How Philosophy in Schools Boosts Metacognition & Learning-Power

Updated: Jun 19, 2019

A robust Philosophy curriculum and regular use of P4C (Philosophy for Children) can boost learning-power, metacognition and metacognitive awareness across your school. This article champions the metacognitive benefits of philosophy in school and hopes to show you that bringing philosophy into your classroom can boost the metacognition and learning-power of your students.

For those new to philosophy in general, we can take the term to mean 'study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence'. More generally, we can understand philosophy as something that all humans, including young people, can take part in: the use of questioning, critical thought, logic, reasoned arguments and evidence to explore very deeply the most fundamental issues in life.

Aside from highlighting the benefits of philosophy in fostering metacognitive development, this article will also explore how philosophical enquiry is essential to metacognition and how metacognitive reflection can (and should) take students into philosophical territory...

Philosophy & Metacognition: The Research

According to an ongoing longitudinal study to understand the long-term benefits of weekly Philosophy for Children (P4C) sessions was investigated by the European School of Madrid (ESM, 2014) over twenty years ago has so far increases in cognitive ability (of seven IQ points). Researchers have found that P4C has particular metacognitive benefits for weaker students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In a separate study: from 2009-2012 the Council for Education in World Citizenship (CEWC) followed seven primary and secondary schools in Wales to investigate the impact of regular P4C sessions, delivered by trained staff, on learners. Aside from the substantial benefits to communication and social skills: researchers found that enhancement of critical thinking was demonstrated through pupils’ increased questioning and discussion, and expressing a range of perspectives.

In more recent research into the impact of teaching philosophy to young people by Rahdar et al (2018) the authors conclude: "Teaching philosophy to children not only has a great impact on the students' cognition (curiosity, question making, reasoning, critical thinking, creativity, interest in experimenting and experiencing) but also has a high effect on their emotion (interest in clarity, enthusiasm, partnership, independence, self-assurance, self- assertion)."

Moreover, The Liverpool Healthy Schools Team studied three schools using philosophy in schools to develop skills for improving well-being and increasing community resilience. Researchers found benefits for mental-health, emotional resilience and, in terms of metacognition, increased metacognitive reflection.

A thorough literature review on the general educational benefits of philosophy in schools can be read here. Some of the benefits mentioned in that review that are specific to our focus on metacognition, metacognitive reflection and use of metacognitive strategies include:

  • Increased levels of metacognitive reflection & understanding

  • Increased levels of cognitive ability and information processing (increased IQ scores)

  • Enhancement of Higher-Order Thinking Skills (HOTS)

  • Improvements to critical thinking and logical reasoning abilities

  • Boosting of both mathematical and numeracy skills

  • Increased literacy and reading skills

  • Increased creativity

  • Higher levels of inquisitiveness the inculcation of an enquiry-based' learning mindset

  • Enhanced questioning skills

We hope to have made a fairly solid case that, if you want to improve metacognition and learning-power in your school, a comprehensive Philosophy curriculum and use of P4C with students is one path towards doing so.

Epistemology: The Core of Metacognition

Epistemology is the philosophical study of knowledge, the nature of knowledge, what constitutes a firm foundation for a knowledge-claim, as well as the difference between knowledge and mere belief . Epistemologists think deeply about knowledge: and that's exactly what we want our students to do as a part of their metacognitive development. Consequently, we can see that philosophy and metacognition have some overlap and shared purpose.

When students reflect on philosophical questions relevant to epistemology, they are (tacitly) engaging in metacognitive reflection: the student is thinking about learning, what it means to analyse, evaluate and judge knowledge, how knowledge is created and what constitutes valuable and veridical knowledge.

Likewise, an important part of a student's philosophical journey as well as their metacognitive development is thinking deeply about sources of knowledge: what constitutes a good source of knowledge? Which sources of knowledge are trustworthy and which less so? Are there any truly reliable sources of certain knowledge?

Teachers of Science, for example, may wish to deepen their students understanding of what exactly is meant by 'Scientific Knowledge' and the various ways by which 'The Scientific Method' allows us to evidence or disprove certain claims. A deeper exploration of knowledge, deeper reflection on the nature of science, and a clear understanding of how scientific knowledge claims differ from other knowledge claims (and the respective strengths and weaknesses of different approaches) involves entering the realm of philosophy. Philosophy allows students to gain Metacognitive Knowledge about the basic nature of knowledge itself.

