P4C: Philosophy in the Curriculum

A growing number of students are interested in P4C and choose Honours or Masters courses at universities in Southern Africa. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Educators recognise the relevance of the courses and philosophical enquiry in particular to meet the educational needs of young citizens in Southern Africa, and acknowledge the significant role P4C can play in transformation. Here are some brief arguments for the inclusion of philosophical enquiry in formal and informal education and teacher education.

Strengthening the ability to think philosophically helps (student) teachers to use a wide range of critical thinking skills and attitudes which in turn will help students to think more logically, to develop, analyse and critically evaluate arguments, and to develop reasoned judgments which in turn helps locate decisions and actions in reasoning. Reasoning as the fourth ‘R’ is therefore more foundational than the other three ‘R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic (as they already assume rather than teach the ability to reason well). In SA, thinking needs to be taught through the various curriculum subjects, but teachers have neither the skills, nor the knowledge to do so. It is for this reason that philosophy needs to be included as a distinct learning area in the national curriculum as well as in the curriculum of teacher training institutions.

Philosophical enquiry enhances creativity through the generation of innovative ideas, identification of alternative possible explanations, seeing existing situations in new ways, noticing fresh connections, finding new ways to apply existing ideas, and so forth. Intellectual flexibility, open-mindedness, adaptability, and readiness to try new ways of thinking about things are hallmarks of well-conducted philosophical enquiry.

A unique content is taught through philosophical enquiry, that is, the meaning of concepts that underlie and unify all of the other disciplines. Core concepts that philosophy illuminates include justice, proof, knowledge, consistency, rightness, freedom, naturalness, care, change, growth, truth, identity, reason, goodness, evidence, cause, independence.

Learning ethical knowledge raises awareness of how the acquisition of a moral language and the ability to make certain conceptual distinctions are necessary for citizens of all ages to act with integrity. This knowledge helps to locate accountability and moral responsibility in the individual, rather than being ruled by the dictates of an authority, or alternatively, adopt a relativist stance. Relativism is the socially dangerous idea that everyone has a right to his or her opinion, whatever that opinion may be, and it is often confused with tolerance. Genuine ethical behaviour is the result of serious ethical reflection and a deep understanding of the processes of reasoned ethical justification, and not through mere obedience to authorities, such as the law, religion or culture. 

Philosophical enquiry is like a democratic laboratory as participation in ‘communities of philosophical enquiry’ and experiencing democratic decision-making processes can make a significant contribution to self-management, teamwork, social competence and reflective educational practice. Because of its importance in creating the conditions for a free and democratic society, and because of the role that philosophical enquiry can play in developing the general capabilities of citizens, philosophy is recommended for inclusion in national curricula by the UN, and, in particular, by UNESCO. 

Building a thinking school and ethical school

Philosophical enquiry and ethical decision-making can be taught as discrete lessons as part of a school’s curriculum. What often emerges in classrooms is the educators’ surprise at what their learners already know, can imagine and are generally intellectually capable of. Introduction to P4C often results in a professional re-examination of adults’ philosophical assumptions and prejudices about child and childhood. The limited role attributed to children as thinkers is the unfortunate result of the still prevalent, but academically outdated, discourse of developmental psychology in educational institutions. A re-evaluation of children’s capabilities has created exciting possibilities to include children as serious equal partners in institutional decision-making. School rules, codes of conduct and other important management decisions can be democratically negotiated with all school stakeholders such as learners, teachers, parents and other parties. The pedagogy at the core of P4C can also help facilitate management teams, staff meetings and school councils. Philosophical enquiry offers the necessary knowledge, skills and ethos for building a democratic society at micro-level through publicly reasoned deliberation.

Taking the pressure off an overcrowded curriculum through philosophical enquiryas it helps to integrate the curriculum, and meets several curriculum objectives at once in that it explores the underlying methods, concepts and assumptions of various subject areas (e.g. cause and effect relationships, fact and value distinction). Moreover, some educational goals (e.g. arguing one’s case, giving reasons, asking good questions) cannot be properly met unless philosophical enquiry is part of the curriculum, and there are many other educational goals that can be most effectively met by including philosophy as part of the curriculum (e.g reading for meaning, creative writing, scientific thinking, ethical decision-making). Many schools worldwide value the inclusion of a one-hour session of philosophy in the school week either as part of literacy or life orientation, but also in learning areas such as mathematics or natural sciences. For the reasons why see more detailed information per learning area:

In literacy children’s reading skills have been shown to improve. Teachers report that children’s confidence as readers grows, as they are encouraged to deconstruct and interrogate texts at a deep level. Their sense of power as readers develops and their right to question and challenge as well as admire and celebrate the printed word and visual art develops too.

Text Level: development of thinking skills such as prediction, inference and deduction. Through deep interrogation, discussion and reflection, children learn to recognise aspects of an author’s style, in terms of their ideas and their individual ways of manipulating language. The encouragement to use precise definitions, to reason and to present clear arguments helps prepare children to write discursively.

