Positive outcome of critical thinking

4th March 2005 at 00:00
A philosophy pilot project is showing signs of improving pupils' performances in a range of subjects across the curriculum, Raymond Ross writes

Twice a week 15 S1 pupils at Eastwood High in Newton Mearns, East Renfrewshire, are giving up their lunchtimes to do a spot of philosophical inquiry with Catherine McCall from Strathclyde University.

Outside it is snowing hard and their peers are whooping and laughing in the playground. In the classroom the volunteer pupils are concentrated differently. They have just read a short story about secrets and are raising their own questions about the nature of "secrets".

How can a secret not be a secret? If lots of people know a secret, is it still a secret? Can you share a secret? If no one knows about it, is it still a secret?

Under Dr McCall's guidance they pursue the last question further.

Statements are made and discussed. Each pupil looks at and listens to the pupil making a statement, giving reasons for agreeing or disagreeing with each statement made.

"If no one knows about it, it's an unknown fact, not a secret."

"I agree, because to be a secret at least one person has to know about it."

"I disagree, because you've actually got to say it's a secret to make it a secret."

Towards the end of the discussion, in answer to the question "If lots of people know a secret, is it still a secret?", one pupil offers an answer which meets with general agreement: "It's to do with permission."

"That was a real insight," says Dr McCall when the group has dispersed.

"Secrets are a big human thing to do with knowledge and power, trust and sharing. What they spotted was that secrets have to do with permission and that has to do with power.

"You never know what you're going to hear in these gatherings, and you do get genuine insights like that, which is very exciting," she says.

This is not formal, academic philosophy but a translation of ideas from academic philosophy into a language and form that lay people from the age of 5 to 95 can understand. It is a process Dr McCall has been pursuing since the 1980s, when she was a visiting professor at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey, USA.

In 1991 she created new postgraduate MPhil and PhD degree courses in philosophical inquiry at the University of Glasgow. As well as working as a consultant with business and NHS health trusts, Dr McCall currently trains philosophy for children teacher-trainers (who themselves go on to train teachers) and runs her own adult philosophical inquiry groups at Strathclyde University.

In the 1990s she also ran community classes in philosophical inquiry in pubs and community centres in Castlemilk, Royston, Possilpark and Springburn in Glasgow.

The pilot Pathfinders classes she has been running at Eastwood High since January are part of East Renfrewshire's Confidence to Earn project, which aims to promote enterpreneurial skills.

"It's innovative of the authority to include philosophy in a project like this, but it makes sense because you need the kind of creative and critical thinking skills which philosophy gives you to be an entrepreneur.

"The huge upsurge of industry and commerce in Scotland in the 19th century came on the back of the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment, which was philosophy led. Let's not forget this is the land of Adam Smith and David Hume," she says.

"There's a lack of understanding about the nature of wealth and money in Scotland. People look at it like some pie chart, which implies that if you have a lot then you're taking it away from someone else.

"That is a basic philosophical misunderstanding," she says.

Eastwood headteacher Stuart Maxwell says the philosophy classes are great confidence and skills boosters for the pupils.

"There's a general lack of confidence in Scottish young people compared to, say, American young people and the reasons are complex. But it's not due to lack of ability.

"What I see from this group is growing confidence, an ability to argue logically, to hold to a position, to speak out and to be confident to differ from others as well as to change your mind. "A lot of anti-social behaviour and peer group clique-ishness or clannishness is down to feelings of inferiority, and I believe that these philosophical inquiry classes are promoting emotional intelligence as well as cognitive skills," he says.

English teacher Chris Collins, who introduced higher philosophy to the S6 curriculum at Eastwood High last year, agrees about the positive effects.

"I have five of the group in S1 English and I'd say their questions have become more incisive and logical. Thinking about thinking is obviously working.

"Hopefully it will impact on achievement, because these are transferable skills which should give them an academic edge and also promote citizenship because you are being taught to respect others' views and to distinguish between proper argument and opinion," he says.

The pilot is due to run for two years, at the end of which Dr McCall hopes it will be evaluated by psychologists to assess improvements in cognitive skills and creativity as well as improvements in self-image, confidence and communication skills.

"There have been changes already. Everyone speaks and listens better than they did to begin with and they take part pretty equally.

"They produce arguments and not just opinions and they will change their minds when faced with more cogent arguments, which is impressive," she says.

The story materials used by the group have been developed by Dr McCall and developing more teaching materials is a major part of the project.

"I've always wanted to make philosophy accessible to schools and communities because it is a fundamentally important human activity. It's tied up with what it means to be a human being," she says.

While supporting the idea of academic philosophy being taught in Scottish schools, Dr McCall is not about to present the ideas of Plato, Hume or Descartes to S1 pupils.

"I'm promoting the idea of philosophical dialogue on topics and issues children and young people are interested in, which is different to it being taught as an academic subject. In any case, if you wanted to establish academic philosophy as part of the secondary curriculum, you'd need a huge explosion in the number of teachers qualified to teach it."

Any one can take part in philosophical inquiry from the age of five upwards if there's a properly trained facilitator.

"I'm presently lobbying the Scottish parliament for pound;3 million from the Determined to Succeed budget which is for promoting enterprise, in order to establish a project to train teachers and community workers to be able to facilitate philosophical inquiry and I'm determined to keep at it until I get the funds," she says.

Dr McCall had to raise funds continually to support the community groups in inner-city Glasgow and its peripheral schemes, including mother and children groups. Eventually she ran out of energy, but she says many of the groups still meet under their own steam: "They gained confidence and skills and they gained a community of other people that was different from the usual family, work or social group. They got to know each other as thinkers and people and some of them are still meeting."

For further information on the Certificate of Professional Development in Community of Enquiry Methodology at the Centre for Lifelong Learning, Strathclyde University, email c.mccall@strath.ac.uk

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