Likewise, Teachers of Mathematics may wish to ask some of 'The Big Questions' from The Philosophy of Mathematics: "What is a number?", "Do mathematical principles exist 'In The World' and, if so, where?", "What kind of knowledge is 'Mathematical Knowledge'?" and "Do we discover Mathematical Laws using the scientific method, if not, how do we know they are true?"

On its deepest level, philosophical reflection can take students into other fields of philosophy such as Ontology and Metaphysics. Ontology is the study of 'The Nature of Being' and students may well find themselves exploring ontological issues when they investigate closely what their exact relationship to thoughts and ideas is. Likewise, very basic metacognitive questions such as "What is knowledge?" and "What is a thought made out of?" very quickly lead to much deeper and more fundamental metaphysical issues surrounding the relationship between the mind and the brain.

Using Questions for Philosophical & Metacognitive Reflection

Teachers in all subjects can trigger philosophical reflections in their students that can be of benefit to their metacognitive development by using the right questions and style of questioning. You can use metacognitive questions to foster philosophical reflection and you can use philosophical questions to foster metacognitive reflection: both strategies should be employed by teachers in order to create highly reflective learners. The following is a list of metacognitive questions you might ask your students that might lead to deeper philosophical reflections, questions and/or discussions.

  • "How do you know that's a better answer than the alternatives?"

  • "How strong is the evidence on which that claim is based?"

  • "Is that something you are 100% certain about or is there any room for doubt?"

  • "How might you challenge that idea?"

  • "Why might other people claim that the opposite is true?"

  • "What would good evidence to support that claim look like?"

Each one of these questions requires the student to engage in epistemology (whether they know it or not) since they appeal to wider epistemological ideas (such as evidence and certainty). The next set of questions, however, are examples of philosophical questions that might ask your students that might lead to metacognitive reflection:

  • "What is knowledge?"

  • "What is thought?"

  • "What does 'intelligence' really mean and is it a fixed trait or something we can all develop?"

  • "What are the different types of knowledge?"

  • "What, if anything, can you know for certain?"

  • "What is the difference between knowledge and belief?"

  • "How do we know the difference between true and false claims?"

  • "What makes a source of information reliable and trustworthy?"

If you like the idea of exploring these philosophical questions with your students with a view to boosting their metacognitive awareness, check out our 'Metacognitive Thunk Generator' - it contains 101 philosophical questions specifically created to trigger metacognitive reflection!

Resources for Teaching Philosophy in Schools

This resource set comprises twenty philosophical debate and discussion learning sessions! Each session features a variety of P4C activities, debates & discussion prompts. Twenty topics are covered so you can download this set and share them with the subject-leaders in your school to whom they will be of greatest relevance. The following topics are covered:

  1. Animal Rights & Caring for Animals

  2. Art & The Nature of Beauty

  3. Big Issues in Politics

  4. British Values / American Values (Two Distinct Resources)

  5. Caring For The Environment

  6. Celebrating Other Cultures & Religions

  7. Christian Philosophy & Ethics

  8. Citizenship

  9. Computers, Robots & Artificial Intelligence

  10. Epistemology

  11. Ethics & Morality

  12. Friendship, Exclusion & Bullying

  13. Literacy, Reading & The Value of Literature

  14. Metaphysics & The Nature of Reality

  15. Moral & Spiritual Develpment

  16. Space, Aliens & The Universe

  17. The Biggest Questions in Philosophy

  18. The Philosophy of History

  19. The Philosophy of Maths

  20. "Who Am I?" & The Philosophy of Identity

We hope this collection covers all of the bases in relation to the main fields and central debates of philosophy. This is an ideal resource to bring P4C (Philosophy for Children) into your school: the range of topics means there's 'something for every one' and that the cross-curricular connections are very broad.

We hold that engaging students in philosophical discussion, debates and thinking is one of the best ways to enhance their critical-thinking skills and Higher-Order Thinking Skills: the metacogntive benefits of philosophy in schools should not be underestimated!


The Long-term Impact of Philosophy for Children: A Longitudinal Study (Preliminary Results), ANALYTIC TEACHING AND PHILOSOPHICAL PRAXIS VOLUME 35, ISSUE 1 (2014)

Council for Education in World Citizenship (CEWC) - Wiser Wales: Developing Philosophy for Children (P4C) in Different School Contexts in Wales 2009 – 2012

Liverpool Healthy Schools, Philosophy for Children – Pilot Programme Evaluation Final Report, July 2013

Aniseh Rahdar, Abdulwahab Pourghaz, Afsaneh Marziyeh (2018) The Impact of Teaching Philosophy for Children on Critical Openness and Reflective Skepticism in Developing Critical Thinking and Self-Efficacy