A big hand for young philosophers

TAKE a moment, please, to study the image on this page. Hands. Human hands, grossly over-sized in comparison to the man to whom they belong.

You are probably not feeling intellectually stimulated. The image most likely hasn't provoked intense analytical thinking, nor sparked fierce familial debate.

But for a group of primary school pupils, this image is the childhood equivalent of, for example, David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature. Welcome to philosophy for four-year-olds.

Clackmannanshire Council has revealed it has been teaching philosophy to pupils as young as four, and now 19 primary schools, several nurseries and 50 teachers are involved.

For the past six years, the council has trialed the Thinking Through Philosophy (TTP) initiative - believed to be the first of its kind run by a local authority in Britain - to great success.

A study published yesterday suggests that this approach to teaching can raise a child's IQ by 6.5 points.

Unlike some of the more complex philosophical theories of Plato or Hume, the Thinking Through Philosophy approach is easy to understand.

Philosophy is described as rational investigation of existence, ethics and knowledge, and, when introduced at nursery stage, the TTP approach uses visual images to stimulate discussion among pupils.

In each picture, one detail will be out of place, or some item will appear unusual, and the children are encouraged to analyse the image.

With images such as the hands pictured here, children are asked to deduce why they look so out of proportion. Are they a giant's hands? Is the rest of the man's body simply very small?

"It is an exercise in distilling concepts," says Paul Cleghorn, headteacher at Sunnyside Primary in Alloa, where the project was spearheaded. "We ask them questions about whether the image is real or unreal, and, gradually, you can shift the discussion to philosophical questions about the definition of reality.

"There is a difficulty in trying to better a child's thinking process because most of the time thought is silent and private. We are trying to make it visible, by asking them to speak out loud and explore their thoughts, then asking them to explain those ideas."

Rather than teaching accepted philosophical theories, the programme is about introducing rational thought and reasoning techniques.

At nursery level the aim is to encourage the children's thinking, and to give them the tools to make sense of the world and their place in it.

By primary school, pupils are presented with poems and stories instead of pictures, and asked to provide evidence for their thought.

And by secondary school, TTP is incorporated as a teaching style through all elements of the curriculum, and focused on in particular as part of personal, social and health education lessons.

"As parents and teachers, we are not good at questioning our children," says Mr Cleghorn, "even though this concept of analysing the world is entirely natural to youngsters. Even when they're small, they go around touching, smelling and eating everything they lay eyes on, and so this 'Socratic' process of questioning things - trying to reach a deeper understanding through finding answers - should be a fundamental part of our approach to education."

To analyse the impact of this programme, researchers from Dundee University met secondary pupils who had been through it at primary school.

The results suggest learning philosophy raised their IQs by up to 6.5 points and improved emotional intelligence.

Professor Keith Topping, from the department of education at Dundee University, analysed the data. "The children who had been exposed to this programme showed intellectual gains, and improvements in their cognitive ability," he says. "But, equally, there were social and attitudinal gains. It made the children more questioning, and gave them greater confidence."

Rosie Dempster is a nursery teacher at Tower Nursery in Alloa. This is the first year she has been teaching philosophy to her four-year-old pupils, and she says the way children think permeates all aspects of their behaviour.

"A lot of nursery education is encouraging children to participate and develop communication skills," she says. "Philosophy encourages them to be free-thinking and to believe there is no right or wrong answer. It's about accepting everybody's ideas. We try to get them to expand, and if they say something which is obviously untrue, we ask them to try to justify their answer.

"I like to think of it as a 'community of inquiry', where they learn trust and respect as well as thinking. It's a form of citizenship and being tolerant of other people's ideas."

Although these techniques might, at first, seem too advanced for primary and pre-school children, academics within the philosophical field believe they could not be more suited to it.

"By the age of five, children are already raising questions that are philosophical in nature," says Dr Peter Baumann, of the Centre for Scottish Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. "They ask questions about dreams, about what happens when we die, and why they should obey their parents - and although they are by no means full-blown philosophers, their inquiries should be taken seriously.

"If this kind of project raises IQ, that's fantastic, but I would argue that making them think independently and critically is far more important."

But some in the education system have questioned whether this approach is anything more than good teaching practice.

And there has been speculation that the intense pressure on class teachers to produce competitive assessment results has squeezed out any time for them to foster teaching by dialogue.

Pamela Mann, professor of curriculum research at Edinburgh University, says the Executive's Curriculum for Excellence initiative should provide more space in the curriculum for creative teaching methods.

"Primary and secondary curriculums have been overcrowded," she says. "But the new measures should allow greater space for what we would all recognise as good teaching.

"We could also use the system to encourage a questioning approach. If exams or tests ask for more problem-solving and rationale, we will be able to promote these kind of thinking skills in all children."

Never too young for theatre

A GIANT balloon starts to glow, and two dancers emerge from inside. For 45 minutes, the performers from the Oily Cart company use movement, sounds and balloons of all sizes, some with bells inside, to keep an audience ranging from newborns to two-year-olds captivated.

The performers in "Baby Balloon" are not forbidden to speak, but the show is mostly word-free. It ends with up to ten babies and ten carers drawn inside the giant inflatable balloon, whose colour has now changed to orange, where they all eat tangerines. It may not be Shakespeare, and it's not Punch and Judy either, but it is an early taste of the stage.

An international symposium in Edinburgh next week is to examine how theatre and the arts can interest, influence and educate 0-3-year-olds.

At its heart are findings by child psychologists that the level of learning in the first 18 months of life is "absolutely massive", said Jacqueline McKay, of the North Edinburgh Arts Centre.

The centre is hosting the Starcatchers First International Symposium next week as part of a two-year research project to chart the impact of theatre, dance and music on very young children.

Researchers from Exeter University are following 15 "small family units", filming children's reactions as they experiences the arts.

Keynote speakers next week include Dr Wolfgang Schneider, the president of the International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People.

For 25 years Oily Cart has staged shows for under-fives. When it first started, said artistic director Tim Webb, most theatre professionals thought it was pointless, "because young children wouldn't know what end of the room to look at".

In 2001 the company went further with a show for the under-twos. It began as a structured play session where performers provided music and props to adult carers.

"As soon as we started to try out this approach we were getting ferocious levels of concentration from the babies and the toddlers. They were concentrating on what we were doing for 45-50 minutes.

"You could see that they were finding themselves in a creative situation where they were getting a lot of stimulation.

"That is how people grow. You can virtually hear the synapses firing, the brain growing."

Ms McKay said: "We think there is definitely an audience for theatre, and a very young audience.

"Parents have been telling stories to babies for years and singing to them for years," she pointed out.

"At a recent production we had a four-month-old baby. The feedback was that there was enough content within the theatre experience to keep them interested and wondering what's going on."

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