Philosophy to get them thinking

20th January 2006 at 00:00
Philosophical enquiry is helping first year pupils in Clackmannanshire to avoid the S1-S2 dip in results, Su Clark reports

It's Monday morning and the topic for discussion is death.

Glancing around the first year class at Lornshill Academy in Clackmannanshire, all the girls and most of the boys are alert, hands itching to fly up.

Within minutes of being asked "What if there is no death?", the pupils are discussing over-population and physical decay. The romantic view of eternal life is dead and buried.

"You should send the old people away," says one boy.

"So, we should keep society as it is, populated by younger people? And the older ones, if they don't die, should just go somewhere else?" suggests Mairi Houston, their English teacher.

Philosophical enquiry was introduced as part of the S1 English curriculum in August. For one period a week, few pens and no text books are used. The pupils come up with ideas to discuss, take a vote and spend the remainder of the lesson investigating ideas associated with the chosen topic. The teacher's role is one of facilitator, not guide.

"People think old people are all the same," contributes one lad, "but my Gran nicked my bike and rode it around the block."

The discussion continues, with comments flying across the class. There is little interrupting, students wait to speak, hands held up high, and only two boys need to be reminded not to mess about.

"When philosophical enquiry was introduced to S1, I was negative about it and put it on Fridays to ensure the English curriculum was covered first,"

explains Mrs Houston, "but I'm not now. It is working really well, and I know my students so much better.

"It is a time for talking, not writing, and it is interesting that often the ones whose writing is quite weak will be the ones with the most to say."

Introducing the secondary pupils to philosophical enquiry - which is not the study of philosophy but the development of an enquiring approach to study - is a direct result of a primary school programme begun nearly five years ago in Clackmannanshire. The authority has been monitoring pupils'

progress and found that children immersed in philosophical enquiry in primary school do better in their CAT scores in S1 than others.

"We've found there hasn't been the traditional dip in scores after the move to secondary," says Raymond Young, the co-ordinator for continuing professional development. He is overseeing the introduction of an enquiring approach in the authority's three secondary schools. At Alloa and Alva academies, it is being introduced through the personal and social education curriculum.

"It helps to create an approach to learning that engages the students more.

They raise questions and share ideas. It gives them ownership," says Mr Young.

With such results, the authority is confident introducing philosophical enquiry as a first year subject will help to consolidate the improved scores.

Lornshill Academy is also trialing a reduction in the number of teachers S1 pupils see to make transition easier, so philosophical enquiry is delivered by the English department, slotted into the critical thinking programme.

There are five English periods a week, instead of four previously.

Jackie Dunlop, the acting depute head and an English teacher, is leading the development of philosophical enquiry as a discreet lesson within English. Karen Farrell, a home economics teacher, is working with her on an overall approach to specialist subjects.

Both have reached level 2 of Sapere training, an Oxford-based programme of educational and philosophical enquiry. More than 20 teachers, including the English staff, have done a taster course on in-service training days.

"We want to create communities of enquiry," explains Mrs Dunlop. "However, we do face challenges in taking it forward beyond S1. We are so product-driven in schools today, with results as the only measure. Yet this can't be tested. It is difficult to see where we could squeeze it into the curriculum."

At the moment, philosophical enquiry is only taken in S1, although older students can study Intermediate philosophy. But the aim is to promote the approach by using it in other subjects, such as science and home economics.

"We've tried to use it in home economics to explore issues to do with healthy eating and obesity," says Mrs Farrell.

"We want to carry the approach through to all subjects where problem solving is necessary."

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