Positive thinking

10th November 2006 at 00:00
Do take a minute to think about this. Why should you do something if you're not happy doing it?

An answer might be: "You might not like your job but you have to work." A more reflective response might be: "to help the team" or "to make other people happy".

Conversely, you shouldn't do something you're not happy doing because it might lead to ill mental health.

These are some of the thoughtful responses given by an S3 mixed ability group pursuing philosophical reasoning at Barrhead High in East Renfrewshire.

The impressive thing about this Guided Socratic Discussion is not so much the level of engagement with what is a fundamental moral inquiry but the fact that the question was not drawn from the class textbook, Thinking Adventures, nor was it posed by the teacher. It has been framed and posed by a pupil.

This is lesson five in a 10-lesson course designed to develop pupils'

philosophical reasoning skills, their critical and creative skills and dispositions and to promote confidence to create their own future.

The class has spent an hour discussing questions such as "Should a person always do what makes the biggest number of people happy?" (a basic principle of utilitarianism) and "Why do something good if no one knows you are doing it?" Pupil responses to the first include "No, you should do what you think is right or you could become a sheep" and to the second, "Because you get a sense of pride and feel good about yourself."

In each lesson there is a central story set in an everyday situation seeded with philosophical ideas, which the questions are designed to draw out.

Each lesson develops from the previous.

There are, of course, no simple right or wrong answers and pupils are encouraged to frame their own philosophical questions before concluding with a thinking exercise.

In this lesson, the story concerns John, who wants to play striker for the school football team and get the glory, but the coach insists he stays midfield because he is the only one who can read the game properly for the team. The philosophical ideas are drawn from theories of egoistic ethics (do as you want), deontological ethics (follow the golden rule), the ethics of caring (do the kindest thing) and utilitarianism (for the greater good), but everything is in layman's language.

Thinking Adventures comes with a comprehensive teacher's guide, "an idiot's guide to philosophy", says Barrhead High's headteacher, Morag Towndrow, who has just taken the class. It isn't, of course, but rather a foolproof manual to enable any teacher (even without the proffered half-day training) to deliver these lessons.

The Guided Socratic Discussion course has been devised by Catherine McCall of Strathclyde University, who has been pioneering philosophy in Scottish schools since the 1980s when she was a visiting professor at the Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children in New Jersey, USA.

There are now over 3,000 pupils undertaking philosophical reasoning through Thinking Adventures in East Renfrewshire, led by teachers initially trained by Dr McCall. The work she has been piloting in the authority since January 2005 is being evaluated by SEED and she hopes the Scottish Executive will then roll it out over Scotland. Already four other authorities have shown an interest and inquiries have come from as far afield as Iceland, Mexico, the Netherlands and Turkey.

Thinking Adventures, published by SEED, is one of eight projected philosophy text books aimed at pupils from P3 to S6 to be published over the next two years. The series will begin with Wondering (for P3-P4) and conclude with a guide to Higher philosophy texts.

"All children have the capacity to be philosophical. They only need the proper teaching environment to develop," says Dr McCall.

"Scotland is the home of the enlightenment which gave birth to the Industrial Revolution and modern economics, as pioneered by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. The basis of that enlightenment was philosophical inquiry.

"Yet now we seem a negative and apathetic society in many ways," she says.

"We need to develop into a positive thinking nation, and that is the underlying aim of Guided Socratic Discussion.

"Positive thinking underlies wealth creation, as philosophy underlies economics. The pursuit of philosophy is fundamental to our and our children's well being."

Guided Socratic Discussion

* The teachers' guide to Thinking Adventures does not assume any knowledge of philosophy on the part of the teacher. It is an aid.

* The curriculum introduces pupils to philosophical concepts and to the reasoning and co-operation skills which are required to become competent in philosophical thinking and dialogue and to think critically and creatively and to generate alternatives.

* Simultaneously, the development of a community among young people through the practice of co-operative thinking and dialogue is fundamental to producing the skills and dispositions required of citizens in a democracy.

'Thinking Adventures' and the teacher's guide are on www.flatprojects.org.uk

Further information, c.mccall@strath.ac.uk

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