In praise of P4C, Philosophy for Children

Roger Titcombe's picture

At the start of 2018, I was appointed governor of a local junior school. And a very good school it is too, with an excellent head and dedicated, hard working teachers. As I had been head of an inner-urban secondary school for fourteen years before retiring in 2003, I thought I would have little to learn about the role of governors, but how wrong I was.

Some changes have been for the better. There is a higher degree of professionally informed engagement now required. But there is also a lot of bureaucracy. Much is of dubious educational value and includes a lot of mind numbing administrative hoop-jumping. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a good example. It is not that this is unimportant, more that back in the days of Local Education Authorities (LEAs), this sort of stuff would have been looked after by an excellent, named LEA officer backed by an efficient team. 

A week before writing this I attended the first full governors’ meeting of the new school year. This started at 5.30pm and ended close to 9.00pm. The head, the teacher governors and the clerk had already done a full day’s demanding schoolwork before dashing home for family duties/gobble some tea, or just stayed at school to grind through paperwork. I am resolved to roll up my sleeves and take my share of some of the less rewarding burdens.

Which brings me to   (P4C) and the opportunity the school has given me to engage in some involvement that makes governorship rewarding. I recently attended a P4C INSET session from 3.30 – 5.30pm for all of the teaching staff including the Teaching Assistants and the Head.  In contrast to some obviously exhausted teachers, it was easy for me to be enthusiastic and keen to learn. As ever, the teachers rose to the challenge and they too engaged effectively.

So as to keep this article as short as possible please Google, ‘P4C’. There are masses of information on-line.

My first surprise was that the INSET was presented by a self-employed ‘trainer’, whose cost was entirely met from the hard-pressed delegated budget of the school.  She was excellent, but I could not help reflecting on the contrast with the early 1970s nationwide LEA roll-outs of ‘Nuffield Science’, with INSET usually led by an LEA ‘Science Adviser’. Science teachers were provided with the ‘Teacher Guides’ and the science prep rooms and stores of every secondary school in the country became stuffed with expensive, brilliantly designed, purpose commissioned, new practical apparatus and demonstration gizmos that I was not only still using to good effect when I retired as a science teacher in 2003, but which I had relied on being available in all the other schools in which I had taught science in the intervening years of my career.

Although the pedagogy of Nuffield Science was flawed by the ‘discovery learning’ approach, which neither reflected ‘the scientific method’ nor how children effectively learn science, without that huge one-off investment in practical science apparatus later significant improvements in science teaching, including Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE), would not have been possible.

Although I came along knowing little about P4C, from the very start of the INSET I recognised much that was very familiar to me, but not to most of the teaching staff, with the possible exception of the head. The P4C motto reminded me of the Nuffield science motto.

I listen and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand

The theoretical underpinnings are shared with CASE, with its emphasis on Vygotskian ‘social learning’ in mixed ability groups. Also present are, cognitive dissonance, metacognition and pupil/pupil and pupil/teacher debating, in which pupils acquire the confidence and skills needed to verbalise their metacognitive processes and to share them,  citing evidence and examples, so as to argue effectively for a point of view.

This first INSET session involved our adult group taking part in some P4C exercises designed for children.  In CASE the starting point is a practical activity that generates observations and results that are challenging to explain.  In P4C there is a ‘stimulation’ that serves the same purpose. We used a well known children’s story about ‘The Other’ that explores notions and justifications for social exclusion and inclusion.  Our adult group was soon engaged in arguing strongly for different points of view.  It was easy to envisage that  pupils would become similarly engaged. I was reminded of the post by ‘Disappointed Idealist’ that I wrote about in this article.

We were also shown video clips of 8/9 year-old children, who had been exposed to a lot of P4C teaching, debating profound issues with astonishing levels of confidence and rhetorical ability.  For example, there was a debate about whether your brain was (just) an essential organ of your body (like your heart or lungs) or was more than that.  How philosophical can you get?

I came to realise that P4C has been around for decades with many hundreds of teachers having been fully trained and become enthusiastic practitioners.  The INSET leader stated that P4C has been proven to improve SATs results, but I am not sure that all the staff present were yet convinced.  She argued that the mechanism was one of improved pupil confidence and ‘thinking skills’.

At the end of the session I argued that if a child became more capable of high quality metacognition, while combining that with the skill to verbalise and effectively communicate those arguments, then most observers would recognise (correctly) ‘a bright child’.   In this article I discuss the pedagogy increasingly promoted by Academy and Free School Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), that rather than developing cognitive ability, the priority must always be paying attention to the teacher in a highly regimented manner within a threatening culture of fear of punishment. Such approaches are incompatible with the methods of CASE and P4C.

