Just think about it

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Extra-curricular philosophy classes may not help with exams. But pupils are queuing up to get in. Matthew Brown reports

Dan O'Brien is scribbling on a whiteboard, lobbing questions over his shoulder. "So what do we mean by the mind?" he asks, philosophically speaking.

Shobana is in like a flash: "Do you mean the mind or the brain?" "Good question," says Mr O'Brien. "Well, what's the difference?" It's late Monday afternoon. Half a dozen 15-year-old girls are kicking their platform heels under classroom desks, adjusting hajibs and furrowing their brows. Behind them, drooping shelves hang from the pale yellow walls of a 1960s "bog-standard" classroom. Piles of exercise books and bedraggled spider plants have been pushed into corners, ignored.

"You need a mind to think right?" suggests Saiqa. "Animals don't have them do they, 'cos they don't think.

"But animals do think, don't they?" says Shobana. "They run away if they're attacked and stuff."

"What about plants then?" asks Mr O'Brien. "How do we know they don't have minds?" "Ooh, you never get a straight answer," sighs Sukhdeep in mock frustration. "There's always another question."

This is Bordesley Green girls' school, somewhere in inner-city Birmingham, one of the top 10 most improved schools in the UK, according to Ofsted. More than 95 per cent of its pupils come from Muslim backgrounds, the rest are Sikh or Hindu. But the accents are pure Brummie.

Sukhdeep Kaur Atwal and a bunch of her classmates are "doing philosophy" on an out-of-hours learning course taught by Mr O'Brien, a PhD philosophy student from nearby Birmingham University. It has no connection with the curriculum and nothing, on the surface at least, to help these children pass exams, raise standards, or write better essays. But they're here anyway.

"It just makes us think more," explains Sukhdeep. "It's nice thinking about interesting questions you wouldn't bother with otherwise - like, does the solar system have an end. Just dumb stuff really."

It's all part of a pound;60,000-a-year national scheme from the Royal Institute of Philosophy to introduce the subject to secondary pupils. The Jacobsen programme of visiting philosophy teachers (named after the Danish businessman whose bequeathed cash is paying for the courses) sends postgraduate students from local universities to nearby secondary schools to teach philosophy to teenagers for 10 weeks. The student receives pound;700 and the 15 to 20 schools selected each year get an outside expert and the chance to offer their pupils a taste of a non-curriculum, non-vocational subject.

"The aim is to promote philosophy, of course," says Ingrid Purkiss, who administered the programme for the institute until earlier this year. "But we also want to help children learn to think logically and analytically. These are extremely useful skills, probably more useful than anything else they learn in school."

The structure and content of the courses are drawn up by the postgraduate students, although the institute approves them. Some concentrate on particular thinkers and the history of philosophy, but the more successful focus is on "the big issues", drawing on the pupils' own inputs. Depending on the school, the courses are open to children from Year 10 to the sixth form, and are taught at lunchtimes, in general studies sessions or after hours, often attracting as many as 15 to 25 pupils a time.

"Given the pressure some of these pupils are under, they've been amazingly successful," says Mrs Purkiss. "You find that children always want the chance to talk and think."

When a Jacobsen course was held at William Ellis school in Camden, north London, last year, it proved far more popular than other, apparently more practical, non-curriculum options,such as cooking. Many students at that age likethe idea of talking through ideas, and this gives them a chance to do it," says Malcolm Rose, director of sixth form at William Ellis. "It's important for pupils to learn to think free of the pressures of acquiring knowledge for exams, and to formulate their views in a coherent way."

Sue Harrison, head of out-of-hours learning at Bordesley Green, is convinced the course is not only popular, but beneficial. "Thinking skills are a big part of all teaching now. This course reinforces that because it's done in a structured way. It teaches children to construct an argument logically, and to think about what they're saying. That can only be useful for other subjects."

Dan O'Brien has been a visiting teacher at three Birmingham schools in the past two years, but admits to initial misgivings about the scheme, especially when he arrived at Byng Kenrick, an edge-of-town comprehensive, in September 1999. "I turned up on the first day and saw tower blocks and run-down streets, and thought, 'Oh well, at least I'm being paid'. I was teaching some pretty rough 16-year-olds about philosophy of the mind. I thought they would just take the piss."

But he was wrong. About 15 pupils went back week after week, including one boy who "started off chewing and sniggering", but got so into it he stayed on to do A-levels. "Apparently his father read one of my handouts and went searching for philosophy books in the council estate library," says Mr O'Brien.

Having the space to think and air opinions without worrying about the consequences is the key to the programme's success, he says. "They won't remember much about the names or arguments of particular philosophers, but that's not the point. They are learning to argue against other people, and to construct reasoning for what they believe. So much of education is results-driven, but here their own ideas are looked at and taken seriously."

Certainly, Saiqa Kauser says, this is the main reason she enjoys the course at Bordesley Green. "In other subjects you know there's a right answer or a result you have to get. Here, everyone can have an opinion and you don't have to come to a particular conclusion."

But it's not only inner-city comps that have taken to the programme. Bob Matthews is head of English at Westfield grammar school in Newcastle upon Tyne, an independent day school for girls which had a visiting Jacobsen tutor in 1999. "We had 23 kids turning up to lunchtime sessions," he says. "It was amazing given that they were under pressure with A-levels and mock exams. But they were being asked to think in ways that are far more challenging than the way curriculum subjects are taught." The course at Westfield was so popular the pupils demanded, and paid for, its return the following term.

Mr Matthews believes philosophy should be introduced to secondary education on a more formal basis. "If we got kids learning how to think from an early age, they'd be in better shape when they got to the exam stage and had to make arguments in essays, or whatever."

Part of the institute's aim is to see the subject become a more integral part of all secondary education, such as in France, where philosophy is compulsory for all sixth-formers. Here, there is an A-level philosophy syllabus, and an AS-level option in critical thinking, but these are rarely available. "It should be part of the curriculum," says Mrs Purkiss. "At the moment, we're just hoping to start schools off so they can carry on themselves."

The Jacobsen programme was piloted in seven schools in 1999-2000, and 17 schools took part in 2000-2001. Schools interested in being part of the scheme next year should contact James Garvey at the Royal Institute of Philosophy, 14 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0AG. Tel: 020 7387 4130

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