Problems that grip the mind

Blackhall primary in Edinburgh has pioneered an American initiative to foster thinking skills and a team approach to problem-solving.

Odyssey of the Mind, introduced in the late 1970s in schools in New Jersey, involves setting groups of children a problem which they must solve within a strict set of criteria.

The culmination in Edinburgh of four intensive days of work was a series of mini-dramas presented at the Royal High School, Blackhall's associated secondary, and judged by Caroline Skilling, Odyssey of the Mind's UK director.

Top billing went to Great Impressions, presented by a group of primary 7 pupils. Their problem was to create and present a performance based on a painting by a French Impressionist, incorporating their own poem and painting and a character that changes appearance during the performance.

In a feat of imagination involving lateral thinking and team working the group came up with Rufus, a dog who is adept at training adults to give him the adulation he clearly craves for. And the chameleon character? A table that turns out to be a boy - not surprisingly, one with a stiff back.

Better Safe than Sorry, another of the pieces, was particularly amusing, if conventional, pantomime. Messages on road safety, not speaking to strangers and shouting out if attacked were portrayed in slapstick fashion backed by slogan: "Respect other citizens like they respect you."

Teams worked with a parent coach to create their pieces. Following a day's brainstorming and another day gathering and creating props they spent the final two days scripting and rehearsing their ideas.

The method is one that Margaret Scott, headteacher of Blackhall, is keen to promote, particularly among the four associated primaries of the Royal High, which could then combine perhaps in a tournament. Mrs Scott says that the approach can be adapted for use within the curriculum or as a regular extra-curricular activity. That would elevate "an intellectual activity" to a rightful place alongside the otherwise dominant sports and outdoor activities.

Mrs Scott particularly commends the level of parental involvement. As coaches they can become involved in their children's education in a more constructive way than "getting them to do another 40 sums at home". She added: "I am sold on the idea of co-operative group work as well as on the parental involvement. "

The OM programme, first tried out in Britain in Leeds and Birmingham, has led to a series of tournaments on both sides of the Atlantic. Enthusiasts may go on to the world finals in the United States.

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