Children at Queen's primary in Kew, in the London borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, have turned questioning into an art form. They have a habit of asking those stop-you-in-your-tracks questions that make you think until your brain hurts - the kind any self-respecting critic or journalist should ask.
It's all part of Queen's school's focus on thinking skills, which this year involves an ambitious project to shadow the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway medals for outstanding writing and illustration, the winners of which are announced today. Questions are posted around the school on a host of topics, some of which adults would approach with caution. For example, Year 1 pupils doing a topic on sustainable development have read John Burningham's picture book Whadayamean?, about man's environmental recklessness. "Why did they make God sad and ruin everything?" and "Why do people break the law?" are just two of the questions on the classroom wall.
These children are not afraid of going for the big issues.
Their teachers encourage them to ask "brave" questions. Stella Ware, Year 6 teacher and able pupil and literacy co-ordinator at the school, says:
"Their thinking might not be complete on a particular topic, but we tell them to go for it. They learn that the best questions are the ones that evoke the most wide-ranging response - those that have no single answer."
What better training is there, asks Ms Ware, when it comes to forming opinions about books? On the day of the TES visit, Years 4 and 5 are being put through their paces testing on younger pupils the picture books shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal.
Ela Kaczmarska, a teacher leading the shadowing, reminds the older pupils of the skills involved. "Don't just read the book straight off," she says.
"You must watch the children and their expressions, you must listen to their questions, ask questions yourself and think about their reaction."
Up to 20 pupils from Years 4 and 5 are split into teams of three, each taking a shortlisted Greenaway book to read to a small group of Year 1s (Year 6s judged the Carnegie contenders). While one pupil reads and asks questions, a second evaluates the quality of those questions and the younger pupils' responses. Part of the learning process is for the nine-year-olds to realise that the younger children's responses are more sophisticated than they might have bargained for.
When reading Lauren Child's That Pesky Rat, Holly Layton in Year 5 is stopped in her tracks by Ava Wesson in Year 1. "In real life, dogs can't do jigsaw puzzles, can they?" asks Ava. "I know it's a bit confusing," empathises Holly, only to be put in her place. "Oh it's all right," confides Ava, "because this is a fiction book."
Similarly, a group of able Year 6 pupils who have been sharing books on the Carnegie Medal shortlist for discussion in groups and for writing reviews, are being encouraged to ask and answer some very open-ended questions.
Oliver Konstam is rocking to and fro clutching Lian Hearn's Across the Nightingale Floor to his breast complaining that he likes this book so much he doesn't want to go on and read anything else and can't wait for the sequel.
Hearn's book is an epic tale of loyalty, beauty, revenge and love, sometimes disturbingly violent and a challenging read for any 11-year-old, but Queen's school does not rest content that a boy should enjoy such a challenging book. It wants to know why he enjoyed it; whether the plot helped him see things in a new way or increased his knowledge; if he thought the characters were believable and why; if the book kept the right balance between narrative and dialogue.
Queen's is a beacon school that specialises in thinking skills and, says headteacher Jane Goodlace, uses the Carnegie and Greenaway shadowing exercise to this end, encouraging its many able children not only to read quality books, but also to talk and write about why they think these books are worthy, or not, of an award. As part of this initiative their reviews have been posted on the school's website and the best are being displayed in the local bookshop.
Ms Ware believes the literacy hour offers bright children too little day-to-day exposure to good literature. She says they need much more than the excerpts on offer. "The literacy hour offers safety and structure, but we need to go way beyond that to motivate our children. They need the good read of a whole book, then they need to look into every aspect of it, from the plot, characterisation and dialogue to the blurb on the back. They do that by asking good questions, which they are taught to do here from day one."
Queen's school draws from largely professional families, and many children arrive with high levels of literacy. In a school that achieves 100 per cent level 4s and 60 per cent level 5s at key stage 2, an emphasis on promoting thinking skills has enabled the school to keep moving forward, extending children's experiences and creativity rather than merely looking to ever higher test results. To extend the school's literacy work with able children, Ms Ware took on Ela Kaczmarska to create a permanent CarnegieGreenaway project. A former secondary English teacher with three children of her own at the school, she is passionate about children's literature. Funding to buy the books for the project has been secured through the Barbara Perry Memorial Fund.
Barbara Perry, also a parent with children in the school, came to Queen's as a mature newly qualified teacher of Year 1 pupils in 1997. When she died of cancer only 18 months later, parents and staff established a fund, part going to London's Royal Marsden hospital and part dedicated to buying books that provide a challenging read for able children. Mrs Kaczmarska has used the fund to buy past and current Carnegie and Greenaway titles. "These books teach children about life outside and to be sensitive to other kinds of people and other kinds of lives. They are also of such great quality, they help children learn about richness of language, and lead them to spur each other on with reading. Many classroom teachers have too little time to do this. It's easy within the normal curriculum to push this kind of reading to one side. Once children can read, they are seldom given guidelines about what they should be reading."
Robert Fisher, professor of education at Brunel University has written extensively on thinking skills, and brought it to the school's attention when his children were pupils there. He says "knowing how" rather than just "knowing what" is an essential life skill, and Ms Goodlace saw extending powers of critical thinking as a way forward for a school already achieving highly.
Professor Fisher has conducted research with staff on a range of "thinking" strategies. Ms Goodlace says: "Literacy is just one of the areas we have extended for able children. We are also doing this in music, maths and in leadership, as we also see these as areas of intelligence."
See www.ckg.org.ukshadowing for details of other shadowing projects and young readers' reviews CHILDREN'S CHOICE
The Queen's pupils' verdict
'Across the Nightingale Floor' by Lian Hearn (Macmillan pound;12.99)
The judges say
"Although this is challenging and quite hard to follow, the story is very tense, emotionally moving and definitely a worthwhile read."
"It has made me imagine terror. It takes me somewhere I've never been before."
'The Edge' by Alan Gibbons (Dolphin Paperbacks pound;4.99)
'The Man on the Moon' by Simon Bartran (Templar Publishing pound;9.99)
The judges say
"A very humorous book for young children. The pictures are bright and eye-catching. The reception and Year 1 children liked it and weren't distracted."
'That Pesky Rat' by Lauren Child (Orchard Books pound;10.99)
Did the official judges agree? Find out from 1pm today at www.carnegiegreenaway.org.uk.Find Queen's school reviews on the same website by clicking on "Postroom" and looking under "Q", or go to www.queens.richmond.sch.uk