Philosophy and Art in Prisons: Curriculum design (A11)

Philosophy and Art in Prisons 


My product enrichment curriculum aims to encourage transformation, to engage learners in critical thinking through communal philosophical inquiry and to promote participation in Yale University’s moralities of everyday life MOOC. The concept of transformation I use is based on Lori Pompa’s (2013) modal of inside-out pedagogy, in which classes of prisoners and undergraduates are mixed to achieve positive transformation. My class consists of 11 philosophy undergraduates and 10 prisoners. Students are engaged in communal philosophical inquiry through following Lipman’s COPI modal, which is influenced by theories on inquiry by Dewey (1916) and Peirce (1910). COPI is the pedagogical unpinning of my course. Participation in a MOOC following completion of the course is suggested by Pritchard (2019), who has taught COPI lessons to prisoners in Scotland. He claims this practice supports inmates through rehabilitation. I’ve picked the Yale MOOC as it focuses heavily on the role of self in morality.



Transformation in the inside-out pedagogy model is based on two presumptions. One is that to bring the oppressed to liberation, topics that sustain power over the oppressed must be discussed and answers found, as suggested by Boal (1974). Secondly, there is no word without praxis, so words and by extension thoughts can change the world, as Freire claimed (Freire, 1968, cited by Davis and Roswell, 2013). Inside-out pedagogy takes these two quotes to mean together that transformation of an individual can be achieved through changing thought which will lead to changed action, Davis and Roswell (2013) writing ‘Collectively, they are engaged in the practice of social dramaturgy, a process they rehearse inside the classroom and act outside of the classroom’. Through the enrichment course, by encouraging communal inquiry on topics of ethics, the learners are hoped to arrive at conclusions that will lead to positive actions. Inside-out pedagogy uses groups called Think Tanks outside the prison to allow the pursuit of prolonged transformation. I use the Yale MOOC to instil continued work on positive change, increasing the likelihood of transformation.


A community of inquiry draws from Lipman’s definition of a community, which is as a shared value of mutual respect, trust and a sense of solidarity. Lipman (1980) cited in Ndofirepi and Musengi (2019) defines community as a ‘value measured by the members’ ability to exhibit qualities of community life in line with expectations, including tolerance, reciprocity and trust. These attributes must be displayed voluntarily’. The values that are produced by a community are values that will aid in achieving transformation in our learners, positive thought leading to positive action.

Communities are necessary for producing conflict with our conceptions of the world, and so are necessary for a change in thinking. Peirce (1910) cited in Ndofirepi and Musengi (2019) writes that it is only through expressing our thinking to others that individuals change their way of thinking and acting. Therefore, it is particularly important to mix the participants in the class so that they are not all prisoners. Dewey (1916) cited by Kennedy (2012) supports this, claiming inquiry is inherently social interaction, and that inquiry must be within a community if it is to expose learners to new ways of thinking. It is my belief these communities will benefit from consisting of members who haven’t been prosecuted.


Peirce (1910), who coined the term communities of philosophical inquiry, as opposed to Descartes’ rationale that philosophy must begin at a point of no prior knowledge, rather suggesting it comes from observing and participating in activities within the world. He rejected the concept that any one person could be an absolute judge of truth. To Peirce, society should come together and reason jointly on such matters. This is the initial concept behind communities of philosophical inquiry.

Dewey (1913), influenced in part by Peirce’s works, writes on the relationship on what he saw as two separate mental faculties, impulse and habit. Dewey labelled habit to mean cognitive structures that form our personality and regulate our behaviour. Impulse Dewey defined as states such as desire and anxiety which influence us into different courses of action. The two were seen to be interrelated, though Dewey believed this could lead to negative results when contributing to the making of what he termed cultivated nativity. Dewey believed we create unhealthy and unrealistic world views in our consciousnesses as part of the mind wishes to go back to a childhood like state of innocence. Through the mingling of impulse and habit, unrealistic world views can be created called cultivated naivety, defined by Granger (1982) cited in Kennedy (2012) as “interpretive dialectic between self and world that resists closure,”. Dewey claims inquiry is seen to take place when items of conceptual knowledge we hold habitually, such as marriage, are broken. Lipman saw inquiry as a self-correcting process, clearly inherent in successful transformation.

