Philosophical Teaching

A pedagogy for the 21st Century
Roger Sutcliffe, who is a trainer with  Sapere, the UK based organisation supporting Philosophy for Children (P4C) looks at how developing the right habits of mind in the classroom can infuse teaching with new meaning and energy.
Can teaching still make a difference?

It is common to observe that the world is changing fast. Whilst this change may impact on teaching in positive ways – such as the opportunities presented by advancing technology – it also presents a great challenge to those who entered the profession to ‘make a difference’ to the lives of young people.  It is a world where public magnanimity, if not personal generosity, seem to be reducing even as globalisation is increasing.

To some extent, alas, this narrowing of vision is reflected in an educational climate that is ever more focussed on academic ‘standards’ and qualifications.  Politicians, at least, seem fixated on scores, as if the aim were to top an Olympic-style table – at the cost, often, of rounded personal development, if not the health and well-being of children, and of teachers themselves. They fail to appreciate the larger purposes and processes of education. They reduce understanding of self, of others and of the world to their own particular conception of ‘core’ knowledge.

Their conception is highly questionable but rarely questioned. In effect, they dismiss decades of evidence from psychological and pedagogical studies that distinguish deep and lifelong learning – the construction and creative application of understanding – from the ability to pass superficial tests.

The roots of “civilised education”

During the last 4 decades, however, many forward-looking teachers around the world have been using an approach to teaching and learning known as P4C (Philosophy for Children / Communities) to go back to the roots of civilised education.  P4C has enabled a blossoming of both pupils and teachers who operate within modern systems of mass education.

P4C follows the model of the ancient Greek philosophers: thinking dialogically with a view to developing better understanding, judgement and action.  This is what Socrates took wisdom to be. (‘Philo-sophia’, after all, meant ‘love of wisdom’ in Ancient Greek). Put another way, the search for wisdom was the pursuit of a / the ‘good’ life – a life of self-discipline, thoughtfulness, and justice, in the soul and in action.

Philosophy and “standards”

P4C, as a pedagogy or approach to teaching and learning, is made all the more attractive by growing evidence across the world that, so far from harming academic standards, it reliably advances them, by improving thinking and learning across the curriculum. Regular studies since the 1980s have shown improvements in various dimensions of learning, both cognitive and attitudinal: reasoning ability and reasonableness, questioning skill and curiosity, reading comprehension and engagement with new ideas, and even improvement in numeracy, even though that is not a direct target of the approach.

Teaching with a “spirit of inquiry”

Teachers of any subject and any age-group can adopt the P4C approach. They are not required to study philosophy in a conventional sense, but they do need to develop and model a spirit of inquiry – especially into the meaning of words, and the significance of ideas (not just classical ‘philosophical’ ones, but ‘big ideas’ across the curriculum). In sustaining this focus, they advance their own skills of inquiry, not least their use of Socratic questioning. Their pupils, in turn, adopt the same spirit of inquiry, and engage in developing their own questioning and reasoning skills.

Refreshing young people’s curiosity and challenging them to think and learn for themselves are two of the great secrets of P4C’s success. So, how easy is it for teachers to adopt this spirit and develop their skills? A good first step is to sign up for a formal introduction, such as the 2-day Foundation (Level 1 course) run by the UK charity,

Gardeners of understanding

Further progress varies according to prior experience and personality, but often teachers quite quickly start to see a profound impact on their classes and indeed on their sense of themselves in the classroom. They begin to see themselves not as teachers of ‘subjects’ but as guardians of ‘disciplines’ and, in an apt metaphor, ‘gardeners of understanding’. In particular, they aspire to be, not so much teachers of philosophy but, philosophical teachers – teachers with a broad and long vision for the lives of the young people they are leading. (‘Peda-gogue’ in Ancient Greek meant a leader of children.)

The influence of John Dewey

What, more precisely and practically, could be meant by the description, ‘philosophical teacher’?  A good way to understand it might be to contemplate a striking thought by the philosopher John Dewey, who, as much as Socrates, inspired and informed the development of P4C.   Dewey said: “If we are willing to conceive education as the process of forming fundamental dispositions, intellectual and emotional, toward nature and fellow men, philosophy may even be defined as the general theory of education” (Democracy and Education, p. 328).

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Good habits

Philosophical teaching, by this account, is to do with forming good habits of mind and character.  It is very much in tune with recent trends in educational theory and practice, such as growing emphases on mental disciplines, including mindfulness and habits of mind, and on social, emotional and communicative skills.  In a globalising world, it may even be surprisingly suited to developing the workplace skills identified by the Davos World Economic Forum as most essential for success in the 21st century.


Roger Sutcliffe

Roger Sutcliffe read Philosophy and Modern Languages at Oxford and went on to teach in both primary and secondary schools. In the early 90s he trained in ‘Philosophy for Children’ and was a founder member of SAPERE, a UK charity promoting P4C ( In 2003 he was elected President of ICPIC, the International Council of Philosophical Inquiry with Children.



Feature Image: by Raimund Feher from Pixabay