Two teachers involved in a project to develop an enquiry-based curriculum in their school share their thoughts about the process. Victoria Bonner and Kerry Lane are both English teachers at Bedlingtonshire Community High School in Northumberland

In issue 16 of Learning and Teaching Update, Anna Reid wrote about her early experiences as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) associate, working on a research project in Bedlingtonshire Community High School in Northumberland. The project was designed to create an assessment framework for enquiry skills for Key Stage 3 pupils. In this article, we outline how the process affected us and our practice and how it benefited our students.

January–Easter 2008
Victoria: When Anna first arrived in school and started working with us on the two-year project, I have to admit that I felt very apprehensive but also excited at the prospect of improving teaching and learning. I did not really know what enquiry was and it was difficult to begin to develop my work with my classes until I had some basic understanding.

Kerry: I was more than a little unclear about the nature and content of the project at first because it was so different to anything we had done before. I found myself asking questions like, ‘What exactly is enquiry?’, ‘Is it not just common sense?’, ‘How can an assessment framework be made?’ and ‘What will it really achieve?’

After an initial period of action research in the classroom, backed up by reading, we began to work with ‘enquiry tools’ in lessons. This included producing a booklet, a toolkit for enquiry, giving our students access to strategies like the 8Qs, fortune lines, the inference square and concept maps. I was aware that I was working well outside my comfort zone but really began to enjoy what we were doing. Positive feedback from the students in my class gave me a further boost, because they could see the point of it too.

Easter–June 2008
Victoria: The period from Easter to June was more focused on the concept of enquiry. Work during short action-research cycles using a ‘mantle of the expert’ approach (see the box below) with one Year 8 class allowed me to develop a knowledge and understanding of what enquiry meant. In addition, there were weekly meetings with the other teachers who were involved in the project. The meetings only lasted 15–20 minutes but were enough to have a team ‘health check’ as well as share what we were doing and support each other. I was really enjoying working with colleagues from other curriculum areas, and sharing ideas.

Mantle of the expert

‘Mantle of the expert’ was the name given by Dorothy Heathcote to her approach to education.
This approach is grounded in the principle that young people learn best when their relationship to learning and teaching is more like that of experts, rather than that which most pupils have today in schools.

When Victoria used the mantle-of-the-expert approach, she created conditions in her classroom where her students could learn as people do in their everyday lives – from and with others in an activity which draws on and extends existing expertise. For example, by having to plan and produce an informative and persuasive leaflet for young people aged 11–14, Victoria’s students took on a ‘mantle’ of expertise by adopting the viewpoint of an older experienced adult who already has expertise and who is working to acquire more expertise because of their project brief.

By taking on a mantle of expertise it meant that Victoria’s students ‘framed’ their relationships with other people and their English lessons quite differently from the way they would if they were working from the usual viewpoint of the pupil.

Kerry: For me, the point of the project was becoming clearer. I could feel that I was beginning to realise the importance of developing our pupils’ ability to enquire independently: it is a lifelong skill that they need. Also, it hopefully makes learning and/or school interesting for them. For example, it was clear to me that, before working on the KTP project, I used to be ‘in charge’ for most of a lesson. I would tend to stand in front of a class and direct the learning by asking questions in order to facilitate understanding of a text we were studying. By opening up the learning and asking my Year 8 pupils to teach each other a chapter of the book we were studying, not only were they required to demonstrate and transfer their subject knowledge and understanding to their peers, they also had to plan and apply appropriate tasks using their enquiry toolkit for their peers to complete.

This work was, in turn, monitored by the students leading the learning, who gave appropriate feedback. Following a lesson debrief with Anna, I began to wonder about the impact of this way of learning. Will these students expect a similar approach from colleagues in my department? Will colleagues accept my approach and be part of developing it?

June–July 2008
During this period, my Year 8 class were really involved in an enquiry project where they planned, taught and reviewed several lessons in groups. I really enjoyed it and was extremely impressed by the students’ maturity. I have already decided to do more of this kind of thing with all of my classes next year.

Victoria: I have developed a deeper and clearer understanding of the concept of enquiry and have been able to apply it more effectively in my teaching through the ‘mantle of the expert’. We have also been able to create links with staff at both the Robinson Library at Newcastle University and within Northumberland County Council.

All of the work I have done this term with my Year 8 class was based on the following brief:

  • In groups of no more than four people, you must decide on a name, agree on team roles and produce a project plan for the next eight lessons.
  • You must research and design a leaflet aimed at persuading a group of students aged 11-14 about a topic that you as a group decide is important. You must plan your time to take account of a study visit to Newcastle University library.
  • You must also prepare and give a 15-minute interactive presentation on your research findings.

During the final stages of their preparation, students were told that their work would be viewed by a panel of judges and that the group that was most impressive would make a presentation to representatives from Northumberland County Council. The winning team went up to County Hall in Northumberland just before the summer holidays.

Victoria: As part of my learning journal, I have written that I have really enjoyed the Knowledge Transfer Partnership  this year and the impact it has had on my teaching and the pupils’ learning. The pupils have responded extremely positively.

Kerry: I feel enthusiastic about the project as a whole, not just about what I can do in my own lessons. I hope to continue being part of the project to see it continue to change/develop/improve my teaching.

In addition to the work they have carried out with their Year 8 class, Kerry and Victoria were also successful in leading an afternoon of enquiry for Year 7 students at the end of the summer term. This time they teamed up with Kristian Grundy, an art teacher at Bedlington, inviting students to complete an orienteering exercise around school in order to collect pieces of a jigsaw, which, when correctly assembled, would show a photograph of the three teachers reacting to a stimulus. The enquiry-based task involved students recreating, through careful questioning, what it was they thought was causing such a reaction. You have to believe us when we say that the recorded results speak for themselves.

In terms of developing the project further, the team of seven initial teachers has now grown to 15, from a range of curriculum areas including English, humanities, maths, languages, science, technology and ICT. We have recently completed a weekend residential course designed and delivered by David Leat and Rachel Lofthouse at Newcastle University in order to stimulate thinking about how we might establish an assessment framework for our enquiry-based work. We will be hosting a workshop at the forthcoming Learning and Teaching Conference on 11 November 2008 in London.

Victoria Bonner and Kerry Lane both teach English at Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland