A lesson for us all
In a classroom at Bicester Community College, the red plastic chairs are arranged in a horseshoe shape. A raucous Year 7 class floods in. Teacher James Honeybone is ready with his 11-year-old "secretary" by his side. Soon, the 30 children are discussing the rights and wrongs of the judgment by Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who, eight years ago, at the age of 10, murdered two-year-old James Bulger, can be released this month.
But this is not necessarily a class of junior Mensa members. The discussion is made possible by a simple one-page sheet outlining the facts of the case so far, explaining difficult vocabulary and giving points for debate. The resource is accompanied by tried-and-tested methods for guiding the discussion. James Honeybone is a master at teaching it, but as author of the CH Weekly (Contemporary History) sheets, he should be.
He introduces three difficult, related words. "Retribution? Anybody come across that word?" "Something to do with emotions?" hazards one child.
"Ah, I like that," he says encouragingly. "But it's a punishment that is deserved."
He also covers "parole board" and "rehabilitation", before moving on to the facts of the case. The reading team has been selected by class teacher Ali Smith. James Wells - the secretary - gives them their cues.
"They tortured him, poured paint into his eyes and smashed his skull with a bar," reads one. Noises of revulsion rise from the children. Moving on, they hear that Venables and Thompson have "shown remorse, behaved well and made striking progress with their studies" while in secure units.
By the time the debate begins on: "What do you think it is that makes 10-year-old boys commit such a brutal murder?" the class is divided. "When I heard they'd tried to make it look like an accident, I thought they must have known what they were doing," says David.
"I think they're sickos," says Lianne.
"Maybe people have been bullying them - chucking them on the floor - so they're doing it to a two-year-old," ventures Jason.
James Honeybone was working as a history teacher at Bicester when he devised the CH approach, which is based on discussion with pupils about the week's news. Now, more than 20 years later, he is retired from teaching, and marketing the CH Weekly package - which includes a teachers' guide and an archive of past topics - through the internet. His aim, he says, i no less than to promote democracy. "CH Weekly enables teachers to run successful discussions in which participants listen, in silence, to speakers giving opinions with reasons. The outcome should be a healthier democracy."
When Mr Honeybone moves the class on to: "Do you support or oppose Lord Woolf's decision?", at least half the children want to venture an opinion. The secretary takes down every name, then calls on them one by one to speak.
The boys are more forgiving than the girls. "They should be allowed to go outside and make a life," says one boy. The girls are with Carly. "I don't agree with Lord Woolf," she says. "They wouldn't like it to happen to them."
Mr Honeybone welcomes disagreement of all kinds. It gets children thinking, speaking, arguing about things that matter, having to support their opinions with reasons rather than rely on their own or their parents' prejudices, he says.
He has thought long and hard about what constitutes a successful discussion. One aspect is giving everybody a fair chance at speaking. The name-taking system prevents proceedings being hijacked by the usual extroverts, a feature children appreciate. "I enjoy it because we all get a say," says David. "I just love arguing," says Tom. A neutral chair (the teacher) is a vital component. At the end of the lesson, Mr Honeybone thanks "those who have listened as well as those who have spoken".
Every week he scans the papers. Over the course of a term he selects a range of light and heavyweight topics. Recent ones have included "Politics and the pumps", "Poverty in Britain", "Britain in 2020", and "I'd rather watch paint dry than watch Big Brother". He puts the sheets on his website on Friday at 2pm, for use the following week. The internet is the perfect medium for this kind of resource, he says.
Bicester, where Mr Honeybone still takes occasional sessions to keep in touch and field-test his sheets, is now under the headship of Cynthia Bartlett, who says she appreciates the CH Weekly approach. "Many skills can be taught through it," she says. "It's a living example of how democracy works before you even get on to the content." She says it can also help compensate for what some children don't get at home. "They encourage the sort of discussion that you would hope adults will be having," she says. "They're using evidence to inform their argument and that is quite a skill."
An annual subscription to CH Weekly costs pound;100, which includes the Teacher's Guide to Running Whole-Class Discussions, and 40 weekly discussion sheets. Back numbers are available at pound;2 each. For more information visit www.chweekly.co.uk or tel: 01295 720 305