This issue places the idea of developing ‘independent enquirers’ within the broader context of ‘Learning to Learn’. As she concludes her series on enquiry for young learners, Anne de A’Echevarria offers a checklist of talking points for colleagues who are currently engaged with enquiry-based approaches

‘Learning to Learn’ through enquiry

Independent enquiry aims to help learners to progressively take full responsibility for the content, processes and outcomes of their enquiries. While it might be technically possible to engage students in enquiry work that has only the acquisition of new knowledge as its aim, this would certainly fail to tap into its full potential as a vehicle for exploring learning itself. It is through this wider concept of ‘Learning to Learn’, that the development of independent enquiry links to other aspects of the PLTS framework. Genuine enquiry demands a great deal in the way of sustained effort, reflection on process, creativity, self-management and often teamwork. Many of our students find it a considerable challenge. It therefore provides many opportunities for teachers to make the learning process itself the focus of classroom dialogue, and many opportunities for learners to uncover not only new subject-related knowledge, but also new understanding about learning and what it means to be a learner.

The Campaign for Learning is one organisation that has done much to promote the concept of ‘Learning to Learn’ nationally through its ‘Learning to Learn in Schools’ project. A few weeks ago, it published the State of the Nation Survey, 2008, a large-scale MORI survey of secondary students’ attitudes to learning across the country. First conducted in 1998, this updated survey, 10 years on, makes for interesting reading. In relation to equipping students with the lifelong learning skills that they will surely need for life in the 21st century, it certainly gives us an indication of how we are doing, what seems to be improving and where the biggest problems lie.

Encouragingly for those schools trying to implement enquiry-based approaches, 65% of today’s students see learning as their responsibility, not that of their school. There has also been a dramatic increase in the popularity of ‘learning through doing’ (56% now, compared with 35% in 1998), while the proportion preferring to ‘learn from a teacher’ has declined steadily from 29% to only 17% this year. While this may reflect the wider range of learning methods available now, feedback regarding what students say they actually do most often in school makes for more sobering reading: ‘Copying from the board or from a book’ (65%), and ‘Listening to a teacher talking for a long time’ (63%) – up from 52% and 33% respectively last year. What respondents term a ‘long time’ is clearly subjective, but the contrast with previous years is marked. Nationally, there certainly appears to be a significant gap between students’ preferences for autonomy, authentic hands-on activity and the opportunity to learn from and with peers, and their perception of what actually happens.

Why is there a gap between what we as a profession say should be happening in classrooms, and what is actually taking place? A shortage of planning time, curriculum time, confidence and resources could be one explanation, a conflict of beliefs and values may be another. It is likely that you already share the beliefs implicit in this series of e-bulletins, but many of your colleagues may not value the promotion of independent enquiry and the skills of lifelong learning to the same degree. Often pragmatism – the perceived need to teach to the test or the fear of a collapse in standards – takes priority. One of the ways we can encourage reflection on values and present an alternative view is through dialogue. The following questions have guided my own thinking, and may help you to stimulate discussion and reflection among colleagues in your own context. They also provide a summary of the key ideas that have been explored this term.

Developing Independent Enquirers – Some Talking Points

Developing a shared understanding with colleagues

  • What does it mean to ‘learn through enquiry’? What are the costs and benefits involved?
  • What personal qualities, learning and thinking skills do ‘enquirers’ have? How important are these?
  • What does a process of enquiry involve and what are the key stages?

Exploring enquiry with students

  • Why do so many learners assume that knowledge is a static, stable commodity stored in libraries and databases, already verified and agreed upon?
  • Is it a problem if students only (or mainly) learn about the products of other people’s thinking and enquiries at secondary school age?
  • If not through enquiry work, how would you also get across to learners a more dynamic understanding of knowledge – as something that is fluid and subject to change; something that is actively worked on?
  • How would you help learners to an understanding of what an enquiry is?
  • How would you help them to uncover the process of enquiry for themselves and so generate their own model of the stages involved in enquiry?

Creating a ‘need to know’

  • How would you help create a ‘need to know’ – the first prerequisite of any successful enquiry? In other words, how would you go about promoting emotional engagement with an enquiry topic?

Scaffolding the stages of enquiry

  • Who should be formulating the questions in school? How would you scaffold the process whereby learners generate questions to guide their own enquiries?
  • How would you help learners to process new information more effectively – sifting information for its relevance, then organising and connecting it so that it becomes both more manageable and more memorable?
  • How would you make the process of evaluation more visible and explicit to learners? How would you help learners become more aware of the criteria they are using in their everyday lives to evaluate all manner of things?
  • How would you guide students to decide what action they might take, or recommend others to take, as a result of their enquiry? How would you challenge pupils to explore what they think ‘effective decision-making’ means?
  • How would you help students to focus on and uncover the attitudes and values that inform both their own decision-making and that of others?
  • How would you avoid allowing thinking tools and frames to become just the ‘new worksheets’? How would you know when a learner no longer needed their enquiry work to be scaffolded in this way?

Subject-based enquiry

  • Do you empathise with the view that the current drive to develop integrated, skills-based curricula may diminish the value of subjects and subject ‘know-how’?
  • Do different subjects involve different ‘ways of knowing’ or enquiry models? Is it possible for all subjects to use the same generic model?
  • How would you go about exploring with learners what enquiry-based learning might look like in your subject area? How would you help learners to learn to think like a historian, mathematician, scientist, linguist, etc.

As learners begin to request and take responsibility for leading their own learning, explore their own lines of enquiry and, increasingly, begin to learn from peers and adults within the school community and beyond, the distinctions between teacher and learner may begin to blur. The development of enquiry-based learning may ultimately demand considerable agility from both teachers and students in terms of the different roles they may be required to play for each other and for themselves – whether teacher, expert, facilitator, learner, mentor or coach.

These roles are first learned in a social context before they are internalised as students develop the capacity to motivate and manage their own learning. Next term, this e-bulletin will therefore focus on the ‘Team Workers’ strand of the PLTS Framework, highlighting strategies that can help students learn with and from each other, more effectively.

E-bulletins in this series

This e-bulletin issue was first published in December 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.