Question time

28th February 2003 at 00:00
Will Ord offers an approach to handling controversial issues in the classroom

On a recent trip to Washington DC, I visited the sombre Vietnam War Memorial. It's a stark (and one-sided) testimony to human disaster, with 60,000 names of the American dead carved in black marble slabs on the lawns of the capital.

Moments later, I was among families scanning the goods at the tourist stalls nearby: Osama bin Laden urinal stickers, terrorist hunting permits, bumper stickers declaring "A Natural Death Is For Pussies", a dollar each.

I wondered how American children would make sense of the memorial and these chilling souvenirs. With no statutory RE in their state schools, how do they view September 11, the Middle East crisis and Iraq? I left depressed, but convinced that RE is more relevant and necessary than ever.

War is quite properly a topic for RE and citizenship. Included in most locally agreed syllabuses, it prompts big questions about religious, moral, cultural and social issues. Sadly there is no shortage of contemporary examples to illustrate the subject.

Religious GCSE syllabuses also include units about religion and war (for example, a just war and holy war), and they regularly feature in the exam paper. However, the horror and complexity of war - the variety of causes, types, consequences and settlements - makes it a challenging subject to tackle. How can children come to terms with it?

The philosophy for children (or P4C) approach to learning emphasises the importance of allowing pupils to investigate their own thoughts about a topic first. In controversial areas such as war and religion, this is essential ( Once pupils become aware of their own thinking, they can assimilate new information and concepts more meaningfully. Because there is a context into which new ideas can fit, pupils are able to remember and understand a topic better.

There are numerous stimuli to encourage pupils to reflect on war. These include newspaper articles, pictures from the web, poems, artefacts, museum visits - you could even invite a war veteran to your school. As an RE teacher of Religious Studies GCSE ("Christian perspectives" and Islam units), I used the first 15 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (15), a bloody depiction of the Allied Forces landing on the French coast in the Second World War.

Pupils thought quietly for four minutes, noting their ideas down, and then shared them with three others in turn. One group wrote a spontaneous poem together as their response, ending with the question: "Where do all the brave men go, hell or heaven?" I then asked each group to frame a "philosophical" question (one with several possible answers) from their shared responses. What would they like to investigate further? What was interesting in their shared reflections? How would they word the question? They came up with the following: "Should we kill people we don't know?", "Why should people fight to solve other people's problems?", "Why should a government force people to kill?"

Their questions were written down and the class voted for one they would investigate together. The one they selected was "Is war ever worth it?", prompting discussion about types of war (civil, world, nuclear, cold), justice, duty, intentions and consequences. This helped pupils clarify their thoughts and provided them with a meaningful setting for introducing "the five conditions for a just war" in the next lesson.

When would they, if ever, go to war? What would make a war right in their eyes? If they received call-up papers for service in Iraq, would they go? Would they accept prison instead? It takes time to develop the enquiry skills involved in this process, giving reasons, being tolerant, understanding others, listening well, expressing ideas caringly and carefully, and so on. But they are not beyond pupils' abilities. More importantly, these skills help to reduce conflict in the first place.

Will Ord was a head of RE before he became a consultant. He is also co-author, with Joe Jenkins, of Themes in RE:Learning from Religions: Book 3 (Heinemann, pound;8.75)

Advantages of the P4C (philosophy for children) approach:

* Children have their ideas clarified by expressing them and developing them using the thoughts of their peers.

* Teachers, as facilitators of the discussion, do not take sides in controversial areas.

* Pupils learn strategies for dealing with complex questions in a communal setting.

* Pupils of all abilities enjoy and benefit from this process, not just the good readers and writers.

* Children are motivated by having their own agenda.

* RE and citizenship education objectives are achieved, particularly "skills of enquiry and communication" used in social and moral contexts.



Spartacus Educational

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