘gather data with all your senses’.

I’ve also looked at it from the angle of mindfulness practice, because this is something that I've been doing for many years. When I practice mindfulness of thinking and of thoughts arising in the mind, these are moves that I can notice happening there. In your scheme you put names on them and categorise them into 26 letters, but these are the distinguishable kinds of things that happen in the mind, which is really interesting. Now after familiarising myself with the Thinking Moves a bit more, I can see how they can also be helpful as a means of learning more about metacognition and serve as a sort of creative thinking toolbox too. I hope in the second part of our conversation we can get deeper into this and some other project you and the Dialogue Works are currently working on.

To be continued...

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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