We have heard a great deal about the many different ways that questions can be used to stimulate children’s thinking, and it is clear that children respond to a wide range of questions every day. Clearly, closed questions involving the recall of facts are those about which most children feel the most confident, as there is a concrete point of reference, although children are increasingly willing to think about their responses to open questions, particularly when given appealing stimuli. The ultimate aim of any teacher must, however, surely be to instil the love of enquiry in children, for children to question the world around them for themselves in order to be inquisitive and independent learners. Part of my research, Robert Fisher’s Stories for Thinking, has been a vital component of teaching children to think for themselves.
Stories for Thinking is a group of multi-cultural stories aimed at developing the thinking, learning and language skills of 7-11 year olds. The stories can be used in a variety of ways, as a stimulus for thinking with individual children, pairs, small groups, whole classes and larger groups such as in a school assembly. Narrative can provide an effective stimulus for critical thinking, interpretation and argument:the narrative can be questioned, interpreted (making meaning, giving reasons for judgement), and discussed to try to resolve any questions that have arisen. Stories for Thinking lessons have three kinds of aims: curriculum (to develop language skills); cognitive (to develop thinking and verbal reasoning; and moral and social (to enable children to confidently think for themselves and develop understanding and a caring attitude to others).
I experimented with different sized groups to see which worked best for the children in my Y6 lower achieving group and my colleague’s higher achieving group. It was clear that both groups of children asked more and deeper questions when allowed to discuss the story in small groups of 3 or 4 rather than in pairs or as a whole group of 16 or 32. In small groups they felt free to express their opinions and challenge the opinions of others. It was very noticeable that when I treated one story purely as a reading exercise, followed by written responses to the initial questions, the children did not open up in the same way and answers were stilted. Clearly, then, both groups of children benefit from being able to verbalise their thoughts and discuss with others in order to extend their enquiry skills, rather than being asked to write down their answers.
My colleague and I both feel that the Year 6 children at Ivanhoe have benefited significantly from Stories for Thinking. They look forward to the sessions. When they know they are going to listen to one of the stories, they quickly form small discussion groups (made up of two pairs of Learning Partners), and scurry around the classroom gathering large pieces of coloured paper and marker pens to note down their thoughts and questions as the story is being read. The children’s body language shows they are prepared for active listening and learning – they sit in a relaxed way, facing me and listen intently, actively looking for a discussion point, which they scribble down frantically when found – often nudging each other to draw the group’s attention to the question they’ve jotted down – the rest of the group nodding sagely!
The children’s self esteem and intellectual confidence has certainly been boosted; at first, some children were unsure how to react to the discussions. The first text, Gelert, is a story about a prince who left his favourite hunting dog, Gelert, to guard his baby whilst he went hunting because there were wolves in the area. Whilst he was away, a wolf entered the castle. There was a fight, during which the baby’s cradle was knocked over and Gelert killed the wolf. When the prince came back, however, all he saw was the upturned cradle and his dog with blood on his jaws. He assumed the dog had killed his baby and was so angry that he killed the dog with his sword, then found his baby safe and sound and was filled with remorse. There was a particularly stimulating discussion after reading Gelert, which prompted the question Is anger always a bad thing? One child, who had enjoyed the discussion and joined in with her opinion, said at the end, “But Mrs Wild, you haven’t told us the answer!” This comment makes you realise just how ‘boxed in’ children are on a daily basis – they are used to having a right answer and don’t question it. Another child was amazed to discover that it is okay to not be able to make your mind up about how you feel; that it’s okay to think about something for longer than a lesson!
Now, rather than being daunted by deep, complex issues such as What is friendship, or fairness, or freedom, the children greet each question as a challenge and look forward to it. The children now interrogate the texts with gusto and discussions have extended enormously. The discussion of Gelertextended to questions being raised such as: Do animals have as much right to live as humans? and Is it always wrong to kill? Now, the children will even refer back to previous discussions that they have considered further in private and on which they want to share their thoughts.
Philosophical enquiry has, without doubt, encouraged the children to listen to each other, respect each other’s views, and develop moral judgements. It is a very powerful tool. I have no doubt that the effects will be far reaching, and will prepare my children to think more deeply and question the world around them with increasing confidence, considering the views of others as well as their own with a fairer mind.