Enlightened thinking ushers in age of reason

20th February 2009 at 00:00
Famous pound;26,000-a-year public school makes history by appointing philosopher in residence

Since philosophy is the art which teaches us how to live, and since children need to learn it as much as we do at other ages, why do we not instruct them in it?

more than 400 years after French philosopher Montaigne asked this crucial question, Rugby School has appointed what is believed to the first philosopher-in-residence at a British school.

Emma Williams helps pupils from the pound;26,535-a-year public school, as well as about 70 from neighbouring state secondaries, to consider some of the more fundamental questions underpinning their education.

"They really enjoy it," she said. "They can initially find it a bit strange because we structure sessions around discussion rather than learning particular ideas, which is not something they are used to.

"But once they get into it, it helps students in their other subjects because they start to think about ideas more analytically and critically."

Ms Williams, who has undergraduate and masters philosophy degrees from Warwick University, always wanted to teach the subject in schools.

But she was frustrated by the fact that because philosophy is not a national curriculum subject it is impossible to train as a specialist teacher in it.

Rugby School has been using philosophy as an important element in the extended projects it has been helping to pioneer, covering everything from the performing arts to science and engineering.

These require pupils to research a topic of their choosing, submit a dissertation, performance or other artefact such as a video, and then give a presentation to their teachers and peers.

The projects are a compulsory part of the new 14-19 diplomas but they can also be taken as an optional addition to A levels and are equivalent to an AS level.

Ms Williams is also given time to conduct her own research into philosophy in education but takes pupils for sessions every day.

"You are never sure what responses will get thrown up in the lessons by students," she said. "It does require a lot of thinking on your feet and coming up with counter examples and different arguments."

John Taylor, Rugby's director of critical skills, said the discussions she led were very popular.

"There is something very attractive to teenagers about studying philosophy because it goes to those fundamental questions and is potentially quite subversive.

"They are looking at things that their parents and teachers might never have considered," he said.

Dr Taylor, who is also Edexcel's chief examiner for project qualifications, said there would be scope for more state schools to become involved in Rugby's philosophy programme.

That could include those outside the immediate area because the school is developing an online philosophy virtual learning platform.

Teachers interested in the scheme can e-mail Dr Taylor at JLT@rugbyschool.net

Bacc diary launched

- Increasing numbers of schools, wishing to take the idea behind extended projects a step further are opting for the AQA's `Bacc' or baccalaureate.

- The board has introduced an online diary for Bacc pupils in which they can record their work.

- The wraparound qualification requires candidates to complete an extended project, three A-levels in any subject, an AS level in either critical thinking or citizenship and "enrichment activities" such as work-related learning, community work, sport or music.

- The AQA enrichment diary aims to make this final section easier for pupils and teachers by improving recording and monitoring of progress and cutting down paperwork.

For more information, visit www.aqa.org.ukqualbacc.php

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