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Philosophy gives a lesson new meaning: Diana Hinds meets children taking their first steps in developing critical reasoning

'REMEMBER, we are trying to be philosophical: that means we are going to ask questions and try to think things through.'

Roger Sutcliffe, of the London Philosophy for Children group, is giving some 11- to 14-year-olds from St Paul's Way School, east London, their first taste of philosophical discussion. They read aloud a passage from a specially devised story.

'I disagree with the sentence that says we don't choose our religions, they are given to us when we're born,' volunteers Shaziya, a Muslim girl.

The pupils offer comments on the story. Of the subjects raised, they decide that they want to discuss Shaziya's point about religion. More than half the children come from Muslim homes.

'Does there come a moment when you can choose for yourself? When is this moment?' asks Mr Sutcliffe, steering the discussion.

'When you live your own life,' suggests one pupil.

'When you leave home,' says another.

'It depends on how you were brought up and if you were brainwashed at the beginning,' says Rachel, a non-Muslim.

As the discussion develops, several pupils argue that parents shouldn't 'bully' their children into adopting their own religion and should 'respect' what their children choose to do. Others gradually join in, Muslim pupils explaining that it would be very difficult to change their religion.

'You would have to have different festivals and change all your habits. I think it would be really hard,' says Sadiq.

'Your parents might not want you any more . . . It would be like starting your life again,' says Ripon.

It is a serious exchange of views, marked by a genuine openness and lack of hostility between the pupils. Mr Sutcliffe intervenes from time to time, not to judge or evaluate, but to suggest questions and help pupils clarify their thoughts.

To do this successfully requires philosophical training, says Mr Sutcliffe, who is a philosophy graduate and a follower of a method devised in the Sixties by Matthew Lipman, an American professor of philosophy, which aims to foster children's understanding by developing their powers of critical reasoning.

Mr Sutcliffe has abridged Professor Lipman's stories and teaching manuals for use in English schools with children from 6 to 16, and the recently formed national group, SAPERE (Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education) runs training courses for teachers.

Polly Saul, who has been using the Lipman method for two years with disaffected 15- and 16-year-olds in Haringay, north London, said it had helped to boost their confidence. 'It gives them a place where they can be heard, where they can order their thoughts. It gives them a vocabulary for learning, for dialogue, and it helps them to be unafraid of language. I've got pupils who have truanted for years saying 'Have we got philosophy next?' '

Vivien Cutler, head teacher at St Paul's Way school, said she hoped to introduce philosophy into personal and social education (PSE) lessons after seeing how enthusiastically her pupils had responded.

(Photograph omitted)