Thinking about things deeply

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
Insightful thoughts are not the domain of adults alone. In Fife, primary pupils are learning to share, inspect and refine their views on metaphysical and ethical issues
Insightful thoughts are not the domain of adults alone. In Fife, primary pupils are learning to share, inspect and refine their views on metaphysical and ethical issues

When Morag MacInnes arrives at school on a Wednesday morning, pupils are always pleased to see her. "Is it today?" they ask, knowing that her presence means the philosophy club will be meeting after school.

Morag has been running the weekly philosophy club at Fair Isle Primary in Kirkcaldy, since January. Rather than studying philosophers, the children engage in the sort of thinking used by philosophers such as Socrates, covering a range of issues relevant to their lives. So they might ask "How old do you have to be to be grown up?", leading on to discussions about what it means to be a grown up and the responsibilities it entails.

"Recently we covered an issue raised by one of the children: how do we know we're not dreaming?" says Morag. "We visited consciousness, explored the nature of reality, unpacked our thinking about dreams, agreed and disagreed with each other, cited evidence and examples, constructed arguments. Our thoughts were reviewed and refined in light of the dialogue and, in the end, some of us disagreed with our original statements."

The club takes place in a specially assigned room at the school. About 18 children, from P1 to 7, attend. Teachers are invited to join in, and parents have been asked along to see for themselves what the club involves and take part, airing their views on the topic being discussed.

"Knowing how good children's responses were to philosophy, it just seemed to me that both parties would gain so much from sharing thoughts and perhaps gain insights about each other," says Morag.

"Having worked with both child and adult groups, I know that insightful thoughts aren't solely displayed by the older part of the community, but also come from youngsters - so everyone learns from each other."

Morag uses a range of materials, from video clips to storybooks, to drive discussions, but as the children have become more confident, they have been choosing the topics themselves.

"The idea is that the children are given more freedom than in class," says Morag. "They have more ownership. I ask them to come up with the hardest question they can think of. The following week, we write down all the questions and vote on which one to cover.

"The club allows us to go into issues more deeply, and I am finding that the children often come in with questions regarding ethical issues. They are becoming more aware of the world around them, as they look around for ideas. I am noticing that some of the subjects they are bringing up are often topical, and the level of discussion they are reaching is almost adult level."

Because the club is attended by a mixed age group, the children are talking in front of other pupils they may not know well. "When children are in their own peer group, it is easier to be confident. But with a wider group, it is not so easy, so it builds up good social skills," says Morag.

"The children are all very enthusiastic, probably because it is only the ones who are interested in philosophy who come. They don't need any encouragement; in fact, I sometimes have problems getting them to go home."

Morag is not surprised by the club's popularity. She says: "In my last school, I had a couple of senior girls who were very keen to run the club after I moved schools, which I thought spoke volumes. Did they take it seriously? Seriously enough to give up their own free time to do the level 1 training in preparation!"

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