What happens when I die?

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Teachers can tackle such worries by focusing on religious festivals worldwide. In Cumbria they study the Day of the Dead with a Mexican school. Martin Child reports on techniques for using global links to challenge pupils' thinking

The television is left on and nobody is watching it, which causes an outcry among the audience watching a play by Walney secondary school eco- club.

The drama, about global climate change, has two consecutive performances.

First, the audience is asked to make note of anything that is wasteful of energy or environmentally harmful. Second time around, people can interrupt to suggest improvements. Facilitators invite them on stage to perform their version of what should have happened. Someone might switch off the offending television or turn the lights off. This interactive play forms a key part of the Energy Island Project, highlighting environmental issues.

Walney Island, connected by a bridge to mainland Cumbria, happens to be about the same size as Mahe, the largest island in the Seychelles. Walney secondary school is developing links with a school on Mahe; together they are examining the causes and effects of global warming on their communities.

"By connecting with a real community in the Indian Ocean, the relevance of the project will be reinforced," says Steve Tyson, a Walney geography teacher.

The play has not been the only thrust, though. Pupils have investigated climate change, visited wind turbines and examined fishing in the area.

The springboard for the play was a visit from the Global Link Forum Theatre Company. This encouraged the Eco Club, which Steve Tyson organises, to stage its own version, which has been performed successfully to various primary schools.

"Since trying this technique, I sometimes use drama within my geography teaching, as pupil participation can improve the quality of learning," Mr Tyson says.

Although there are no definite plans for an exchange between Walney and the Seychelles, it is hoped that, as the project develops, this will happen.

Just seven miles away there is another school with an international link, although the physical similarities are fewer. Like Walney, Ulverston Victoria high school is developing new ways to enhance learning through international collaboration. Emergency Spanish lessons have just been organised in preparation for an exchange to Mexico during the October half-term. A small group of pupils and staff are flying to Mexico City to stay with families, visit their partner school and immerse themselves in a totally different culture. This is not a holiday: it is a genuine attempt to instil a real sense of purpose in pupils' contact with the Mexicans.

The visit will feed activities back in school in humanities and RE and will help the English students to understand what it means to be a citizen in a new democracy. It will also offer the Mexican students an insight into what it is like to live in our multi-cultural society. "We are trying to promote international understanding," said Pat Hannam, head of Victoria high's department of belief, philosophy and ethics.

"We are not just about creating pen-pals, we are using linking to enable children to become morally autonomous and responsible world citizens."

The project was originally instigated by the British Council in Mexico City. Cumbrian teachers, including Ms Hannam, went out to train their Mexican counterparts in the techniques of Philosophy for Children and the Forum Theatre. Communication between the two schools has been mainly by email, so this latest visit will strengthen the links and make the project more tangible.

The Philosophy for Children technique, developed by the American philospher Mathew Lipman, involves encouraging critical and co-operative thinking in a caring way. Tables are removed and chairs are arranged in a circle to allow easy eye contact between pupils. A stimulus is introduced, which could be a reading, video clip, picture or concept. Group members think about what questions it raises and vote on which question to discuss, a process that encourages pupils to think deeply and listen carefully to other people's ideas. Mostly the questions discussed are open-ended; the process is the important aspect. "We are developing reasoning, critical reflection and empathy and helping students to explore beyond the boundary of their own experience," says Ms Hannam.

This technique is gradually having an impact on other areas of the curriculum within the school. Even the maths department has tried the technique. What is noticeable is that pupils are becoming much more confident in thoughtful class discussion. Mark Holroyd, a Year 10 member of the weekly philosophy club, says that this technique has made him much more aware of issues. "A lot of teachers use philosophy in lessons and I now find it much easier to speak in class," he says.

While in Mexico, the students from both cultures will engage in philosophical enquiry, which has become an important part of the development of this link.

In an earlier email exchange, pupils swapped ideas. One was a poem by one of the Latin American pupils about a child praying to God and asking "Why does Mum love TV better than me, and why doesn't Daddy love me as much as the football team?" This led to an adult like discussion of questions such as "Why do people feel the need to pray to God?"

The transatlantic co-operation has also enabled Pat Hannam to build Mexican topics into schemes of work. For instance, Year 8 pupils now study a project on the Mexican Day of the Dead, a festival in which late friends and relatives are remembered with a celebratory graveside picnic and exchanges of gifts, something exchange students will experience first hand in Mexico city. This has led Year 8 pupils to explore questions such as "What happens after I die?".

In a Christianity and world religion topic, Year 7 pupils follow the trail of the Conquistadors to find out how Mexico came to be Christian. They discuss a Mexican indian's vision of the Virgin of Guadaloupe. Catholic pilgrims from all over the world gather to commemorate this in Mexico City each year. It has prompted questions such as "Do miracles ever happen to me?"

These projects share the belief that international links are a means of giving relevance to both curricular and non-curricular work. Issues such as citizenship and ecology are investigated and examined from different perspectives. Shared philosophical discussions can be turned into language development exercises by conducting them in Spanish and English.

Close links with communities across the world enable pupils to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions, therefore encouraging a real understanding of global issues. They are also discovering the similarities, differences and unique qualities of diverse cultures.


* Ulverston's Mexican link was initially supported by the British Council in Mexico, who paid for computers and email connection for the Mexican schools. They also gave a reciprocal teacher exchange grant to enable a Mexican teacher to visit Ulverston. The Cumbria Development Education Centre gave some training to support the project. For information visit: http:cdec.ucsm.ac.uk

* The Department for International Development's Global School Partnerships are a powerful and exciting way of bringing a global dimension into the lives of young people and their teachers. Check the website for information on links with developing countries and funding opportunities: www.britishcouncil.orgglobalschools Other useful websites:l International professional development programmes and funding for link visits: www.lect.org.uk

* Development Education Association. Information and contact details for network of centres supporting schools across the UK: www.dea.org.uk

* Link Community Development. Works with communities in Africa: www.lcd.org.uk

* Information about schools in the North West ind with linking projects: (No www!) schoollinkingnw.gn.apc.org

* There is a national conference of the UK One World Linking Association (www.ukowla.org.uk), a national network of schools, community groups and organisations, on November 21-23 at the Cumbria Development Education Centre, St. Martin's College, Ambleside. Tel: 01672 861001.

* To find out more about philosophical methods and linking, contact Pat Hannam at Ulverston Victoria high school, at pha@uvhs.ndirect.co.uk

* For more on Philosophy for Children visit the website of the Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education www.sapere.net . Sapere is holding a thinking skills conference on November 15 at the Westminster Institute of Education in Oxford. Tel: 01865 488608.

* Walney secondary school used the Forum Theatre technique: actors go into a community, elicit the key issues of concern,then improvise a short piece of theatre to provoke debate leading to solutions. Forum Theatre Projects: www.globallink.org.uk

* A UK Homeless Charity also specialises in making Forum Theatre: http:www.cardboardcitizens.org.uk

* Steve Tyson at Walney says the following is a very useful resource: www.global-footsteps.com

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today