A stretching exercise

21st September 2001 at 01:00
The idea for a philosophy club at Middleton Cheney primary, Oxfordshire, arose after an OFSTED inspection highlighted the need to stretch more able children by extending their higher order thinking.

No philosopher himself, Philip Percival, the headteacher, found himself reading teach-yourself-philosophy books in preparation. But when the lunchtime club began three years ago, instead of mainly "bright Year 6s", as he expected, it attracted a mixed group from Year 3 upwards.

"My aim is to give children a forum for exploring slightly more abstract issues. Children who come like things that are paradoxical, puzzling, complex. They like talking about things and arguing."

Another reason for the club was to offer a supplementary intellectual diet:

"Although the national curriculum is delivering essential literacy and numeracy skills, I have a slight concern that it is not providing children with opportunities to develop their own ideas," says Philip Percival.

Devising his own materials for the philosophy club, and making use of these in subject lessons, Philip Percival has touched on the work of classical philosophers, or initiated complex discussions by presenting an ostensibly simple idea, such as a picture of a girl with the words "She's such a good little girl". Another project concerns "Philosopher's Island", where the children are asked to imagine themselves on a desert island, first alone then with others, tackling questions from "Where am I? Is this real? Is it a dream? How can I tell if something is real?", to aesthetics ("Does art, music or poetry have any value on the island?"), ethics ("What is the right way to behave?"), and the pursuit of happiness.

When I visited the club, its nine (all female) members were contemplating how they might deal with someone on Philosopher's Island who sits around all day eating bananas. Some want to put him in a boat and send him out to sea, others favour limiting his supply of bananas if he refuses to help. But Philip Percival nudges them skilfully towards considering whether it might be reasonable for this man to keep to himself and do his own thing.

"Coming to philosophy makes you think more about things," says Emily, eight.

"We don't always agree," adds Judith, nine. "One day we were talking about what 'you are you, and I am me' means, and we couldn't settle the argument very well. So I kept thinking about it all week."

For more information visit the website: www.portables2. ngfl.gov.ukpmpercivalphilosophy

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