Sentence level: close reference to a text heightens children’s ability to compare the various forms of language that writers use to achieve particular effects.

Word level: children become interested in the precise and multiple meanings of words.
The contemplative and learner-led nature makes a good counterbalance to the rapid pace and highly focused learning that goes on in some approaches to the teaching of literacy.

In maths and science students learn to ask probing questions, justify their answers, and explore categories and sets. They learn tools for conceptual analysis and logical means of deduction and induction. They are engaged in hypothesizing and investigate concepts such as ‘number’, ‘knowledge’, ‘evidence’, ‘reality’, and explore ethical issues in applications of scientific knowledge.

In technologies students learn to identify, solve and create problems. They are involved in logical thinking, evaluation, conceptual analysis, critical thinking and skills of discrimination, searching for relevance, and making connections.

In arts and culture students are introduced to aesthetics and explore ideas of beauty and artistic worth. They develop their imaginative thinking and skills of interpretation and questioning, the making of sound reasoned judgements and the use of criteria.

In life orientation students have the opportunity to share opinions and explain viewpoints in whole-class enquiries. They learn to listen responsively to their peers, and space and time is provided for students to pose their own questions and to bring their own experiences to bear in acquiring insights and making judgments. They tackle the problems of democratic discussion and learn to manage differences of opinion, conflicting beliefs, strong feelings, controversial issues and decision-making. They learn to consider the moral and social dilemmas that they come across in everyday life and learn to understand and respect diversity and differences as well as appreciate our common humanity.

Philosophical enquiry encourages students to think for themselves through thinking with others. In communities of enquiry they practice various thinking skills. Collaboratively they compare and contrast information in books or questions, sort and classify concepts; learn ways or organising and mapping ideas and link this with what they already know and with their own experiences (information processing skills). Students test their ideas in a community setting and therefore have to justify their opinions with good reasons and arguments; analyse and assess evidence and assumptions; distinguish between true/false and fact/opinion, and are involved in an investigation removed from psychological individual attachments to ideas (reasoning skills). Students help each other in posing and defining problems and go beyond the information given. They learn to question concepts, meaning, context, values and so forth, and are given opportunities to ask own questions, and time to explore them critically (enquiry skills).

Together they generate interpretations, hypotheses, alternatives and connections, and room is made for divergent thinking and means of expression of thought (e.g. drama, writing, drawing, and kinaesthetic thinking moves) (creative thinking skills). In P4C teachers encourage students to judge the value of what they read and hear, and to develop criteria for judging the value of their own and others’ work or ideas. As a community they reflect on individual and group process and progress (also to establish rules and better ways of thinking together), and learn to think about their own thinking, knowledge and learning (evaluation and metacognitive skills).

In the process students learn not only various skills, but also the following thinking virtues: flexibility, tenacity, resilience, courage, patience, truthfulness, openness, fairness and sincerity.

Inclusive education

Many teachers report on how P4C includes those who usually would be uninvolved when high demands are put on reading and writing skills. It also helps to identify different abilities and competencies children have, because the standard curriculum provides little space for children to show their verbal reasoning ability. Moreover, P4C offers opportunities to develop wider interests (and more sophisticated skills and dispositions) than the curriculum allows for, thereby offering unique opportunities for more able students. P4C encourages a collaborative and cooperative approach to learning and understanding.

P4C in Grade ‘R’: click here

Philosophical enquiry works, as research suggests that there is a significant impact on cognitive ability, enhances critical reasoning and dialogical skills in the classroom and supports emotional and social developments. In particular is has been claimed that one hour a week sessions enhance intelligence by an average of over 6%. Moreover, it improves students’ communication skills, confidence, concentration and the ability to self-manage their feelings/impulsivity more appropriately. There are positive developments in students’ perceptions of themselves as learners and active problem solvers within educational settings. Their self-confidence increases, especially with regard to academic abilities. Changes have been observed in students’ increased classroom participation and more open-ended questioning by teachers. See e.g. Trickey click here.


A rapidly increasing number of independent schools in SA are including P4C in their daily curriculum. If philosophy is not part of the national curriculum, then it will certainly be the case that many government schools, including township and rural schools, will not teach philosophical enquiry, and therefore disadvantage their teachers and learners by increasing the gap between students of different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. The failure to include P4C in the national curriculum will contribute to the systematic entrenchment of disadvantage in the school system. One of the challenges in addressing socio-economic disadvantage is empowering first generation students to go to university. Philosophical enquiry would induct them into habits of thinking that hitherto have largely been developed through the privilege of a university education and then passed on to the children of graduates through their culture (e.g. through intellectual discussions, reading stories together). In turn, this affects academic success at school. Philosophical enquiry in the curriculum would assist children of non university educated families who may not have access to such social practices.