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PfC - the bigger picture

Look at these Google-question lists. They draw wry attention to the different kinds of questions people ask, and especially the queries posed by those who lack the inclination to type those time-consuming letters “y” and “o”. They are also a powerful demonstration of different sorts of thinking: the type that focuses on the personal, and the type we do when we are thinking about the bigger picture.

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I was thinking about these silly lists, when a piece in the TES gave me a further pause for thought about the “bigger picture”. The article (Tom Bennett, Set Civil Tongues Wagging, TES, 01.01.16) described a lovely-sounding A-level lesson in which students had exchanged views on difficult topics with wholesome and thoughtful frankness. Classrooms, said Bennett, can be “virtual laboratories” of discussion, where “we test ideas”. And he went on to say that his students, when they left the room, were “different people from who they were when they walked in.”

When I last checked, changing the nature of the learners in front of you was not one of the criteria for excellent teaching. But it probably should be, and it can be done – through Philosophy for Children (PfC). I trained in PfC with SAPERE about 5 years ago, and it’s been one of my favourite things ever since. Last year, research (by the Educational Endowment Fund) backed the common sense notion that PfC works, showing that it has all kinds of powerful benefits, including improvements in reading, writing and maths as well as increased confidence, patience and self-esteem. This sounds too good to be believed. Thankfully, I can bear witness.  The positive effects of PfC on pupils and teachers are indisputable.

With Harbour School in East Sussex, I’ve been working on PfC for just over a year. PfC has been added to the curriculum. The leadership team is fully committed to embedding its principles and methodology. A comprehensive and inclusive training programme has created whole school buy-in. Lesson study cycles have been put in place to develop and share the growing expertise of staff. Having worked with teachers on enquiry-based learning for Year 1 to Year 6 pupils, I can see why the school is beginning to see a change: children speaking more confidently; children developing stronger oracy skills; children taking turns; children asking better questions in other areas of the curriculum; children showing their thinking skills. Oh, and test results are going up too.

No doubt, not all of this is down to PfC – the amazing staff at Harbour are doing an excellent job in many other areas too! And, you might argue, every novel idea, fad and initiative has its moment – what happens when enthusiasm wanes, training dries up and benefits dissipate? I can only report that at Harbour, the PfC wheels continue to turn, showing that new approaches can be implemented, established and successfully embedded. This year the school has appointed a PfC champion, and we’ve experimented with PfC for parents and PfC with a visiting author: Sarah Bee’s wonderful picture book “The Yes” made an excellent stimulus for discussion.

Another benefit of PfC, especially as teachers continue to grapple with the mastery demands of the new curriculum, is that it demands an eye-opening approach to planning.  When you plan for PfC, you can only speculate on the content of the lesson. You cannot predict the end point. You cannot write a lesson plan with a plenary that says all pupils will be able to demonstrate their knowledge of x or y. This is because once a PfC enquiry gets going, the pupils are in charge. The facilitator builds up reasoning skills and confidence, and provides a safe structure for free thinking and a stimulating starting point – and then the lesson flies. Learners choose the questions and topics they want to discuss. This is a challenge for teachers who have been raised in the world of objective-led teaching.  Letting go of that focus, by creating learning opportunities that let children make decisions, is good practice in the kind of open-ended planning that will help children reach for mastery in other subject areas too.

Not long after seeing that amusing Google-question comparison, I read about South Korea. Following anxiety about the high suicide rate amongst students they have introduced a “free semester” policy: 15 year olds will be given a six month period when they sit no exams.  Apparently some students are continuing to use the time for cramming and test preparation, but the aim of the policy is to create space for the happiness of the students, to develop creativity and physical, emotional and social competencies. It sounds like they want to think about the bigger picture. I just hope they’re doing PfC.