All aboard the thinking train

4th May 2007 at 01:00
Tom Haward encourages his pupils to explore life's big ethical dilemmas by getting them to do the locomotion in class

As Year 8 enters the classroom, the pupils know they are in for something different. We are going on a journey. The room is mostly blacked out, the chairs are in a circle and an image of an old steam train is projected on to the screen.

Nobody is allowed on board the Erehwon Express without a ticket, so we hand them out. On the back of each is a different philosophical question. Max's ticket asks: "How do you know when something is true?" Zoe's queries: "Is it ever right to tell a lie?" These are some of the things pupils will be investigating over the next few weeks for homework. They are invited to ask questions about the train. "Who's driving it?" and "Where is it going?"

Some get into the idea, some look a little nonplussed.

As the journey develops, they understand that this is a metaphorical train taking us on a journey through questioning, historical and philosophical discussion. Are we mad? What's this got to do with history and the national curriculum? Ah, wait until they explore to see who else is on the train and what stories they might tell.

Our work on developing questioning skills comes with the support of West Sussex County Council. We aim to use the thinking skills and community of enquiry approach in philosophy for children in our key stage 3 curriculum and beyond.

We encourage critical thinking, collaboration, ownership and a sense of wonder and curiosity, so plan a special 12-lesson unit for KS3, asking philosophical questions in history.

We start by laying the groundwork for our speaking and listening skills.

One exercise involves pupils using wipe-boards to draw how they feel if nobody listens to them. We also explore the nature of philosophical questioning with a quiz, and the power of collaboration through a game.

Then pupils get to explore the train. In one carriage they find four shadowy figures having tea. Each has a story to tell and the class is invited to choose to hear one. This is where the history comes in, as we develop four historical stories including lots of dilemmas and thinking "hooks".

Our first class choose US President Truman's story of the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki - only we take out any historical references, such as mentions of America or Japan. In pairs, pupils develop questions that they would like to ask. The one that most intrigues them turns out to be: "Should anyone feel guilty for using a weapon like this?"

As discussion develops, they focus on whether it is right to kill people to save others' lives.

"There are two sides to it," says Isla. "On one side, you think is it right or wrong to kill? There are lots of things to say it's bad to kill. Most religions say it's bad to kill and most laws say you can't - they put you in jail if you kill somebody. But in war you kill lots of people and there is no trouble for that. On the other hand, there is a bigger picture, and do people need to die if they are in the way of bigger things?"

We are interested in continuing to make links with other schools to share and develop what we are doing as well as developing it further in our own school. Let's see where the journey takes us next Tom Haward is subject leader for history at Oriel High School in Crawley, West Sussex


* Take risks.

* Create the right ambience for your room - sound and lighting are important.

Try First Light on Ambient 2: Plateaux of Mirror (Harold Budd and Brian Eno).

* Make sure all pupils face each other in a circle when developing a dialogue.

* Think differently. We have used scrapbooks to encourage pupils to organise their thoughts differently.

* Don't be afraid of the silence when pupils stop speaking. Allow them to pick up the thread of their own accord.

* Get in touch with The Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education at

* Contact us. We can send a sample story and would like to keep making links with other schools. Contact

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