Roger Sutcliffe at TEDxWarwick’s 2019 Conference ‘Architects of Tomorrow’ 2019
We caught up with Roger Sutcliffe about his talk ‘No Philosophy — No Humanity’ at our conference last Spring, and took the opportunity to quiz him on all things philosophy and education.
So if you could just give our TEDx readers a brief summary and explanation of what you do, and your interest — I know that they lie in education, and particularly in philosophy — but, for those that don’t know, please can you tell us who you are and what you do.
Okay, well, I run a company called Dialogue Works. And my big interest is in developing people’s ability to think and communicate well. And I think dialogue and thinking are intimately connected. So that captures it all, but at a practical level, my main focus is on advancing Philosophy4Children throughout the world. So I obviously started that in my own country, the UK, but now I promote training conferences and things like that across the world.
Thank you. Okay, why do you think philosophy is so important as a subject?
Well, can I immediately say that I don’t see it as a ‘subject’. Okay. I mean, this is absolutely critical, really, because once you start seeing it as a subject, then it’s in competition with all the other subjects in the curriculum. But secondly, it’s seen as something that you study rather than do. Now, perhaps as much as or more than almost any other discipline, philosophy is something that you must practice. I mean, there’s no point having a philosophy if you don’t put it into practice. And if you are philosophising and thinking, well, then you need to translate good thoughts into good action. So, you might think of this as as philosophising, rather than philosophy.
And why is that important?
Well, I’ve just done the talk, basically, if people don’t think carefully about their day to day actions, their future actions, the consequences of what they do, what they believe, then I think we just caused more problems for us.
There’s almost an internal assessment through philosophy. Philosophising is an internal assessment really of like, what you believe what you think what you do. So…
You got it, you got it. And that’s why it’s closely connected with thinking and metacognition. Because philosophising is a reflective process, you’re reflecting primarily on your own life. But that’s true. I’ve got this idea: is this a good idea, is it not a good idea? Someone else is saying this, someone else is saying something different? What choice should I make? What’s the best thought and so on? And so, you know, if we can help people to philosophise better, then they’ll make better decisions in life?
Roger Sutcliffe’s talk ‘No Philosophy — No Humanity’ at TEDxWarwick’s Conference ‘Architects of Tomorrow’ 2019
Do you think that our British education system at the moment does enough to support children in their thinking?
No, look, there are so many fine teachers. I was a teacher myself, obviously, yes. And I admire enormously the work that teachers do at all levels through the system. But it is a system that’s exam driven. And mass exams basically emphasise objective knowledge. Granted, there’s the advanced level room for demonstration on different perspectives. But essentially, you’re not measuring original thinking. You’re not even given much scope for critical thinking. And so right from an early age, teachers are teaching to test, students are learning to test; the bright ones will succeed and go beyond the syllabus. But most will find education really oppressive. And the sooner they can get out of it, the better. And I don’t think we spend enough time on personal social education, thinking skills, the development of the personality, and the thing that I’m really focusing on in my talk. Well, laterally, virtue valuing. Schools should be training grounds for virtuous behaviour. And for all that, they do nice things like, you know, promote peace and harmony. And, you know, we’ve got wonderful projects and schools and all that brings the best out of kids. But fundamentally, the system is not humane. It’s not developing kindness. It’s not developing reflection skills.
How do you think we can implement more personal social education and get those lessons into practice in schools across the UK?
That’s a very good question. Can I firstly pick up on your point about university? Universities are actually areas for specialisms. But they’re not meant to be, they’re founded as bringing the universe together. And what you’ve found as a student, I’m happy to hear it exists at Warwick. And hopefully what happens at the best of universities is that you do cross the disciplines, and you realise that the world is amazing. There’s so many different ways of thinking about it, and acting upon it, and so on. Now, that spirit of university education needs to be implemented at schools. But that’s really problematic, because schools are very conservative institutions. The timetable is very rigid. There’s all sorts of reasons why that spirit is not likely to be there for many, many years, I’m afraid. But I don’t want to be pessimistic about it. Because I do think that sooner or later, and it’s largely down to the government I’m afraid but, you know, also schools themselves.
I’ve just referred to the ethical leadership commission. The school leaders know that the young people today need better guidance, better opportunities to think about their place in the world and what sort of world they are living in. To be optimistic, schoolchildren are marching against politicians for climate change, that was recent and that was just wonderful. But it’s a measure of the challenge that you get the leading politician, the Prime Minister of this country, telling young people that is more important to spend a day in school than to take action against climate change. That’s appalling, appalling.
So I’m going back to your question, there are ways that we can do this. We’ve got to work at the curriculum, we’ve got to downgrade the value perceived value of Alevels, so that people present a portfolio. Project work should be upgraded. But my own particular contribution to this is the development of the idea of philosophical teaching and learning. Now, this is not like a once a week, Philosophy4Children session. Every teacher needs to adopt a more philosophical approach to their subject. They need to encourage the students by encouraging them to ask: why are we studying history? Why are we studying geography? Why are we studying science? And there are good answers to this, but the answer is not because you’ve got a test to sit. The answer is because this is a window into the world. And if teachers were inspired, firstly, to promote their subject as part of a general philosophy, opening the world to use your words. But secondly, to focus on the skills that have always been integral to philosophy: the skills of reasoning, the skills of discussion, the skills of thinking differently, and so on, then they would change their teaching style. And so we have to change the pedagogy as well as the curriculum. Does that make sense?
Yes. Yes, it does. Definitely makes sense. I was going to ask: what is the most rewarding response you’ve had from children you’ve worked with? I’m sure you’ve had a lot of fascinating engagements, because children are wonderful creatures that have no inhibitions!
Well, to be honest, I mean, almost every time you’re in a philosophical inquiry with children, your jaw drops, because of the freshness and the innovation of their thinking. But one of the best responses I’ve had was from a nine year old boy when we were discussing the question: “is a flagpole a place?”.
And it turned out that half the class thought that it was a place and half said it wasn’t, which is extraordinary. Some children classify objects as places, others do not. And this nine year old boy came up with this remark, he said:
“Well, to me a flagpole is not a place but to an ant it is.”
Let’s talk about creative thinking, talk about awareness and conciliatory thing, it was just amazing. So you get you get lots of those moments. But if there’s a phrase that comes up quite regularly, you get the children at the end of a philosophical inquiry saying, “My brain hurts”. And for me, that’s a score, because you’ve done something with them where they’ve stretched their brain. And I just love hearing that. So that that’s my favourite, but I want to tell you about the experience of a colleague of mine I’ve been working with who runs Philosophy4Children in Saudi Arabia, which is not where you’d necessarily expect. And she’s done wonderful work with a group of kids of all ages. She’s now beginning to expand, and that’s fantastic. I’m working over there myself. And she says, a boy said to her: “one hour in her class is worth a week in school.” That says it all.
Read our other interviews or check out how to attend or get involved in the next TEDxWarwick event at tedxwarwick.com, or check out our Facebook page TEDxWarwick