Northwood College pupils enjoying a debate

I Think, Therefore I Learn

5th May 2017

How do you encourage young people to approach life with confidence? Lisa Botwright meets teachers incorporating philosophy techniques into the curriculum to develop happy pupils with reasoned thinking skills and active learning techniques.

What’s philosophy?, I ask my twelve year old. Is it, um, fairy tales? he replies.

Philosophy, it seems, isn’t relevant to young people. It evokes images of old men with beards, possibly wearing togas, debating the meaning of life. It supposedly touches on matters so esoteric and existential, that yes – it might as well be all about fairy tales.

Except that it doesn’t have to all be so impenetrable and elitist. Philosophy, roughly translated from its Greek roots, means love of wisdom. It just means thinking critically – delving a little deeper into the whys and wherefores of a subject – and can be applied to anything, from sport or education, say, right up to its more popularly understood place in debating the ideology of politics, religion or ethics.

That’s why I’m intrigued about a charity that’s dedicated to promoting the teaching of philosophy in schools. Does it have an uphill battle convincing people of its importance, I wonder?

The charity in question, SAPERE, was founded in 1992 after interest roused by the BBC documentary Socrates for Six Year Olds. The documentary showed Philosophy for Children (P4C) at work in schools in the USA where the concept was originated in the late 1960s by Professor Matthew Lipman. It’s now a registered charity, based near Oxford, with a team of eight full and part-time staff and a network of 60 registered professional trainers across the UK.

Lizzy Lewis, Development Manager, explains that P4C is not about campaigning for Philosophy to be taught as a stand-alone subject in schools. Rather it’s about promoting a holistic approach to teaching and learning, with questioning, reasoning and independent learning skills at the centre of its ethos. “Our profile was raised in 2015,” she continues, “when a research project showed that P4C improves children’s cognitive ability, educational attainment and emotional intelligence.”

The study by the Education Endowment Foundation involved over 3,000 children. One of its aims was to determine whether P4C could help to narrow the attainment gap. Its findings showed that – far from being elitist – it had the biggest impact on disadvantaged children (those eligible for free school meals), who made an additional four months progress in reading, three months in maths and two months in writing, when taught the P4C core skills.

And what educational setting wouldn’t want to empower their pupils with enhanced social skills, including increased confidence, self-esteem and respect for others, especially when there is evident academic benefit too?

Northwood College, an independent school for girls aged 3-18, has just won the significant Silver Award from SAPERE. The award is given in recognition that P4C is a regular part of the teaching and learning within a school, that children demonstrate familiarity with philosophical concepts and questions, and that teachers have begun to integrate planning and reviewing P4C across the curriculum. The school’s SAPERE-approved trainer, Marelle Rice, invites me to a session with a group of Year 9 pupils… but while I thought I might lurk in a quiet corner, observing and making notes, Marelle asks brightly, “Girls, would you like our visitor to join in?”

I am not a little terrified, but I recognise that P4C is all about collaboration and everyone having an equal voice. This is no place for shrinking violets or for reticence. Afterwards, Marelle asks me if I was nervous, and explains that part of the point of including me was so that I could empathise with the more uncertain members of the group.

Collaboration is just one of the 4Cs of Philosophy for Children – the others are caring, critical and creative. The teacher’s role is to work collaboratively too: not to teach, in the old-fashioned sense of delivering facts, but rather to facilitate debate. “Not sitting in that rather uncomfortable place of being font of all knowledge,” as Marelle puts it. Once the adult has chosen and introduced a stimulus – in this instance, it’s a video about sexism in children’s books – it’s up to the pupils to explore the topic as they wish, ensuring they are doing so in a collaborative, caring, critical and creative way.

I instantly warm to the subject – I do love a good feminist debate – but the girls are far better at this than I am. Marelle joined the school in 2009, and introduced P4C straightaway, albeit gradually, so the girls have been absorbing the techniques involved since they were very young. They are incisive and reflective – and so courteous of each other’s opinions.

There is a degree of structure to the session. We start off with warm-up exercises, then debate together as a class, before breaking up into small groups; with Marelle gently guiding all the while. At one point, she asks one of the girls if they mean to use a particular word in the question they have written. The pupil ponders a moment, then opens up her indecision to the rest of her group. I’m impressed by how smoothly and subtly Marelle has prompted the girls’ awareness of how much language matters, and how just one word out of place can cause confusion, or even offence.

As a trainer, Marelle works with other schools interested in the P4C concept. She’s currently mentoring Todd Bailey, a Religious Studies teacher from Harrow School, the prestigious boarding establishment for boys aged 13-18. “At Harrow, we get the academic results, but this is a great way to get the soft skills in place too,” explains Todd, when I ask what attracted him. “Future success doesn’t just depend on passing exams any more, it’s also necessary to be a well-rounded character; to have empathy and a growth mindset.”

Another school that has successfully embedded P4C is Yorke Meade Primary School in Croxley Green. Lucille Pollard joined as Head in 2011 and worked with her senior management team to introduce it. She believes it has been highly effective in raising pupil attainment and metacognition. “The big thing for me is the emotional well-being of the children, and ensuring that they all feel they have a voice.” She says it is particularly beneficial for pupils with special educational needs, who lack the confidence to express themselves well on paper. “I’ve seen very quiet children eloquently expressing an opinion. You see something in them that you haven’t seen before.”

She does admit that some children feel too empowered on occasion, though. One little girl, sent to her after a misdemeanour, argued back that she was simply ‘expressing her opinion’. “I explained that although it’s fair to have an opinion, it must be expressed in a polite way,” Lucille smiles.

Since maintained schools arguably have much greater restrictions over their curriculum time than independent schools such as Northwood College and Harrow School, I ask Lucille how she manages to fit it all into the timetable. “Firstly, it’s about bringing teachers on board with the concept. I would like to have more teachers trained to Level 2 [of SAPERE’s programme], but I think it’s more important to have all the teachers and teaching assistants trained to Level 1.”

She also believes it’s about balance, and a flexible approach. “We say to staff that if a piece of art is your stimulus, then include it as part of your art-time. If the stimulus is historical, then do slightly less history that week.”

Lucille shows me the results of a survey she commissioned last spring, asking the children how they feel about P4C. The comments are glowing and enthusiastic, but one jumps out especially for how it sums up both the academic and social upsides. ‘P4C is good to improve how you say things and how to explain in more detail. It also helps you to discuss with your friends if you have a problem.’

SAPERE is an acronym that stands for the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education, but I recall, from my rusty schoolgirl Latin, that it also means ‘to know’. In our rapidly changing ‘post-truth’ society, philosophy is a great tool for teaching pupils how to know rather than what to know…

To find out more about philosophy for children (P4C), visit

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