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Open questions, open minds

Have you ever tried asking a child a question to which there is no right or wrong answer? If you have, you will know that questions such as, "Is it ever right to lie?" or "Can you love someone and hate them at the same time?" leave most children flummoxed. They are so used to teachers asking questions that require a specific answer - the right one - they think an inexact answer will be the wrong one.

When I began to ask children questions such as these, they would look at me sceptically as if they thought I was trying to trick them. But over several months, it has transformed the way I teach, and the way the children learn and see themselves. They are no longer passive learners, listening quietly to the teacher passing on her knowledge. They have become thinkers, questioners, speculating about ideas, testing for truth and gathering information.

Sadly, in many classrooms, children are not like this. Even in primary schools, children seem to have lost the ability to ask real questions. It saddens me, when I get a new class, to hear the level of questioning, which obviously reflects the level of the children's thinking: "Miss, I've finished my page. Shall I turn over?" or "My pencil has broken. Can I sharpen it?"

As teachers, we need to pull our children out of this rut of passive thinking. One way is to ask open-ended questions. Get them thinking, looking for answers and sorting out their thoughts by asking questions of their own. Throw them into confusion if you can, then they will have to clear their minds and start thinking for themselves.

In a recent interview, the Nigerian writer Ben Okri commented: "Education tends to divert us from our true selves." Thinking, he says, "should be included as a subject in all schools. Teachers rarely ask the right questions and children are shy of expressing themselves."

Questioning, reasoning and reflection should obviously happen as a natural part of every school day, but it may be good to incorporate a specific philosophy slot into the school timetable, to give children a chance to develop and practise these skills. Philosophy for children (P4C), a teaching methodology set up by the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry in Education (Sapere), gives guidelines on developing children's powers of reasoning and reflection. Sessions often use a story as a stimulus for discussion, giving children the opportunity to formulate their own questions as well as discuss other people's.

It is time we, as teachers, freed children from having to think something just because that is what they have been told to think. Our society is becoming too accepting, too unthinking. We must change this, starting with the children in our classrooms.

Jane Flynn Jane Flynn is a Lincolnshire teacher taking a career break to bring up her own children.Sapere: www.sapere.net

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