Learning to have minds of their own

17th March 1995 at 00:00
Philosophy lessons are not new to the timetable at Manchester Grammar School for Boys. They have been compulsory for the school's sixth-form students for more than a decade, but since last September the lessons have been extended down the age range. Philosophy is now part of the curriculum from Year 9.

For the sixth form, Dr Dennis Brown's department of religion and philosophy has devised a four-stranded course to suit academic students which includes the philosophy of religion, pure philosophy with ethics, and logic.

They are taught to think, to reason and to debate. This strikes a chord with the High Master, Dr Martin Stephen, who wants each boy "to have a mind of his own" and to be able to back up their own opinions "with reason".

To the uninitiated, the combination of religious studies and philosophy may appear incongruous. But Dr Brown, a member of the NEAB's subject committee and principal examiner for its new "E" level RS examination, finds they have "complementarity not conflict". Skills of analysis are taught in both areas. In RS, they are used to examine the traditions of one religion in comparison with those of another. In philosophy, arguments of those creeds are analysed.

The E-level is a pilot exam, with standards pitched between GCSE and A level, which is being developed by the NEAB on behalf of the independent sector. In RS it is of special interest because it provides a qualification for what is still a compulsory subject post-16. In devising the syllabus, Dr Brown's committee have given two out of four parts a philosophical basis.

The educational lull before key stage 4 has provided an ideal time for Dr Brown and his staff of six to implement a new philosophy course for younger pupils. Experience has taught them that a minority of Year 12 boys can be fixed in their views and even hostile to the ideas of others. MGS hopes that all Year 9 pupils will respond to philosophy teaching, not least because understanding the structure of argument is useful for good essay-writing in any subject.

The new work is closely linked to a general thematic approach of the previous two years' multi-faith lessons in which pupils look at six major world religions. The content of the Year 9 course explores the nature of God, belief in God and then knowledge, faith and belief. Pupils are shown the distinction between knowledge and belief and, according to Dr Brown, are able to move easily from concrete to abstract learning.

The integrity and commitment of each teacher involved in teaching philosophy is of paramount importance. A derogatory or dismissive atheist would be as harmful as a Bible-bashing fundamentalist. Children sense the sincerity of those in authority, says Dr Brown, and to create an open environment for free discussion needs highly-developed teaching skills.

Sensitivity is needed to teach lessons which, for example, may question the existence of God and Faith and certainly question the blind acceptance of faith.

One religious 13-year-old utterly condemned "any process which speculates on the concept of God. It is tampering with my faith". Teacher Janice Nixon led him to see this process as a necessary step in constructing a meaningful dialogue about the concept of God. "He had to split himself in two - the ritualistic believer, the reasoned questioner."

Equally controversial are the debates on evolution versus creation. The Year 9s are said to be excited by the new subject, and enjoy the opportunity to speak out. Janice Nixon considers that children labelled as "disruptive" in a more conventional school setting, may possess creative, non-conformist thinking skills. Participating in philosophical discussions, she believes, will benefit both their personal confidence and classroom debate.

At MGS, three 40-minute periods are given to philosophy and RS during the seven-day school cycle. Many of the subject's principals are applicable to contemporary life - from the suffragettes' Socratean positions of non-compromise to the underlying premises and circumstances surrounding the death of veal protester Jill Phipps.

Sometimes, the 13 and 14-year-olds who are accustomed to compartmentalising the subjects they study, have been stumped by philosophy's cross-curricular relevance. Topics they might ear-mark for biology, such as the evolution of man, crop up in philosophical and religious garb. Debates on "God as the first cause" are RS in content but the selected extracts from Thomas Paine or Genesis could equally be examined in literature or history lessons. Philosophical principles underpin it all.

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