In this e-bulletin, Anne de A’Echevarria looks at how to help pupils explore what enquiry looks like in different subject areas across the curriculum

This e-bulletin concludes our in-depth focus on developing ‘independent enquirers’ – the first of the six areas of the QCA’s Personal, Learning and Thinking Skills framework. The thinking tools and strategies shared in recent issues have all related to the different stages of a generic model of enquiry. (See the Enquiry Wheel). This issue explores the value of guiding students into a deeper exploration of a particular subject’s ‘way of knowing’ – that is, its way of creating new knowledge and understanding in the world, whether this be through a model of enquiry, a cycle of investigation or a model of the creative process.

A different conception of knowledge
There is now an intense focus on how schools can develop the kinds of educational experience appropriate for young people growing up in the 21st century. Many schools are developing curriculum models where personal, learning and thinking skills, rather than subject knowledge, are the driving force – renewing focus on the processes by which children can be enabled and supported to learn rather than on the content to be learned. While many teachers have welcomed this change in emphasis, others have expressed concern that the drive to develop integrated, skills-based curricula may diminish the value of subjects and subject ‘know-how’.

To cite an extreme example, a class of year nines that I met recently had clearly relished their thematic, enquiry-based KS3 curriculum, but also expressed some confusion over the difference between geography, history and RE when confronted with their GCSE options. ‘What’s geography again?’ was a common question. In another example, a highly successful school leader shared her vision with delegates at a recent conference that one day ‘we will get rid of subject teaching altogether.’

Perhaps views and approaches such as these have come about in reaction to a National Curriculum and testing regime that has seemed to promote a ‘banking’ view of knowledge in which knowledge is ‘deposited’ in students’ minds. Confronting students repeatedly with the products of other people’s thinking, other people’s enquiries has led to high levels of disengagement and passivity. Even with high quality teaching, the extent to which ‘school knowledge’ is felt to be meaningful or useful to even the most academically gifted is an open question. Much of this knowledge never gets used and, if it is not meaningfully connected with students’ experiences, is quickly forgotten.

Rather than sidelining ‘subjects’ and ‘subject knowledge’, however, perhaps what we need to share with our students is a different conception of knowledge. Far from being static and stored in libraries and databases, knowledge is something that is actively worked on, fluid and subject to change. In a rapidly changing world students do not simply need to ‘acquire’ a body of knowledge, nor do they simply need to learn how to ‘find the knowledge’ when they need it. Instead they need to be adept in understanding how knowledge is formed within a particular discipline, how it changes and how they themselves may play a role in shaping, changing and working with such knowledge.

Rather than sidelining subjects, this dynamic conception of knowledge sees the different disciplines as crucial resources when viewed as ‘systems of thinking’ and ‘systems for thinking’.

Systems of thinking
Different subjects have different ‘ways of knowing’, that is, ways of creating valid knowledge and understanding in the world. Enquiry pedagogy should be designed to help students uncover how a particular discipline generates that knowledge and understanding – to help students learn to think like historians, mathematicians, scientists or artists. Scientific content is a manifestation of scientific thinking, historical content is the manifestation of historical thinking, works of art are the manifestation of creative thinking. Students are disempowered if, in the main, they are required to internalise the products of other people’s thinking, other people’s questioning, other people’s enquiries.

To engage with how different disciplines generate new knowledge and understanding is to develop a deep understanding of what different subjects have in common, but also how they are distinctive. A subject’s ‘system of thinking’ contains a subject’s key concepts. To explore these concepts, and how they are interrelated, is to uncover what a subject is ‘really’ all about. For each one, students can be challenged to develop a visible and explicit ‘big picture’ that can guide their future enquiry work within a particular subject, and also inform any inter-disciplinary work.

Different subjects’ ways of knowing is a useful activity to run with staff groups, as part of the process of exploring what enquiry-based learning might look like in different subject areas. Challenge colleagues to come up with a diagram or model that illustrates their particular subject’s ‘way of knowing’ i.e. its way of creating valid knowledge and understanding in the world, whether this be through a model of enquiry, a cycle of investigation or a model of the creative process.

Rather than serve up a teacher-designed enquiry model ‘ready-made’ to students, it would be far better for each subject department to run the above activity with their students, in a student-friendly form, in order to help them discover a subject’s ‘system of thinking’ for themselves. This could be done in the following ways:

1) Prepare a small-scale enquiry or investigation activity for your students (humanities subjects, maths and science) or a creative challenge (creative arts subjects, D&T and English). Whether this is highly structured or more open, will depend upon the age and experience of your students.

2) Students work in small, mixed-ability groups to complete the challenge.

3) Following the episode of enquiry, debrief the students on the stages that they went through to complete the challenge. They could capture their ideas in diagrammatic form as in the following example from year 10 D&T students: Reflecting on what it means to ‘think like a designer’ – a year 10 model of the creative process

Questions to guide this process might include:

How did you go about your investigation/enquiry?or How did you go about creating this piece of work? What did you do first…and then…?What were the steps that you went through to complete the challenge?What part of the process did you find the most demanding? How did you overcome the problem? What part did you spend the longest on…or keep returning to?What would you do differently next time if you had to do a similar task?

What steps would you advise other students to take?

For students who would benefit from a more scaffolded approach, you could also provide them with a set of cards showing several possible stages of an enquiry or investigation process, or different possible elements of a design (or other creative) process. Ask your students to sort and sequence the cards in order to reflect on and demonstrate the stages that they went through. Encourage them, also, to be critical of the cards – would they change any? Or add any new ones? You might also like to leave out an important step or include some blank cards to give your students the chance to introduce ideas of their own.

4) In helping students to talk about and record the process that they went through, you are beginning to make your subject’s ‘way of knowing’ visible and explicit. Keep a visual record of your students’ thinking on the classroom wall, refer back to this and encourage your students to use and refine their model over time, as they engage in future episodes of enquiry or creativity. If necessary, share with them a model of your own as a point of comparison, but only once your students have had the opportunity to devise, work with and refine a model of their own.

Systems for thinking
The epistemologies of different subjects (their systems of thinking or ‘way of knowing’) provide an excellent vehicle for developing thinking and learning skills. As the following examples show, PLTS can be mapped onto these different epistemological frameworks, along with appropriate ‘thinking tools’ to support their development. A generic version of this idea – the Enquiry Wheel – was shared previously. Below, some subject-specific examples are shared.

Again it should be stressed that the value of the above process is in helping students to develop their own understanding of a particular subject’s ‘system of thinking’. The examples shared in Systems for thinking: ‘BE a designer’ and ‘BE a businessman or woman’ were created using student generated models that were developed, worked with and refined over a period of months.

Enquiry pedagogy should operate both within and across subject boundaries. Many questions and problems require an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, a student initiated enquiry into ‘how school dinners can be improved’ would benefit from ideas and concepts from a range of subjects, including science, business studies, geography and history. In communicating their research, students may also draw upon skills acquired through exploring the nature of the creative process in D&T, English or media studies.

Students who have genuinely developed the skills of independent enquiry will be able to choose their enquiry focus and their enquiry method independently. In particular, when engaged in a thematic cross-curricular or interdisciplinary enquiry, they will be able to decide for themselves how they might approach a particular issue, asking questions such as: ‘What kind of a problem is this?’ and, therefore, ‘Which subject’s (or subjects’) system of thinking will I draw on?’

Different curriculum subjects provide distinctive perspectives and approaches to understanding the world, and students will not be able to ask and answer questions such as these unless the ‘way of knowing’ of different subject disciplines has been explored and made clear.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in November 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.