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Talk it over

Janet Murray sees a technique borrowed from philosophy applied to English at key stage 3

When I was a teacher, I was constantly amazed how students were happy to sit back and let me do their thinking for them. But now, a teaching method called Philosophy for Children is encouraging them to think for themselves. P4C, as it is more commonly known, is a method for teaching thinking and literacy skills and citizenship.

At Kingsbrook School in Milton Keynes, P4C has been taught across the curriculum for more than two years. In the English department, schemes of work have been rewritten to include opportunities for P4C.

Year 8 students analyse the concept of evil and discuss the naturenurture debate in relation to Wolf by Gillian Cross. Year 9 students debate the concept of ambition in relation to Shakespeare's Macbeth. "If love is the question, what is the answer?" is the question posed to Year 10 students reading Romeo and Juliet.

"It's great for improving students' confidence," says senior teacher in charge of teaching and learning, Celia James. "Everyone's ideas are valued and there are no wrong answers. And encouraging independent thinking is not just about the academic - it's equipping students with life skills."

In P4C sessions, students are seated in a circle. "It's vital that children are not sitting behind desks," explains Celia James. "They're facing one another and no one can hide. It means that quieter students, those most likely to sit back and let other students dominate, actually make the effort to contribute."

She begins a P4C session by asking students to remind everyone of the rules - most importantly, not to speak over each other, but to follow on from each other's points. Teacher intervention is kept to a minimum and students decide who will respond to the points they make. "Because there is so much thinking involved, there can be long silences." she says. "As a teacher, there is a temptation to dive in and dominate. But it's important to keep your nerve and wait - then you get the best out of the children."

The warm-up involves a physical game - to get the blood rushing to the brain, followed by "mental limbering". In the lesson I observed, Year 8 students were asked to think of an object and an animal and link them together: why is a spoon like a tiger? Why is a microwave like an elephant? Their answers were colourful and imaginative.

Students were then given pictures to discuss in groups of three and each asked to devise a question relating to their picture. One group discussed a desert scene, with pyramids and a lone figure seated on a camel. Their question: "Can a person be trapped in their own desert?" Very impressive - particularly from 13-year-olds - and this was the question the class voted as the focus for their enquiry, which formed the central part of the lesson.

Guided by the teacher, students explore the possibilities raised by the question and draw conclusions. Reflection is a key aspect of P4C and at the end of a session, each student is encouraged to sum up their response to the question. There is no pressure - a student can choose to pass and speak later if they wish, but most usually speak, if allowed some time.

English teacher Karen Lamb says: "We've been particularly impressed with the way P4C has captured the boys' imaginations. It gives them the opportunity to take risks. They have the freedom to be challenging, outspoken and innovative within a structured framework. It was particularly noticeable with Romeo and Juliet, which boys often see as a 'girly' text.

P4C helped them to grasp that it was more than a love story."

English staff at Kingsbrook have also seen improvements in writing. Celia James says: "It's particularly noticeable with weaker students. A community of enquiry can be a way of planning writing, or composing an oral essay.

After a P4C session, students get down to writing much more quickly."

This may be because P4C links so well with the demands of the national literacy strategy. "The links with speaking and listening are obvious," says Karen James. "But P4C can also be geared towards the writing triplets, such as 'persuade, argue, advise' and 'imagine, explore and entertain'."

Both teachers agree that using P4C has improved their teaching and provided job satisfaction. "It's so important for students to feel they are being listened to, but many teachers are guilty of not listening," says Celia James. "P4C encourages us to listen to what our students are saying and use this to help move them on."

As Karen Lamb puts it: "It's great to know students leave your classroom having learned so much and enjoyed themselves. It's such a buzz."

More information on P4C

Janet Murray formerly taught English in Kent

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