Is it ever OK to lie?

17th November 2006 at 00:00
...and why questions like this make children better behaved and clearer thinkers. Hannah Frankel charts the rise in popularity of primary philosophy

Would Socrates' pride be dented if he knew he was being discussed by six-year-olds? That is the kind of question posed by children as they grapple with the intricacies of philosophy.

It is now a popular subject in schools. To date, more than 5,000 teachers in the UK have received training in Philosophy for Children (P4C), available in 60 countries worldwide. The primary school aspect of the initiative involves pupils thinking of open-ended questions around a subject, such as "is it ever OK to lie?"

There may be no right answer, but pupils are encouraged to back up arguments, respect each other's point of view, and be prepared to change their minds. Teachers act as facilitators or co-learners. And schools that have embraced the project describe the results as staggering.

Gallions Primary is based in the tough inner-city borough of Newham, east London. Four years ago it hit rock bottom: the lowest-performing primary in one of the lowest-performing London boroughs.

But last year, it became one of the top five schools in Newham, with impressive value-added scores. Despite facing numerous challenges - 53 per cent of pupils are eligible for free school meals, 73 per cent have special needs and 66 per cent speak English as a second language - Ofsted described the school as "outstanding" in every category other than attendance.

"Four years ago we had a lot of problems with behaviour," says Lisa Naylor, an advanced skills teacher in philosophy and thinking skills at Gallions.

"Most teachers, including myself, were thinking about leaving because the pupils were just out of control." However, since introducing philosophy, pupils' behaviour and attainment have been transformed.

Pupils are better at problem solving in maths and science. They can also listen carefully and respectfully to each other and clearly articulate their views. In English alone, more than 50 per cent of 11-year-olds achieved level 5 in this year's Sats compared with 11 per cent last year.

The national average is 32 per cent.

Ms Naylor says: "It has raised the children's confidence and self-esteem, which makes them better learners."

Tuckswood Community First school in Norwich has had a similar experience.

Sue Eagle, head, incorporated P4C across the school in 1995 to tackle disaffected youngsters and has never looked back. She says: "It's an opportunity to look at the questions that may be at the back of children's minds; to feel safe with uncertainty; to disagree without falling out, and to explore how our beliefs affect our thoughts and deeds."

Some schools have been wary about Ofsted's response, but it is largely in favour of anything that reaps such obvious results. In one American study, the New Jersey educational testing service found that pupils taking P4C performed better by 36 per cent in maths and 66 per cent in reading, compared with control groups.

Research carried out in 2000 by Elizabeth Doherr, a clinical psychologist based in Norwich, found that when British children between five and eight are taught philosophy, their cognitive abilities resemble that of 12-year-olds.

Some still say there is a lack of hard proof. Richard Fox, a retired educational psychologist, spent several years teaching P4C in Devon primary schools, but remains unconvinced. "I found teaching thinking skills disappointing," he says. "I have seen no hard evidence that it leads to better results or substantial progress."

Julian Baggini, co-founder and editor of The Philosopher's Magazine, is more concerned with pupils' ability to debate than results. "It is important that young people can work out their problems collaboratively and critically because these are important interpersonal skills," he says. "I think it is misleading to describe this as 'philosophy'. Pupils are just encouraged to think through ideas."

That will not stop the groundswell of support in primary schools. Ms Eagle explains: "We don't fit philosophy into the curriculum, we fit the curriculum around philosophy. It helps develop children and ourselves as learners, and you can't ask for much more than that"n

Philosophy rules

* Always allow the children silent "thinking time" after introducing the subject, before inviting them to ask questions

* Allow time for reflection, especially if sensitive issues were discussed

* Give every child time to speak and ensure they are not interrupted

* Establish ground rules with pupils in the first lesson, then display them and stick to them

* Be patient: it may take time before you see the benefits

* A whole-school approach is more effective than isolated sessions

* Encourage children to link ideas and to build on previous arguments by "agreeing" or "disagreeing" with what has been said

* Be a co-enquirer yourself and don't be afraid to tell children that you don't know the answer

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