After introducing enquiry, Anne de A’Echevarria helps students develop their own understanding of what enquiry is and how it might be structured using resources and practical activities, as a continuation of our in-depth focus on developing ‘independent enquirers’

If students are to become increasingly independent in, and empowered by, their enquiry work, you will need to make the way knowledge is constructed – the process of enquiry – the focus of classroom activity and dialogue.  This may be unfamiliar territory for some students, constrained as many have been by a National Curriculum and testing regime that has seemed to promote a ‘banking’ view of knowledge in which knowledge is ‘deposited’ in students’ minds.  Many have learned to passively consume what they are taught – the products of other people’s thinking, other people’s enquiries – and are happy to do so; others mark time and pass their exams.  Many more will struggle or resist, unable to make a connection with subject matter that is not meaningfully connected with their own experience, needing to explore how they might be able to use or apply it.

Genuine enquiry-based learning will help to rekindle motivation and engagement by offering students a rather different view of knowledge.  Out goes the idea of knowledge as a static, stable commodity stored in libraries and databases, already certain and agreed.  In comes a more dynamic conception of knowledge, as something shaped by human interests and contexts; something that is, therefore, fluid and subject to change.

Students who are genuinely developing the skills of independent enquiry will come to see knowledge as something that is actively worked on.  In their enquiries, an emphasis on process helps them to explore how knowledge is formed and developed, in what contexts and situations it is used and produced, and how it changes.  They come to see themselves as active agents who may play a role in shaping, changing and working with such knowledge.

The Enquiring Minds programme developed by Futurelab shares this philosophy, and places particular emphasis on engaging with the cultures of young people and using their lived experience as the spring board for pupil-designed enquiry. As the Enquiring Minds initiative puts it, ‘Quite simply, if knowledge is passed on without an examination of how it was constructed, by whom and for what purposes, then students are disempowered.’

Resources and practical ideas
Available for download is an Enquiry Wheel –  a generic enquiry model that both teachers and pupils have found useful when planning, running and reflecting upon their enquiries.

As well as the main stages of the enquiry process, this particular model also shows related ‘thinking tools’ to support each stage – practical, structured activities designed to make the skills involved ‘visible’ and explicit to students.  We will look at some of these in detail in future issues.  The model also maps statements from the QCA PLTS Framework onto the enquiry process, demonstrating the range of personal, learning and thinking skills involved in ‘independent enquiry.’ See the download for further ideas about how teachers and students might put the Enquiry Wheel to use.

It would not be a good idea, however, to begin enquiry work by serving up the Enquiry Wheel ‘ready made’ to students.  It would be far better, as shared in the last issue (see Progression Model download) to offer novice enquirers a series of structured activities that will help them uncover the processes of enquiry for themselves.  One example activity uses a set of Enquiry Reflection Cards that show several possible stages of an enquiry process.  Following an enquiry task, ask your students to sequence the cards in order to reflect on and demonstrate the stages that they went through.

  • Which stage did they find most demanding?
  • What qualities and skills did they need when things got tricky?
  • How did they overcome the problem?

Encourage them, also, to be critical of the cards – would they change any? Or add any new ones of their own?  (There is deliberately no card covering ‘evaluation’, for example, giving your students the chance to introduce, for themselves, the important idea of questioning sources and critiquing your own ideas.)  In drawing up their own set of cards, students are beginning to devise their own enquiry model.  Encourage them to use and refine it over time, before sharing with them, if necessary, a model of your own.

Another useful way of helping pupils to focus on the process of enquiry is to use Edward de Bono’s ‘6 Thinking Hats’.  Originally designed to help teams in the business world think together more effectively when engaged in problem solving and decision making, the 6 Thinking Hats strategy has now been widely adopted in schools.  The approach separates thinking into six clear functions or roles, with each thinking role identified with a coloured symbolic ‘thinking hat.’ These are briefly summarized in the 6 Thinking Hats download.  In the context of group problem solving, you can easily focus or redirect thoughts, the conversation, or the meeting, by mentally wearing and switching ‘hats’.

The download also demonstrates how the 6 Thinking Hats can be used to help students focus on the kind of thinking involved at different stages of an enquiry.  In the example included, a group of Year 8 students has used the hats to help formulate a series of questions that they then used to guide their enquiry.  It would, of course, be possible to sequence the hats in other ways, and to ask other, more probing questions – perhaps concerning the relevance and value of the information used or the validity of the conclusions reached.  This is a student-generated enquiry process, however, and the point of the exercise was for students to use the Hats to represent where their thinking had got to about the process of enquiry, and about how new knowledge and understanding is created.  This was then revisited and refined over time.

The resources shared here, and in the previous issue, have aimed to demonstrate the sort of activities and tasks that teachers might use to introduce the idea of enquiry to young learners.  They are of particular relevance for students who would benefit from ‘structured’ enquiry – the first stage of the enquiry progression model shared in issue no. 3.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in September 2008

About the author: Anne de A’Echevarria is the author of the award winning ‘Thinking Through School’. Previously a teacher, PGCE tutor and head of ‘Thinking for Learning’, a research and development team partnered with Newcastle University, she now works as a freelance education consultant and writer.