The Big issues

26th October 2007 at 01:00

Tom Haward discovers ways of prompting pupils to chew over the philosophical questions that underlie topics. It was a cold February morning when three members of staff from the history department at Oriel High School in West Sussex trundled up to Oxford Brookes University. We were there for a two-day training course in "Philosophy for Children", run by Sapere (the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education).

We weren't sure what to expect. Little did we know that the course, called P4C, would revolutionise the way we approached our teaching and learning.

Sapere gave us the tools to start using a "community of enquiry" approach in the classroom, encouraging discussion to explore some of the deep and profound issues underlying topics. At first it seemed risky - pupils sitting in a circle generating their own philosophical questions. What would they think? What would Ofsted say if they called in?

But we have found this approach so powerful, and pupils have responded so positively, that we have embedded the approach into our schemes of work so we start each new unit with a P4C enquiry and return to it at the end.

An example of how we have used this approach to introduce and frame a new topic is when we look at the history of South Africa. Having already spent a few lessons developing speaking and listening skills, and exploring the nature of philosophical questions, we then try to follow the guidelines given to us by Sapere:

We start with a stimulus to get pupils thinking and to provoke philosophical questions. For South Africa there are a variety of great resources. We've used a photograph of segregated facilities with one class, a short excerpt from the film Gandhi where members of the Indian National Congress burn their passbooks in front of the police and an excerpt from Cry Freedom when Donald Woods meets Steve Biko alone for the first time. Another idea is to use extracts from literature from writers such as Alan Paton, Nadime Gordimer or Molefe Pheto.

Pupils then break into small groups to formulate a philosophical question. About five minutes is fine. At the end they write down their question on a piece of paper, which is placed on the floor in the centre of the circle. Some examples of questions our pupils come up with have include: "Should people who are different be treated differently?", "What does it mean to be fair?" and "When should you give up?"

Pupils then look at the questions and are invited to identify links and connections between them by physically moving and grouping the questions and then explaining their reasoning.

Then the class votes. There are a variety of ways of doing this, but essentially they are choosing one question (not necessarily their own) that they find the most thought-provoking.

The main part of the process is when they explore the ideas behind their chosen question. Having silent thinking time first will help, and we encourage pupils to use phrases such as "I agree with ." or "I disagree with ." when they develop the dialogue. One group explored the idea of apartheid and wondered "What is worth risking your life for?" and "How far should you go to stand up for an idea?" This then developed into looking at the idea, "Could standing up for an idea also put others at risk?"

At the end we use a "last words" session where we go round the circle and invite pupils to comment on anything anyone's said, or even on the process itself and how well they think the inquiry went.

Try it. We have found the process both empowering and motivating

Tom Haward is head of history at Oriel High School, Crawley. He welcomes visitors and links with other schools. Email him at Get in touch with Sapere at

Curriculum links

GCSE History WJEC Specification A South Africa 1960-94

GCSE in History Edexcel A The End of Apartheid in South Africa 1982- 94

Citizenship KS4 - Challenging Racism amp; Discrimination

Geography KS3 - study of a less economically developed country and contrast with the UK

GCSE Sociology - e.g. when teaching the concept of stratification along lines of ethnicity.

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