Many children come into Town End with low levels of literacy and we were keen to develop their speaking and listening skills. In 1999 we introduced Philosophy for Children, a thinking skills programme devised by US educational philosopher Matthew Lipman in which the teacher (facilitator) introduces the children to a stimulus, usually a story. The children are asked to think and reflect on it, then ask questions that will engage the class in an exploration of philosophical ideas.
The children usually sit in a circle for these discussions, with implicit and explicit rules to ensure that they build a safe environment where everyone's opinion is valued. After a 10-hour staff training programme, we agreed to implement the approach under the umbrella of speaking and listening. My first session, with a reception group, was a disaster in terms of the children asking questions, then voting for the one they wanted to discuss as a class. And as for taking turns to speak...
I went back to the theory books and felt relieved when I read that the approach was no quick fix and would take time to establish. After a few weeks I was extremely impressed with the children's questioning skills.
Indeed, throughout the second term groups of teachers from Sunderland schools - up to 13 at a time - came in to observe my lessons.
Caroline Hodgson, a teaching colleague, and myself decided to apply to the National Union of Teachers' continuing professional development programme so we could further research the approach. We involved four year groups - reception and Years 1, 4 and 6. We looked at the types of questions pupils ask and organised them into three categories - closed, open-ended and philosophical. We found that pupils from the research project had successfully developed their questioning skills; moving from an inability to form questions and asking closed questions to forming open-ended and philosophical questions. We also found that all children could access the approach and, in particular, that low attaining pupils were able to participate in the discussion.
I carried out further research on the impact of thinking skills activities, this time in the nursery, with particular reference to developing reasoning language. All children benefited from the activities and each activity developed specific reasoning language - for example, the Philosophy for Children approach developed justification. Remarkably, within a few sessions, children as young as three were asking open-ended questions based on a text.
Philosophy for Children has changed our perceptions of children's capabilities and has raised our expectations of their ability to consider and debate issues in a sophisticated way. Indeed, it has affected the way I teach to the extent that I now ask more open-ended questions and ask children to justify their ideas and thoughts. Not only do we use this approach specifically to develop children's speaking and listening skills, we use it for other areas of the curriculum, such as RE, PSHE and citizenship. Children ask more thoughtful and deeper questions relating to particular issues and are able to offer their opinions and explore attitudes and prejudices in a safe environment.
One Year 5 child told me she enjoyed the Philosophy for Children approach because "I can disagree with my friend but still be her friend." Philosophy for Children is firmly embedded in Town End's curriculum. We enjoy teaching it and the children enjoy participating.
Teresa Laybourne is deputy headteacher of Town End primary school, Sunderland
Details of the NUT programme at www.teachers.org.uk