Year 9 pupils at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, Oxfordshire, are working on framing philosophical questions. On the board is the stimulus for today's discussion, an image entitled "Life", comprising a start point, a tangled line and a stick man with an uncertain expression and a question mark above his head. The class sit in a large semicircle contemplating this image, a sheet of paper on their knees on which to scribble their trains of thought.
"I want you to look at this in silence, for longer than you normally would," instructs their teacher, John Palliser. "I'm really keen for you to think about it for longer. Often at school teachers say, what do you think, and straightaway you put your hands up. But I want to slow that down. If you take more time, you start having more and more thoughts, and usually the thoughts get better."
This is an RE lesson, and John is training his students in the techniques of Philosophy for Children (P4C), as a way of opening their minds, developing their ability to think, and stimulating their enjoyment of rational debate.
He first encountered the concept of P4C last autumn, when he attended a two-day course on citizenship run by the education charity SAPERE.
"Generally, I am quite a cynic," John admits. "But in 10 years of teaching, this was the first course I went on that made me think 'wow, this has got real potential'."
Seeing immediately how this approach could be tailored to RE, John came straight back to school and introduced the "community of enquiry" technique to Year 9 students, at the end of a unit of work on evil and suffering. The result, he says, was an impassioned class discussion about the problem of evil and the existence of God.
"Sometimes in lessons children get excited because they have been playing a game. But this is educating them to the fact that they can get excited about thinking," John says. "In school we can be guilty of giving children the message that instant responses are fine. We don't encourage children to delve down and reflect."
Three and a half minutes, in today's lesson, feels like a long time for silent thought. But at the end of it, the class get into small groups to listen to each other's ideas, and produce a string of sterling philosophical questions arising out of the image, from "Can we define life?" to "Why are we put here, is there something God wants us to do?"
They analyse the questions by finding links between them, each of which must be justified in their own words. Then, with eyes closed, they vote on which of the eight questions will stimulate the best class discussion. "Can you determine life's path, or is it already decided?" is the clear winner.
For the remainder of the lesson, the class - or "community of enquiry" - begins to debate the question, indicating with an upturned palm when they wish to speak and prefacing their contribution with either "I agree with..."
or "I disagree with..."
This is only the third time that these students have experienced the "community of enquiry", but already they are gaining confidence in its rules and structure, and clearly enjoying what it has to offer.
"This is the only opportunity when you get to properly think about stuff," says Sarah Greenwood. "I think it's quite good, and it's not too embarrassing because everybody is doing the same."
Rhys Lewis says that the thinking can be hard - particularly at the start of a three-minute silence: "But because you've got the time, you start to think more, and you can think more clearly."
"It's about getting children to a point where they can let their thoughts bubble up," John explains. The process can be a big boost for lower achievers - "they are learning to enjoy thinking, and they're getting praise for something in school" - and all round, the quality of written work is "much richer" after a discussion. The principal challenge for the teacher is to come up with a suitable stimulus, and then to guide the discussion discreetly from the wings.
Far from leading away from the study of religion, John believes that this approach actually offers a way in. "I'm beginning to see this as the best way to unlock the deeper religious questions."
Will Ord, chair of SAPERE and himself a former head of RE, is in absolute agreement here. P4C, he says, offers "a bridge between children's internal life, and the beliefs of the outside world". The community of enquiry makes "a perfect platform" for children to explore, for instance, Jewish barmitzvah, in a context which has meaning for their own lives, "rather than just something they learn for the test".
Developed over 35 years, and now practised in 60 countries, P4C is no quick-fix strategy. But it ties in seamlessly with the emphasis in the new national framework for RE on thinking skills and questioning techniques, on learning from as well as learning about religions. "It turns what could be a rather raisin-like syllabus back into a grape," says Will Ord. "It puts the juice back in, making RE more digestible, more refreshing and more interesting."
P4C is already bearing fruit at Bartholomew School. John Palliser is launching a philosophy club, and plans to take SAPERE's level two course himself, with a view to training other members of staff. And RE is growing to be such a popular subject that two sets of students have signed up for next year's A-level.
"This is the subject I shall remember most," says Nick Elliott-Pimm, who is taking RE A-level this summer. "It's not so much for the knowledge, but because it makes you change the way you think."