This Learning and Thinking Skills provides suggestions of how to introduce the idea of enquiry to young learners using practical ideas and classroom resources, as the first in our series taking an in-depth focus on developing ‘independent enquirers’ – the first of the six skill areas of the PLTS frameworkpdf-5980889

Model of progression.pdfpdf-5980889 Inference square template.pdfdoc-3206566 Inference square.jpg

Independent enquiry involves the ability to use and combine the entire spectrum of thinking skills from information processing to reasoning, from creativity to evaluation.  Take a look at the QCA’s definition for example. The framework describes an ‘independent enquirer’ as a person who can:

  • identify questions to answer and problems to resolve
  • plan and carry out research, appreciating the consequences of decisions
  • explore issues, events or problems from different perspectives
  • analyse and evaluate information, judging its relevance and value
  • consider the influence of circumstances, beliefs and feelings on decisions and events
  • support conclusions, using reasoned arguments and evidence.

Ideally, as discussed in our first issue, staff will work together, within and across departments, to develop their own understanding of the skills involved in independent enquiry. Whatever the language used, however, their criteria will likely draw on all six areas of the framework, for as well as thinking skills, enquiry demands a great deal in the way of sustained effort, reflection on process, self management and often team work. No wonder then, that many of our students find it a considerable challenge. 

Enquiry: structured, supported or open?

The aim of enquiry-based learning is for students to progressively take full responsibility for the content, processes and outcomes of their enquiries. Many students, however, need to be protected into that change – a novice enquirer will flounder if an enquiry is too ‘open’, lacking a clearly explained structure that will support their thinking and make the enquiry process explicit. At the same time, a tightly structured enquiry risks being too ‘closed’ if the topic, questions, data, and method have all been predetermined. The trick is to provide the kind of support that does not rob students of a sense of ownership and excitement.

By way of example, take a look at the model of progression that shows students becoming increasingly independent in their enquiry work. The diagram begins with activities and tasks structured by teachers and proceeds through a stage of negotiation in which students develop increasing confidence and begin to take more responsibility for deciding a focus, mapping out the process they will follow, and choosing relevant tools and resources. The final stage is one of open enquiry in which students take full responsibility for defining, planning and completing the enquiry. The diagram provides a guide to the sorts of activities likely to support students’ capacity for undertaking enquiry, and an indication of the types of skills and dispositions they might demonstrate. 

Introducing enquiry

Below are two specific classroom activities relevant for students who would benefit from structured enquiry – the first stage of the progression model. Both involve thinking tools specially designed to help students to an understanding of what an enquiry is, how it can be structured and how they can generate questions to guide enquiries of their own. Further practical activities and resources – for both novice and more independent enquirers – will be shared in future issues.

Thinking tool 1: Mystery

A ‘mystery’ is a problem solving activity based round a given central question that is open to more than one reasonable answer. The information or ‘clues’ needed to answer the question are presented on separate slips of paper that your students will analyse, sort, sequence and link.

Mysteries are a good introduction to enquiry because they:

  • provide your students with an enquiry experience that fits neatly into one lesson
  • provide you with the opportunity to make enquiry structures and skills explicit and memorable
  • motivate – the narrative thread that runs through a mystery will successfully engage your students and they will be eager to find out more about the characters at the centre of the action and events. 

Mystery: instructions for making
1.    Identify a theme in your topic that will lend itself to enquiry or which would benefit by being ‘problematised’ and ‘personalised‘ in a narrative. For example a science project on energy might lend itself to a mystery, ‘Why did Mr and Mrs Green sell their car?’

