Evidence is emerging in Scotland that links secondary school pupils’ progress and emotional intelligence to the use of philosophical enquiry as a learning approach in primary schools.

Teachers seeking evidence that ‘thinking skills’ interventions provide opportunities to improve general learning outcomes over time and between learning contexts will be interested in a new report published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. Professor Keith Topping, at Dundee University, working in collaboration with Dr Steve Trickey, senior educational psychologist in Clackmannanshire Education Authority, found evidence of significant gains in the cognitive abilities test for both boys and girls who had taken part in the intervention.

The intervention consisted of weekly sessions over 16 months during which pupils aged 10 and 11 engaged in collaborative enquiry based on interactive dialogue. The lessons were based on the Philosophy for Children (P4C ) programme.

A stimulus such as a story or picture is shared and pupils are encouraged to think more deeply through a community approach to ‘enquiry’ in the classroom. This involves teachers developing open-ended Socratic questioning, challenging the children to think more independently and to engage in teacher-pupil and pupil-pupil reciprocal dialogue.

The CAT data revealed by the study, demonstrates that the intervention groups showed significantly larger gains in measured overall cognitive ability, including measured verbal cognitive ability, and also non-verbal and quantitative reasoning ability. The improved outcomes were largely irrespective of school, class and pupil gender, and showed the biggest effect size for pupils in the middle quartiles of pre-test ability.

In a report in School Psychology International (vol 27, no 5) the authors identify evidence from the study to indicate that classroom behaviour improved and that the pupils’ self-esteem and confidence rose. Pupils’ participation in classroom discussion increased and they tended to provide more rational underpinning for their opinions. Pupils also become more aware of their own feelings and those of others.

In a BBC report Paul Cleghorn, the headteacher who has led the initiative over six years stated that ‘The critical thing about it is that it allows the youngster to move to a level where informed choice can be made.’ This suggests real potential for approaches such as this in the citizenship agenda.

Topping and Trickey’s study found that implementation costs for the intervention were very modest, indicating that the approach could be both replicated and sustained across multiple school communities.

Topping, KJ, and Trickey, S (2007) ‘Collaborative Philosophical Enquiry for School Children: Cognitive Effects at 10-12 Years. British Journal of Educational Psychology (in press).

For further information see: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/6330631.stm and www.sapere.net