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It's light bulbs, elastic bands and sponges

Philosophical enquiry is about opening people's eyes to possibilities that are all around them, says Morag Macinnes, who has been delivering sessions in the subject to Fair Isle Primary pupils.

Given a new lease of life in the 1960s by researchers at Montclair State College, New Jersey, the Socratic art has been shown, when practised by schoolchildren, to lead to improved reasoning and better social and emotional skills.

"What children give during enquiry is often very different to what they give in ordinary lessons," says Ms Macinnes. "So teachers see that there's more potential there than they knew about - and so do the kids. One boy had dyslexia and dyspraxia and had never shone in class. But during enquiry we found he knew lots of stuff. The other children saw him in a different light then, and started to involve him much more."

Every Fair Isle class has had philosophical enquiry sessions, but efforts are being focused on P1-4, where they will gain most throughout the project. There is also a philosophical enquiry club for older pupils.

Methods need to be adapted to suit infants. "I provide the question for discussion rather than letting the kids do it," says Ms Macinnes. "Then I have two imaginary characters, Phil and Sophie, to help me out.

"In talking about brains and their enormous potential, I use real objects - a light bulb to show they can have good ideas, an elastic band to show that their brain stretches, a sponge to show that it sucks up ideas. They love all that stuff."

Contributions from even the youngest can be surprisingly sophisticated: "One class was doing a project on the senses, so I got them to think about how they'd feel if they were blind. They came up with words like `anxious' and `frustrated'. In the end, they got 20 words of that calibre - which is pretty good for Primary 1."

Older pupils enjoy it when Ms Macinnes plays devil's advocate. "They say, `You're doing that messing with my brain again.'"

In the long term, the aim for philosophical enquiry - as with all parts of the Fair Isle project - is to have parents learning along with their children. "They're usually blown away by the things their kids have been doing, and want to get involved themselves.

"What will philosophical enquiry do for parents around here? It will start them thinking. It will get them wondering what they could be doing with their lives. It will open their eyes to the possibilities."

E: mmacinnes@talk21.com

What is philosophy for children? http:sapere.org.ukwhat-is-p4c.

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