2.    Make a set of 15-25 slips that provide the necessary information.

Continuing with the Greens’ car sale example, a set of slips might include:

  • 6-7 background or context clues (e.g. Mrs Green’s driving licence/wage slips/ pension plan/date/method for measuring CO2 emissions)
  • 4-5 actions or causes of change (e.g. doctors report on Mrs Green’s heart, CO2 emissions report, visit of Greenpeace activist)
  • 4-5 reactions or effects of change (e.g. application to join the local golf club, email regarding sale of house, car sale advert)
  • 2-4 red herrings to confuse. They are relevant to the theme but not to the enquiry question (e.g. formula for combustion, nuclear energy facts)
  • 1-3 pieces of irrelevant information (e.g. Mr Green’s favourite food)

Mystery: instructions for teaching1.    Organise your students into groups of four and give them the key ‘mystery’ question.2.    Show them the information slips and explain that their task is to solve the mystery by providing a full answer to the question. Encourage them to think of a strategy for doing this.3.    Hand out the information slips and allow the students to get on with it. Some will sequence the slips into a story, others may group together those that relate to each character.4.    Hear the conclusions as well as the different strategies that students have used. 5.    If appropriate, students could then be asked to classify the information in a variety of different ways, e.g. into sets of background, long-term, short-term and trigger causes.

6.    Other possibilities could involve asking students to prioritise the reasons they have found or linking the evidence in a Concept Map.

Mystery: teaching tips
Introduce the mystery tool by asking, ‘Who in real life solves mysteries?’ Having established that this is typically the work of detectives, you can ask, ‘How do they do this?’ and draw out from your students suggestions about the enquiry process.

Vary the level of difficulty by changing the amount, complexity and literacy demands of the information, by introducing all the slips at once, or distributing them in stages.

Allow room between your pieces of information for ambiguity and inference. Enquiry often throws up facts that can appear unrelated until new evidence provides the link and the ‘Ahh…now it makes sense!’ moment.

Allow questions to clarify meanings and terminology on the slips.

Mystery: talking about thinking
Words that might help in the course of the activity and in the plenary are:

enquire       infer         plan      link/connect      probable      sequence      refine      certain
analyse        hypothesise        conclude        evidence         possible       predict          data   

Plenary questions might include:

  • How did you solve the mystery?
  • Is that a full answer; is there anything left unexplained?
  • What assumptions/inferences have you made: are they reasonable?
  • What have you learned that could help you to find answers to your own questions? What other information could be presented as a mystery?

The Standards site has a selection of subject specific mysteries and other thinking tools.

Thinking tool 2: Inference square

The inference square is a particularly effective strategy for stimulating curiosity and for encouraging students to take ownership of the enquiry process. It is also useful for students who tend to take information at face value, as it encourages them to:

  • ‘read between the lines’ – drawing inferences from what they see or read
  • take a more take critical approach to the information and evidence they are using during their enquiry, therefore increasing the validity their conclusions.

You can download an inference square template here.

Inference square: instructions
The inference square stimulates curiosity by starting with an intriguing source – usually a picture or photograph – that will act as a starting point for enquiry.

1.    Organise students into groups of four and distribute the source and the inference square template.
2.    Working outwards from the centre, students must respond to a series of questions:

What does this source/picture/information tell you for certain?What can you infer (work out) from this source?What does this source not tell you?

What questions do you have?

These questions draw students into an increasingly sophisticated analysis and evaluation of the source and spur them to create enquiry questions of their own.

Inference square: teaching tips
With a more complex picture, you could overlay a grid and ask each group of students to look in detail at a different section. This tends to encourage students to look longer and ‘see more’ within their particular section.

Make the skill of inference more explicit and visible to your students by asking them to draw lines between facts they have recorded in the central box and the related inferences. The example is taken from an inference square on Victorian towns.

Inference square: talking about thinking
Students will find the following words useful to help them talk about their thinking:

fact   opinion    certain    infer/inference    hypothesis    source    connection    
evidence     challenge    question    evaluate    useful      reliable    prove    inquire           

Encourage students to explain the inferences they have made with reference to the source, asking, ‘What made you think that?’, ‘What are the clues in the source that led you to that conclusion?’ 

Other talking points might include:

What’s the difference between giving an opinion and making an inference?What’s the difference between imagining and making an inference?

When might ‘reading between the lines’ be a useful skill to have in everyday life?

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.

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