This is an extract from the teaching and learning policy of one such MAT.

Sit up straight

At [xxxxx]  you sit up straight at all times and you never slouch. Teachers have a seating plan and you sit at the seat they have allocated. When you read you always follow the text with your ruler, with both hands on the ruler. This helps you concentrate, so you remember more and understand more. When you are not writing or reading you sit up straight with your arms folded. Your teachers will instruct you: “3,2,1 SLANT!” Everyone will sit up extra straight, eyes front, looking at the teacher. You will follow their instructions first time, every time. The same rules apply to all, so are fair to all. No exceptions.

Listen carefully

At [xxxxx] you listen to every single word your teacher says very, very carefully. You especially listen to instructions very, very carefully. You don’t pick up your pen or your ruler, or anything else, until your teacher gives you the signal.

Never interrupt

Your teacher is the expert. You never interrupt your teacher when he or she is talking. If you are confused, or unsure what to do, let the teacher finish what he is saying and then put up your hand to ask a question. Sometimes you will receive demerits and detentions. Sometimes you may even be put in internal isolation. This will be because your teachers have decided that your actions were rude or damaging to your education. You may think your teacher was unfair. The teacher’s decision is final. You never answer back.

Track the teacher

This means you keep your eyes on the teacher whenever he or she is talking. You never turn around – even if you hear a noise behind you. You don’t look out of the window. You don’t lose focus. You really, deliberately concentrate on what the teacher is saying at all times. You look at the board. You listen. You read. You practise the work set in silence. You deliberately try to understand and to memorise the information and the processes you have been taught. If someone tries to distract you, raise your hand and tell the teacher.

It couldn’t be more different from approaches that are proven to develop cognitive ability. Throughout this website and in my book I argue that making children cleverer will bring about better behaviour and engagement resulting in deeper, higher quality and longer lasting learning.

The problem for the English education system is that the [xxxxx] paradigm is embedded in the ideology of DfE, with OfSTED declining to take an independent view.  An example is the ongoing controversy about ‘synthetic phonics’. See this article.

No-one at the DfE is showing interest in the potential for P4C or CASE to raise real education standards even though the evidence is ‘out there’ for all to find. At least the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is taking P4C seriously and has just published its recommendations for secondary science teaching that closely mirror CASEFor that matter, there is little evidence of the DfE showing much interest in any EEF research even though it is part taxpayer funded.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


John Mountford's picture
Thu, 04/10/2018 - 08:57

Roger, I cannot speak too highly about the value of deploying P4C as an antidote to the idea that learning is encapsulated by listening and remembering . Its effectiveness in supporting children to grapple with challenging propositions through  engagement with the teacher and their peers is beyond question as a means of unleashing cognitive growth. Having worked with primary aged children over about two decades to introduce them to the process, I have witnessed first-hand the transformative power of this approach in developing cognition through talking to learn. This is in addition to a number of other gains I can attest to seeing.

One of the first indications that you are on to something significant in deploying P4C is the often remarkable boost to children's self-confidence. As the lessons progress it soon becomes obvious that everyone’s contributions are valued.  As all are encouraged to add and expand their ideas and opinions, the impetuosity, often seen in many in the early exposure to the technique, is replaced by slow reflection and considered thought. The most obvious cognitive change for pupils of all abilities is the quality and depth of their reasoning. This comes about because they accept the need, inherent in the approach, to justify their contributions and reflect on the views of others. Also, socially, children develop an understanding that the views of other contributors, though valued, may be challenged through debate. Eventually they come to accept there are many occasions when agreeing to disagree is not merely a collective outcome but is an acceptable consequence of free and open debate. Over time, those who struggled to cope with the self-discipline needed for their full participation, 'bought in' to the rigours of the process and behaviours changed. In feedback, they reported feeling this came about because their input was valued by the group.

As well as using it during the latter years of my teaching, I had the opportunity to introduce P4C into the school I became a governor of when I retired. Unfortunately, when I left it was not continued. The real, lasting success depends on at least one member of staff, in addition to the head, committing to the long-term application of the process.

Were I still in headship, it is one diversion from the prevalent practice of coaching and cramming that is presently limiting and depressing students and their performance that I would vigorously support. I would work to ensure that governors and parents understood the importance of focusing on the cognitive development of pupils while supporting teachers to expand the questioning technique across the whole curriculum. Principally, it is the dialogic approach, at the heart of the process, that drives deep learning.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 04/10/2018 - 11:34

Thank you John. You obviously know and understand a lot more about P4C than I could get from a two hour INSET session. However I recognise all the features you mention along with the links with CASE and the other cognitively developmental approaches I discuss in Part 5 of my book.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.