Wrestling with big issues

10th September 2004 at 01:00
Philosophy for Children is helping pupils take a more rigorous approach to global understanding. Diana Hinds reports

A group of teachers, advisers and development education specialists are studying a picture of a Sumo wrestler looking down on a young boy, who, his back to the camera, pummels his fists into the man's giant belly, determined to take him on, determined to win. Their task is to produce questions -philosophical questions - arising out of it, with which to stimulate a group discussion.

"Philosophy here means asking and responding to questions - it's broad, it's not necessarily Kant and Wittgenstein," explains Will Ord, chair of Sapere (the Society for Advancing Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education).

Ord is facilitating the discussion - or "community of enquiry" - as part of a new course which marries the techniques and thinking processes of SAPERE's Philosophy for Children (P4C) with the ideas and issues of global citizenship. The idea is that what these educationists are engaged on today can, with appropriate training, be put into practice in the classroom.

The wrestler and boy give rise to questions such as "Is strength a virtue?", "Is big always bad?", and "What leads us to challenge seemingly overwhelming odds?" The latter question is selected by the group - they vote with their eyes shut, to "help people become independent thinkers", explains Ord - for a discussion which then ranges around global issues, and the need to give children a say, to give them the skills to put the questions that are going to make a difference.

There are no "right" or "wrong" answers here. The important thing is that everyone contributes to the discussion, listens to what others say, and - with a steer from the facilitator, where necessary - endeavours to develop their thinking rationally and collectively. The "community of enquiry" concludes with a short period of reflection and summing up, in which people consider whether or not their views or positions have changed as a result of the discussion.

Sophie Mackay, who works on global education in primary schools for the Tower Hamlets Humanities Education Centre, is already convinced that the P4C approach has much to offer global citizenship in schools: "Citizenship is quite an amorphous part of the curriculum at the moment. P4C is a very useful way of mapping it and delivering it in the classroom, if you choose stimuli with a global dimension - eg a story about someone dropping litter everywhere. Instead of the teacher saying, 'We all have to look after the environment', it is an opportunity for children to set the agenda and have a discussion which is meaningful to them."

Philosophy for Children originated in the US in the late 1960s, and is now practised in 60 countries worldwide. The charity SAPERE was founded in this country in 1992, and since then has trained more than 2,000 primary and secondary teachers. From the autumn, SAPERE will run courses accredited by Oxford Brookes University, and have a permanent base there.

The addition of citizenship to the national curriculum has increased interest in SAPERE's methods, as has the development of thinking skills and the growing concern with emotional literacy. Recent research showed that, in 100 primary schools, one hour of P4C a week raised pupil IQ scores by an average of 6.5 points, and markedly improved Sats scores.

The idea for a collaboration between P4C and global citizenship - both cross-curricular in their scope and application, and keen to be more strongly embedded in schools - first arose out of a conference, sponsored by Oxfam, at the Cumbrian development education centre. Two years on, Roger Sutcliffe, SAPERE president, and Mary Young, a former Oxfam education officer now working for the Department for International Development, are co-directors of the new 15-hour training course, P4GC (Philosophy for Global Citizenship).

Citizenship education has been statutory in secondary schools for two years, but provision is patchy, and Ofsted reports indicate that many schools struggle to grasp what it is and how to implement it. As Will Ord puts it: "Core concepts such as rights, law, justice and power, and issues such as immigration, racism and religious conflict, are far from simple.

They cannot be really engaged with or understood through didactic teaching alone. They need to be teased out, explored, challenged and reflected upon, with pupils using thinking skills and good dialogue."

Mary Young believes that the combination of citizenship and philosophy will give children (from key stage 2 upwards) "an increased ability to communicate articulately and from a basis of reason", as well as "a greater understanding of some of the pressing issues of the day: social justice and equality, globalisation and sustainable development."

Philosophy for Children, according to Roger Sutcliffe, "helps teachers to ask more open questions and become more responsive to students' thought processes". It will add "a certain amount of rigour", he believes, to global citizenship, helping to cut through jargon and highlight ways in which global concepts such as democracy and interdependence can be problematical and multi-layered. "P4C offers a personcentred approach to a subject that can at times appear rather too big and holistic," Roger Sutcliffe says.

* For further information about P4GC, email: rogersutcliffe@ onenet.co.uk or willord@ tiscali.co.uk



Global Citizenship: The handbook for primary teaching by Mary Young with Eilish Commins is published by Chris Kington and Oxfam

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