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The getting of wisdom

Primary pupils being introduced to philosophy are becoming intrigued by ideas, reports Eleanor Caldwell.

The P67 pupils at Sunnyside Primary in Alloa straighten their backs and turn to face the front of the class as they prepare for their weekly philosophy lesson with headteacher Paul Cleghorn.

Mr Cleghorn encourages them to become aware of the weight of their limbs, the air on their faces and to focus on shapes and colours around them. He instructs them to "put their brain in a position where it will be working" so that they can listen to a story in concentrated silence.

The old English folk tale they hear is drawn from an anthology of world stories by Robert Fisher. It tells of an owl who attempts to explain to fellow forest creatures what a man's shoe is.

Rejecting the owl's definitions of the unknown creature "man" and of his footwear, the animals propose hypotheses for what the shoe might be - a bird's nest, a nutshell or a plant - and so give the listening children food for thought.

The pupils are amused by one question, "How can an animal with two legs be cleverer than one with four?" Another comment, "Not much of a bird with no feathers!", also raises a laugh.

After a couple of minutes in silent contemplation, the children work in pairs, retelling each other the story and discussing its meaning. Some find this difficult at first. "I can't remember the order of all the things," says one boy. He is keen to get on to talking about its meaning, though.

When the class comes together, Mr Cleghorn leads the discussion. This soon pans out to consider truth and lies, belief and doubt. The children are keen to admit to some of their own lies.

As the discussion moves on, Mr Cleghorn, as the "facilitator in this community of enquiry", creates a flow diagram of key words on the board and leads the group towards more sharply focused definitions of truth, lies and "doing the right thing".

A number of pupils participate eagerly, while others are more reticent. Truth, they agee, is something "that actually happens".

The "right thing", they also reckon, is simply "not the wrong thing" and have some difficulty getting to the bottom of that idea.

As comments on lies progress, children bypass the anecdotal and examine general principles and consequences. "You might end up believing your own lies," one girl comments. "You could get into the habit of telling lies because you think it might get you somewhere," adds a boy.

Bringing the class to an end. Mr Cleghorn asks the pupils to consider "What's in it for me?" One girl warns acerbicly: "When you tell a lie, the person might have told a lie to you."

The pupils are enthusiastic about their philosophy lessons. They have already discussed "wisdom" and learned to question adages such as "the older you get, the wiser you get". P1 pupils, they say, are very wise when they are threatened by bullies and immediately tell the teacher. This wisdom is sometimes lost, they feel, when older boys and girls retaliate rather than tell. Wisdom, they conclude, is about sharing experience and learning from good decisions.

Not entirely sure of how to pronounce names, the pupils are in no doubt that key philosophers lived "absolutely hundreds and hundreds of years ago". However they have picked up on mentions of Galileo in today's lesson and say they would like to learn more about "real live" philosophers.

Mr Cleghorn is chair of Clackmannanshire's Thinking Skills Group and has a keen interest in philosophy. He hopes other schools will introduce the subject. He rejects any suggestion that it detracts from personal and social education or religious and moral teaching, and emphasises that through consideration of folk tales from Chinese, Buddhist, Greek and other worldwide traditions, children will begin to "dig behind" their initial ideas.

"A new idea," he quotes from Schopenhauer, "is first ridiculed, then becomes acceptable and finally becomes mainstream."

The young thinkers of Alloa are on the case already.

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