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