Philosophy in Prisons: Developing Critical Thinking and a Community of Inquiry

Using the critical thinking skills enhanced by studying philosophy, the researchers developed the critical reasoning and interpersonal skills of prisoners.


Research hub

Teacher Education, Curriculum and Pedagogy

Research experts

Dr Mary Bovill

Professor Duncan Pritchard

Research centre 

Interdisciplinary work in partnership with Eidyn

What was the problem? 

Prison education in Scotland presents a challenge because it lacks the uniformity of a national curriculum. Educational backgrounds differ among prisoners, and one fifth of prisoners reported having difficulties with writing, numbers, and reading (Ministerial Report, 2015). The largely vocational courses offered in prisons help prepare inmates for rehabilitation within the community but do not address the ‘grey zone’ between leaving prison and social reintegration, the area in which reoffending is most likely (Scottish Government Statistical Bulletin, 2015).

In 2013, Eidyn launched the “Introduction to Philosophy” Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) with over 500,000 enrolments in 20 months. Teaching philosophy has been widely shown to enhance people’s capacity for critical (rather than emotional) thinking, encourage critical engagements with ideas of the self, and improve interpersonal skills. These are important transferable skills that could help prisoners to prosper, once released. 

What did we do?

Mary and Duncan collaborated with Eidyn to create an off-line version of the MOOC, including leaflets for each topic and a range of critical thinking exercises, using Community of Philosophical Inquiry (CoPI), a pedagogical method that presumes no prior understanding of philosophical concepts. Tutorials were delivered by university staff and trained volunteer postgraduates to two Scottish prisons: Low Moss (all-male) and Cornton Vale (all-female). Prisoners, from diverse backgrounds and serving a range of sentences, self-selected themselves to take the course.

The format for the tutorials was two-fold, alternating between those that engaged directly with the MOOC content (What is philosophy? What is knowledge?) and the CoPI tutorials, which were adopted to develop the prisoners’ reasoning and critical thinking skills, and to philosophise through guided discussion  as a community of inquiry.

The CoPI tutorials worked to strip away prisoners’ previous assumptions about themselves and the world, and challenged their concept of their own identity. Students could not talk about themselves or use the pronoun “I”, which encouraged them to focus on the conceptual discussion (linked to the MOOC’s content) that resulted from the use of a prompt (text or image), for example: “The cultivation of the individual mind is not, on the face of it, the same thing as the production of a useful citizen” (Bertrand Russell). 

What happened next? 

The course lasted seven weeks and students were subsequently interviewed in small groups. Key themes to emerge from the interviews were:

  • Identity and reflexivity
  • Reasoning and critical consciousness
  • The power of community
  • Critical literacy

Prisoners reported that they had to learn to respect the person they were talking to by listening carefully to what was being said and their reasons for it. Prison teachers reported that prisoners began listening more to each other’s viewpoints and were better able to cope with disagreement.

Prisoners felt the interpersonal and critical reasoning skills they gained through the course would help them in the outside world and male prisoners acknowledged that a lack of these skills had played a role in them being in prison in the first place because they felt misunderstood or misunderstood others, which led to violence.

The female prisoners gained self-confidence and self-esteem and felt the course helped them to realise that “it’s okay to give your opinion” (P2CV).

As a result of the course, a number of students went on to study National 5 Philosophy, and the programme is being extended across Scotland. Cornton Vale are planning the development of a philosophy course in partnership with the university, following the prison’s restructuring. Low Moss has also introduced new philosophy courses due to inmate interest.

The researchers were invited to speak about education prisoners at the Holyrood Policy’s “Offender Learning” event (October 2015) and their research has contributed to the current discussion on prison education in Scotland and desistance in offending.

Some of the post-graduate students, who were completing their teacher training programme at the School of Education, believed that the experience of working with the prisoners developed their own pedagogical approaches. They were stimulated by the complex ways in which thinking aloud together as a community of inquirers provided a powerful approach to deconstructing and reconstructing the ideas of the prisoners. Employing the strategies involved in the unearthing of illusions, and contradictions in thinking, was seen to play an important role in the development of their own classroom practices. 

It kind of gives you respect to the person you’re having a conversation with; it’s letting them know that you’re really listening to what they’re saying and that you’re not jumping in and assuming what they’re saying.


In CoPI, it’s good to hear people having different view, without actually feeling as if, well [they]re actually different from me,” (P7LM)

“I think this course gives you more understanding… Whereas before you would just look at it from your own point of view, which is quite selfish, you know.


You listen and you look and you start to develop a whole way of changing your thought and thinking and everything.


I found that the individuals willingness to be able to accept a variety of view point respectfully was a massively constructive part of the CoPI tutorials. This was particularly clear in the women’s prison where tensions were quite obviously high at various points between individual or groups of people. I found that this also reflected their willingness to consider ideas outwith their perceived reality. Their thinking became more epistemological the more they were able to engage with other ideas…

PG student

Social skills, community and personal identity are the three things that I think are very powerfully put across—not just [in] philosophy—but this particular type of philosophy that I think can make a real difference to them [prisoners]


[…] that’s what made it so glorious in that last one [tutorial …] and you were hearing comments like, I didn’t know I could have opinions on these sort of things. […] It was really quite astonishing. Or somebody else saying, this has helped me in interviews with my social worker or lawyer to listen and to argue, and to, you know, stick up for myself.


Related study programme

PGDE Curriculum Plus 2 ‘Philosophy with Children’