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It's the thought that counts

Harvey McGavin visits a school taking a fresh approach to philosophy. What makes a forest? Is it just trees, or do you need grass and animals as well? If it is just trees, how many do you need? The children of Primary 4 at St Mungo's School in Glasgow sit in a circle, hands in the air, full of ideas on the subject and keen to express them.

This is Philosophical Inquiry, a new approach to an age-old subject which takes the art of thinking out of ivory towers and into inner-city classrooms. There are no right or wrong answers and everyone's opinion matters. In short, it's the thought that counts.

PI is the brainchild of Glasgow University's Catherine McCall, who has developed a method which encourages reasoning, imagination and self-expression while avoiding the cumbersome vocabulary of traditional philosophy.

Discussions, like the one above, begin with the children reading one at a time from a book, usually Laura and Paul, Professor McCall's self-penned tale of two curious children.

The facilitator asks the group if they have any questions, queries or thoughts about what they have read, chooses the one with the most philosophical potential and the inquiry starts. Each person who wants to speak raises his or her hand and, when chosen by the facilitator, must begin what they say by agreeing or disagreeing with what has just been said.

These open-ended, carefully structured debates revive the tradition of l9th century Scottish philosophy clubs. But their back-to-basics approach is closer in essence to the exchanges between Socrates and Plato, philosophy's founding fathers.

The facilitator must not correct, direct or interject in the proceedings, but merely guide them gently by their choice of speaker. It's a subtle skill and quite different from usual didactic classroom practice. But about half the 30 graduates from Professor McCall's MPhil and PhD courses over the past five years have been teachers.

"I'm not out to reform education," she insists. "I'm a philosopher, not an educator. I wait for the teachers to come to me, and they do. There has been a lot of interest from teacher training colleges and it would be beneficial for people that are going to be teachers. But not everyone can do it - it's a special art. You have to see it to appreciate it."

PI has already proved itself in a variety of other settings, ranging from tenants' groups to prison staff. But Professor McCall's goal is to create teams of peripatetic teachers who can service clusters of schools in the major conurbations. "I think it could be incorporated into the curriculum as music or drama are." In Glasgow, several schools, including St Mungo's already include PI in the timetable.

Claire Cassidy, Primary 4's teacher, is a graduate of the course and an enthusiastic practitioner of PI in twice-weekly half-hour sessions. "The children discuss some pretty weighty things without realising it," she says. And she believes the benefits, although not easily quantified, are considerable. "Their confidence in expressing themselves has increased because they have the security of knowing that people aren't disagreeing with them but only with what they're saying."

Pupils at her previous school, St Philomena's, enjoyed PI so much that she now goes back there to take special after-school sessions. The children at St Mungo's also give PI a unanimous thumbs-up .

"I like it because when you are reading it gives your brain a rest and when we are asking questions my brain is ready," says nine-year-old Kofi. "And we get to use big words - like 'philosophical inquiry'."

The rest of the class all have something to say, illustrating Mostafa's point that PI "shows how to tell your opinions to other people".

They also seem to enjoy the opportunity to air their differences without falling out. "In other things, like maths," says John, "when the teacher's saying something to us, we can't say 'I disagree with that'." Chloe adds: "It's all about agreeing or disagreeing with someone but not taking it bad."

Avril Sigerson first heard about PI from a television documentary. She studied part-time while working as a French and English teacher at Kennyhill School in the East End of Glasgow, a secondary for children with moderate learning difficulties.

"Some people say they have got religion. Well I have got philosophy. It sounds like a cliche, but it's changed my life."

Many of her pupils have emotional and behavioural problems and PI has proved particularly effective with them, she says. "It liberates them from their anger. They have poor literacy skills but they can think perfectly well. Thinking precedes literacy and numeracy but nowhere in the curriculum is that recognised."

"The great thing about PI is that it recognises everyone as a thinker. And," she adds, "it's the only class I have that, when the bell goes, doesn't burst for the door."

The European Philosophical Inquiry Centre, which is based at Glasgow University, is holding a three-day conference on Philosophical Inquiry and Life-Long Learning from July 1 to 3. Fee: Pounds 10. Details on: O141 330 4079.

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