Thinking is just their philosophy

22nd February 2008 at 00:00

Analytical thought should be on the curriculum right from the start of education, says professor

Pupils as young as four need to think more deeply and ask more complex questions to prepare them for the arrival of a skills-based curriculum, it was claimed this week.

Karin Murris, professor in practical philosophy and ethics at Newport University's school of education, said children need to be taught how to be critical and independent thinkers, a skill that many teenagers in Wales's secondary schools are said to be lacking.

Professor Murris, who is presently training teachers as part of their continuing professional development and during school training days, believes empowering young children to think more analytically is vital for the roll-out of the play-led foundation phase for under-sevens.

"Children have amazing views of the world but they learn very quickly to ask the right sort of questions," said Professor Murris.

"One of the concerns in secondary education is the lack of independent thinking."

Hundreds of primary teachers - particularly from Welsh-medium schools - are enrolling on philosophy-based courses in Wales.

Rhys Williams, from the NUT Cymru, said: "We are very much in favour of it. We have complained for a lot of time that the national curriculum is too much of a straitjacket and this is a way of getting children thinking and using their initiative."

Philosophy for Children (P4C), a framework of thinking skills, developed specifically for children by Matthew Lipman in the 1960s, is proving popular.

Dr Sue Lyle, principal lecturer at the Swansea School of Education, has been an advocate of P4C for years, but says that interest has shot up in Wales since 2005.

She claims the rise is due to better funding, effective marketing and the endorsement of "thinking skills" by the Assembly government. Around 900 teachers in the Swansea area have now had initial P4C training, including 35 schools. Many others have been trained around Wales.

Dr Lyle, who trains teachers in the P4C method, says primary schools have generally been enthusiastic, but she claims some still do not place enough trust in their pupils' reasoning skills.

"Some teachers think that with children you have to go from simple to complex ideas, but they don't hesitate to read them fairy stories which contain abstract concepts. They don't recognise that children of that age can handle abstract concepts really well."

But many teachers are confident of the benefits. "For lower-ability pupils there is more emphasis on using whole sentences, so they learn to verbalise their opinions," says Barbara Harris, a teacher at St Robert's Catholic Primary School in Bridgend, where all pupils, from early years to Year 6, take philosophy once a fortnight.

"With more able children it pushes their thinking further."

Dr Lyle says the programme has taken off particularly well in Welsh-medium schools. "It's good for language skills because children have a clear attachment to the question, and have to search for the language to explore it."

As well as boosting children's confidence in speaking in front of their peers, the subject is of particular interest in lessons covering personal and social education and citizenship.

"It broadens the willingness to consider other points of view," says Martin Pollard, education officer of the Council for Education in World Citizenship Cymru, which runs sessions for schools using the P4C approach.

"The idea is that whatever children come out with, they are tested views which can stand up to scrutiny, or be defined or modified."

Chris Williams, a Year 2 teacher at Brynhyfryd Infants School in Swansea, says the method has encouraged his young pupils to be more courteous to each other.

"They might have a difficulty with somebody, but they deal with it in a friendlier way."

"I think a lot of resistance is because children have so little voice," says Professor Murris, adding that primary pupils trained in P4C may find it hard to adjust in secondary school if the approach is not carried on.

Sharon Davies, a teacher at Manorbier VC Primary School in Pembrokeshire, says her pupils have been taught P4C for the past 14 years. "I have daughters who went to Manorbier and at secondary found they weren't allowed to question in the same way. Then, at university, they were able to use the skills again."

THE P4C METHOD

P4C sessions begin with a stimulus, such as a story, picture or piece of music. Pupils are then encouraged to think about what interests or confuses them.

One of the key resources for younger children is picture books. Not Now Bernard, by David McKee, and Where The Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, are examples of books chosen for their ambiguity, which can spark off as many questions as they answer.

"It is a fundamental part of literacy at our school," says Sharon Davies, a teacher at Manorbier VC Primary School in Pembrokeshire, where pupils have been taught P4C for the past 14 years.

"We could be talking about anything, like a science experiment or a personal matter, with a child. Eventually they start asking questions without feeling weird about asking them. Even the quietest ones in the classroom feel empowered."

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