Philosophical disposition

Learning for a life worth leading

An increasing number of schools around the world – both national and international – are discovering the benefits of running Philosophy for Children (P4C) courses.

A new study commissioned by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted by the Durham University School of Education now suggests such benefits might be non-cognitive as well as cognitive. ITM’s Andy Homden reports.

What is P4C?

Broadly speaking, P4C is a discursive approach to learning in which student dialogue is stimulated by a learning resource, such as a video, news report or story.

In P4C enquiries, pupils discuss concepts such as bullying, racism, lying and cheating, equality and fairness.  Other sessions look at themes about integration and tolerance.  Discussion questions chosen for the purposes of the study included:

  • What is kindness?
  • Is it OK to deprive someone of their freedom?
Growing force

There is no doubt that P4C is a growing force in education. As an earlier study has already shown, the approach seems to have a positive impact on learning and cognitive development. The new Durham study focusses on ‘social and communication skills’, ‘team work and resilience’ and ‘empathy’ and has found additional benefits in these non-cognitive domains.

Conducted in sixteen English primary schools with children in Years 4, 5 and 6 children over 16 months of P4C practice, the study compared affective development with students from twenty six non-P4C schools.  SAPERE, the UK P4C charity, delivered the training and support to the schools offering a P4C approach.

What teachers found

Teachers who used P4C were enthusiastic. One teacher thought that the approach helped children from different ethnic backgrounds and religions to integrate with the school culture.  Others commented about what seemed to be their students’ growing confidence and maturity as a result of the work:

“Children deal with conflict resolution in a mature and grown up way and think about actions after an argument.”

“Children have become more accepting of the different opinions within the group. One SEN pupil, who is a very good speaker, seems to have gained more respect from his peers as he is often vocal and persuasive in our debates.”

Teachers reported positive effects in pupils’ confidence in questioning and reasoning, as well as in their behaviour.  They felt that P4C can be useful in dealing with classroom disruption, and even with bullying

Formal findings of the 2017 study

What were the main findings of the Durham study? It seems that students exposed to P4C were significantly ahead of their counterparts in the comparison schools with regard to communication skills (effect size +0.10), teamwork and resilience (+0.15), but less so in empathy (+0.01).   The impacts were generally larger for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Teachers reported positive effects in pupils’ confidence in questioning and reasoning, as well as in their behaviour.  They felt that P4C can be useful in dealing with classroom disruption, and even with bullying. Some teachers experienced an improvement in their own understanding of pupils, and in their perspectives on pupils’ world views.


The study reports that students enjoyed active participation in the P4C sessions, which they saw as very different from “ordinary” lessons, which  involved a different style of interaction. One student commented:

“I really enjoy P4C because I love to share my feelings in class because I feel my classmates and teacher will listen to me.”

Similar pattern

The results show a similar pattern to studies of P4C’s cognitive impact.  The largest ever P4C trial, conducted in 2012-14 in the UK, indicated that P4C can accelerate progress in reading, maths and writing for children in the upper stages of primary education.  Again the impact was greater for pupils from disadvantaged homes.  These pupils saw gains of four months extra progress in reading, three in Maths and two in writing after 16 months of P4C*. Now, it seems a similar pattern has been found in affective domains.


P4C: the big picture

The researchers conclude that “there is considerable promise from studies using P4C in primary schools. The work suggests that critical thinking can be improved in schools and [this] is generally associated with improved outcomes, perhaps especially in science, maths and reading, and for the poorest students”. With the a positive impact in both the cognitive and affective domains, what’s not to like?

Andy Homden

*N.B. These measures of progress for children entitled to Free School Meals are subject to the validation of a larger study being undertaken by the Education Endowment Foundation.

The full Nuffield Foundation study conducted by the Durham School of Education was written by:

Nadia Siddiqui,

Stephen Gorard and

Beng Huat,  Published in February 2017, it  can be downloaded here:




If you are interested in adding a P4C element to your school’s curriculum, Sapere offers a range of CPD for schools around the world.

Contact them by clicking the icon


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