Through inquiry it is possible to broaden and change our conceptual world views, overcoming any cultivated naivety in the process. Dewey (1913) cited in Kennedy (2012) describes inquiry as moving ‘from doubt to the resolution of doubt’. and separates inquiry into two types. The first is logical inquiry used to acquire information about the world and the second is ‘creative inquiry’, which is the rearranging of information. I try to engage logical inquiry through discussion and analysing the topics as a community from the Yale MOOC. ‘Creative inquiry’ is engaged through learners creating art, expressing knowledge they already possess about the subject through a different medium.

Dewey sees inquiry as a natural process central to humanity and our ability to gather information about the world around us. Importantly, this information is gained by the self. ‘Inquiry’ is central to learners building up their conceptions of the world, helping empower individual thinking. It is through inquiry that learners can develop their critical thinking skills, helping to inspire transformation.

Communities of Philosophical Inquiry Pedagogical Structure

The five components Lipman (1980) cited in Ndofirepi and Musengi (2019) sets out for a successful COPI are:

‘ 1) the communal reading of a text 2) the construction of an agenda, i.e. the identification of questions which the reading of the text has raised and the cooperative decision about where to begin the discussion; 3) solidification, which includes the articulation of positions and counter positions, the definition of terms under discussion, and the search for criteria by which to make sound judgements about the subject; 4) exercises and discussion plans, based on the ideas in the text 5) further responses, which may be in form of creative writing, dramatization, art, or some other modality’.


The first lesson hour of each three sessions introduces the topic of the MOOC which will be engaged in the following COPI lesson. It follows step five of Lipman’s components of a successful COPI, engages Dewey’s creative inquiry and is aimed at helping promote the values of a community. The three topics are emotion vs reason on deciding morality, why there are differences in what some see as moral or immoral and stereotypes.

Art gives the learners the opportunity to take the lead of the lesson by expressing their prior knowledge. The painting will use spray paints as they are easily accessible without any previous experience. The head of operations of Global Street Art, Auberi Chen, who has facilitated painting workshops, recommended that I build seven 8ft x 4ft plywood walls in an outside area. The first 15 minutes of each session is used to sketch a simple design. Groups of seven learners take it in turns to paint on the wall for fifteen minutes each. Photos of the art are taken before the next group paints over the last’s work. These photos are printed out in A3 and laminated to be used as a stimulus for the COPI facilitation. For this to go successfully I would need to collaborate with an artist to carry out the sessions.


I want to space the two hours of teaching in between lunch for three reasons. Firstly, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and basic intuitive thought shows us that being well-fed increases motivation and engagement in our learners. Secondly, eating together is intrinsically communal, found in every human society. The hour between is very important as six hours isn’t a long time to grow a sense of community, eating together will increase the chances of the learners to form social connections. Thirdly, it gives me the time to print out the art, laminate the art and prepare the classroom.


The community of inquiry uses a circle seating plan, displaying equal levels of power and equal opportunities for speaking. This is aimed at empowering the individual’s sense of self-identity. The art that the learners produce on the topic is used as an initial stimulus to elicit knowledge they already have and to generate discussion.

Step five and step two are carried out first, the art they have created viewed and learners asked to think of questions they would like to ask. The learners then communally decide which questions out of those questions we will ask. Step one and three proceed this, text from the Yale MOOC read in parts by several learners. Key terms are introduced and brought into the next part of the discussion. An example would be discussing if the morality of the artist impacts the art if we should judge this emotively or objectively. The facilitation ends with step four when a discussion activity is employed based on the key terms i.e. to revolving lines facing each other.


The need for engaging learners in communal inquiry in prisons can be seen from Transforming Rehabilitation: a summary of evidence on reducing reoffending (second edition) published in 2014. It found that critical thinking courses reduce the likelihood of re-offence by 8-10%, and that it is particularly effective when combined with other courses. The Ministry of Justice (2015) writes ‘problem solving, decision making, perspective taking and moral reasoning. Their purpose is to reduce impulsivity, improve problem solving, and instil a greater sense of capability for self-management’. These categories are engaged within the content of my course. That said, most critical thinking courses consist of 25-40 sessions, displaying the importance of continued participation in the Yale MOOC.


My learning outcomes are to encourage transformation, to engage learners in critical thinking through communal philosophical inquiry and to promote participation in the Yale University’s moralities of everyday life MOOC. The last learning objective will be easy to measure by asking the prisons some weeks later if the prisoners have continued with the Yale MOOC. Measuring critical thinking is much harder, though we can assess which learners participated in the discussion and thus which learners were practising their critical thinking skills. It will also offer some incite into if key terms have been learnt. Transformation is much harder to quantify. To attempt at seeing if positive thought that could potentially fuel positive actions, I would get the participants to complete a questionnaire on their experience. This can be carried out verbally if the learner doesn’t have the literacy skills. If the learners enjoy the course then it is likely positive thought has been facilitated, promoting transformation.


