Innovative Practice - Opening minds

4th November 2011 at 00:00
Appointing a philosopher to bring the benefits of reasoning and enquiry-based learning to all students

The background

Anthony Seldon, headteacher of the independent Wellington College, has long expressed an interest in developing pupils' well-being and thinking skills. So, since September 2009, the school has appointed a "visiting philosopher" to give all pupils a taste of philosophy, including those with no plans to study the subject at A-level. The first person appointed to the role was popular philosophy writer Julian Baggini. In September 2011, the post continued with the appointment of Peter Worley (pictured right), author of The If Machine: philosophical enquiry in the classroom and chief executive of The Philosophy Foundation, a charity that aims to bring philosophy to a wider audience.

The project

The visiting philosopher spends at least five days at the school each year, working with students in lesson times and giving lectures to every year group. Mr Worley's approach varies, but often focuses on the importance of philosophy to people's daily lives.

Mr Worley takes his lead from Dr Seldon's view that pupils should have subjects presented to them in a variety of ways. "Even though I am a strong advocate of enquiry-based learning, I don't think that all teaching and learning should be biased in this way," Mr Worley says. "So I am in favour of presenting a traditional lecture to 14-year-olds - something Dr Seldon has asked me to do. I have not done it before, but it's a challenge I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting."

Mr Worley argues that philosophy is "a 'conceptual playground' in which to practise thinking and has a lot to offer any enquiry-based learning programme. Since, arguably, reasoning - the main concern of philosophy - is even more foundational than reading, writing or arithmetic, given the role reasoning plays in all of them".

Asked how Mr Worley's role differs from what the school's philosophy department already offers, teacher Dr Guy Williams says: "Peter's role is very distinctive; he has a certain amount of freedom to explore philosophical thinking without the pressures of covering a course or delivering any one curriculum." Having a visiting philosopher, Dr Williams says, "acts as a walking reminder that it is important to think carefully and deeply about all kinds of issues."

Tips from the scheme

Mr Worley says appointing a philosophy specialist is within the reach of state secondaries. "At The Philosophy Foundation we often find that when a school realises the impact the benefits can make on the school as a whole, it becomes easier to find the money. There's no need for expensive extra resources for philosophy, just willing brains - teachers' and children's - and a plan."

Dr Williams says schools should set clear objectives for what they want visiting philosophers to achieve. "Our relationship with Peter works very well because we are in constant dialogue about what his visits are for."

Evidence that it works?

According to The Philosophy Foundation, schools where its specialists have worked report better questioning and more sustained reasoning and lines of enquiry. "Even teachers of children in Year 1 have reported almost immediate improvements in question-asking and classroom discussions," Mr Worley says.

Dr Williams says the scheme at Wellington has been "very fruitful", as many students have approached him to ask about philosophical problems raised by Mr Worley. But he cautions that "the benefits of philosophy for our students will come after years of persistent exposure, rather than in overnight results".

The project

Approach: Appointing a visiting philosopher

Started: 2009

Leader: Anthony Seldon, headteacher

The school

Name: Wellington College

Location: Crowthorne, Berkshire

Number of pupils: 843

Age range: 13-18

Intake: Co-educational: 215 girls and 628 boys. Pupils are drawn mainly from London-based business and professional families. Pupils from about 35 countries provide an international ethos, with most coming from China (including Hong Kong), Russia, Korea and South Africa

Fees: #163;7,515 to #163;10,025 per term

Independent Schools Inspectorate report: "The college offers a rich educational experience".

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