Critical thinking an eye-opener for pupils

Simons Town School principal Jean Human and volunteer retired teacher, Polly Saul with Grade 10 pupils. From left are, Garth Drude, Buhle Gcanci, Phinda Nqxanqx, Sisonke Del Fava, Ashley Marefu, Sibusiso Ndima, Siphosethu Bistol and Mandy Beans with Mihlali Mapitiza in the back.

A retired philosophy teacher is teaching Simon’s Town School pupils how to think and not what to think.

What started out as experimental philosophy classes earlier this year has now become a favourite subject for 30 pupils.

Polly Saul, originally from the UK, is a volunteer at the school and said the classes had made such a difference that members of staff and the principal had unanimously agreed to include it as part of English classes, once a week.

Ms Saul started out as a PE teacher and worked her entire life in Tottenham in the borough of Haringey in London. After
working as a head of the department at a girls’ comprehensive school, she tried her hand at English at a boys’ comprehensive school before joining a behaviour support team that focused on disruptive pupils.

This is where she taught Philosophy for Children, or P4C.

It focuses on showing pupils how to think independently, reason effectively, communicate persuasively and explore their values.

In the past 13 years, she has taught at Ukhanyo Primary
School in Masiphumelele, Masiphumelele High School, False Bay College and Ocean View School for Learners With Disabilities.

Simon’s Town School principal, Jean Human, said she had been delighted when Ms Saul had contacted her last year with the idea.

“I gave her an immediate go ahead. I have always been in favour of critical thinking and am convinced that children benefit immensely from these important skills,” she said.

Pupils were asked to join the class on a voluntary basis once a week and it has steadily grown in popularity.

On Monday, Ms Saul’s pupils presented an “introduction to philosophy” at the school assembly.

“I am so impressed that they initiated this to share it with the rest of the school,” she said.

During her classes, Ms Saul
discusses newspaper articles, quotes, phrases from books and theories. She encourages the pupils to debate ideas and think independently instead of following each other like “sheeple”.

The Echo met with eight Grade 10 pupils from Ms Saul’s class last Friday to hear what they thought about the lessons in critical thinking.

Mihlali Mapitiza said he struggled with English and the subject had improved his vocabulary and ability to communicate.

“We discuss quotes, newspaper articles and have one-on-one conversations which we don’t get to do in other classes,” he said.

Phinda Nqxanqx said the subject had improved her vocabulary and encouraged her to read more.

“Reading is not for boring people and, as Polly says, the limit of your language is the limit of your world.”

Sibusiso Ndima said he had had no idea what philosophy was when he had joined out of curiosity.

The subject had taught him to reason better and listen to and process questions.

Mandy Beans said she was more confident as the subject had helped her with the pronunciation of English words.

Garth Drude said the subject had made him look at some people in his community and realise that he did not want to end up like them.

Buhle Gcanci said the subject had improved his interpersonal skills and helped him reason better.

Sisonke del Fava said a Grade 9 book on philosophy had inspired him to join the class and he had been surprised at how interesting it was.

Ashley Marefu said the subject taught her to face her fears and because of it, she had become more outspoken.

Siphosethu Bistol said he now communicated better and had learnt to make eye contact during communication.

Ms Saul said teaching young people how to think and not what to think empowered them.

Critical thinking in schools was often overlooked and she was trying to change that.

“Surely there can be nothing more valuable than underprivileged and underachieving youngsters excited, challenged and awakened by their own power of independent thought,” she said. 

Western Cape Education Department spokeswoman,
Bronagh Hammond said: “We have been advocating critical thinking as an essential skill for pupils in the 21st century.”

However, she cautioned that introducing a new subject faced many hurdles, including getting approval from national government.

Extra activities at schools were approved at the discretion of the principal and the school governing body, she said.

*For more information about critical thinking/philosophy in schools, contact Ms Saul at or call 021 786 1727