Though the undergraduates are learners in the community, we will not formally assess them. I hope for voluntary participation from undergraduates but also the wider academic community. Inside-Out pedagogy (2013) recommends advertising training and research possibilities for being involved and advertising the opportunity of fresh insights into the justice system.

Scheme of work

Name of Student Teacher:  
Alexander Clarke
Enrichment Course Title & Level:   Art and Philosophy Level 2/3Number of sessions (6 hours in total):
Session No.DurationContent SummaryLearning OutcomesMain Teaching MethodsResourcesAssessment MethodsKey Skills Covered
11 HourThe Self and morality
Spray Painting
Sketch a simple design of something that represents you.
Paint a simple design of something that represents you.
ModellingPlywood walls   Spray paints Artist CameraObservation   Produced artworkCreative inquiry into Philosophical concept
21 HourPhilosophical inquiry in emotive and relative morality in relation to the selfDiscuss different ways of viewing morality   Discuss how morality impacts views of the self
Use terms emotive and relative in a sentence with correct meaning
Communal inquiryLaminated A3 photos of art   Reading from Yale MOOCObservationKey terms   Critical thinking through inquiry Ethical concepts
31 HourMoral differences
Spray Painting
Sketch a simple design of something you think is evil or good   Paint a simple design of something you think is evil or goodModellingPlywood wall   Spray paints
Produced artwork
Creative inquiry into Philosophical concept
41 HourPhilosophical inquiry into why people disagree on what is moralDiscuss different ways of viewing morality   Discuss how morality impacts how society functions
Use terms disgust and pure om sentence with correct meaning
Communal inquiryLaminated A3 photos of art   Reading from Yale MOOCObservationKey terms   Critical thinking through inquiry Ethical concepts
51 HourStereotypes
Spray Painting
Sketch a simple design of a stereotype you know of   Paint a simple design of a stereotype you know ofModellingPlywood wall   Spray paints
Produced artwork
Creative inquiry into Philosophical concept
61 HourPhilosophical inquiry into how we form stereotypesDiscuss different stereotypes   Discuss how stereotypes are formed
Display an understanding that different societies have different stereotypes
Communal  inquiryLaminated A3 photos of art   Reading from Yale MOOCObservationKey terms   Critical thinking through inquiry Ethical concepts

Course Description

Subject: Philosophy and ArtDuration: One Week
Centre: HM Prison PentonvilleDay & Time: Monday, Wednesday, Friday-11:00am-2pm
Level: 1/2/3Tutor: Alexander Clarke
Accessibility: Prisoner
Student Target Group  Prisoners of any level
Course Aims  Produce positive thoughts which encourage transformation
Continued participation in Yale MOOC
To engage critical thinking through commutative inquiry
Learning Outcomes  To have produced three pieces of art
To have engaged in commutative inquiry of three topics on the Yale MOOC
To have thought positive thoughts which promote transformation
Learning Activities  Spray painting
Group reading
Commutative inquiry
Assessment Methods  Observed discussion
Reported participation with MOOC
Resources  Plywood Walls 8ftx4ft
Spray Paint
A3 Laminator
Three readings from MOOC
After the Course  The students should have engaged with the Yale MOOC after completion of the course


Davis, W, Barbara, R. (2013) Turning Teaching inside out : a Pedagogy of Transformation for Community-Based Education / Edited by Simone Weil Davis, Barbara Sherr Roswell. Basingstoke : Palgrave Macmillan : Distributor Not Avail.

Pritchard, D. (2019) “Philosophy in Prisons: Intellectual Virtue and the Community of Inquiry.” Teaching Philosophy, vol. 42, no. 3, 2019, pp. 247–263., doi:10.5840/teachphil201985108.

Kennedy, D. (2012) “Lipman, Dewey, and the Community of Philosophical Inquiry.” Education and Culture, vol. 28, no. 2, 2012, pp. 36–53.

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Published by Coffee & Alex

Alexander Clarke is a sole trader who writes and teaches. He’s published articles, blog posts, short stories and poems. He’s taught philosophy, theology, ESOL and PSHE.

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