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Innovative Practice - Deep thought

Bring together sixth-form students from different schools to do extended projects on philosophy hamish lace

Bring together sixth-form students from different schools to do extended projects on philosophy hamish lace

The background

Rugby School in Warwickshire has long had a reputation for its work teaching philosophy and ethical issues, and even employs its own philosopher-in-residence.

Dr John Taylor, head of the public school's philosophy department, is the author of Think Again: a philosophical approach to teaching. "Experience shows that exploration of the deeper, controversial and in some ways unanswerable questions of philosophy is an excellent way of equipping students with the skills and intellectual curiosity needed for successful independent learning," he says.

Rugby's philosophy department was keen to find ways to share its expertise and resources with other schools, and also to benefit from the experience of students from different schools mixing with each other and sharing ideas.

The introduction of the Extended Project Qualification gave a fresh impetus for this work, as such projects can give students space to explore philosophical and ethical matters.

The project

Rugby worked with other schools to set up the Philosophy Zone, an inter-school programme for philosophical exploration and project-based learning. Launched in 2008, the project initially involved Rugby and three state schools.

Sixth-form students participate in discussions on a range of philosophical questions, which are hosted by Taylor and Emma Williams, Rugby's philosopher-in-residence.

The programme spans two terms, with 12 45-minute seminars in the first term. In the second half of the programme, the teachers become mentors as the students select a research question and develop their own extended project. Some of the discussion happens online through a virtual learning platform.

"The Philosophy Zone is designed to develop thinking skills and stimulate enquiry into issues that can serve as a starting point for independent project work," Taylor says.

Tips from the scheme

Taylor says:

"Organising sessions in which students from different schools can participate is a logistical challenge. You need a dedicated member of staff in each partner school."

"Ethical dilemmas, questions about the human mind and puzzles about ultimate reality work well."

"There is plenty of excellent stimulus material easily available online (see www.philosophybites.com, www.closertotruth.com and www.justiceharvard.org)."

Evidence that it works?

In 2010, Dr Ralph Levinson, reader in education at the Institute of Education, University of London, carried out a research study of the Philosophy Zone learning platform. He found that "students report that the Philosophy Zone is a helpful resource, which they repeatedly draw on for their final project.

"But it is much more than this: the lengthier topic and project discussions demonstrably promote clarity of argument and depth of insight into philosophical questions. Furthermore, evidence suggests that the more students from different schools contribute towards topic discussions, the higher the quality of reflection and critical thinking."

THE PROJECT

Approach: The Philosophy Zone

Started: 2008

Leaders: John Taylor and Emma Williams, Rugby School

To apply to be involved, email jlt@rugbyschool.net

Taylor, J.L. Think Again: a philosophical approach to teaching (2012). Continuum

THE SCHOOL

Name: Rugby School

Location: Warwickshire

Type: Co-educational independent boarding school

Pupils: About 800

Age range: 11-18

Annual fees: #163;29,000 (boarding)

Inspectors' comments: "Rugby School achieves outstanding success in its primary objective of developing rounded individuals who are useful members of the community." (Independent Schools Inspectorate, 2008).

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