A compelling project of personal significance for students can provide fertile ground for learning. Kayte Judge describes a project that took place across two different settings

Managing independent enquiry is a delicate art. It can require a ‘letting go’ of learning that can be distinctly uncomfortable for teachers and for the student it requires a level of responsibility that can be variously daunting or empowering. Through experience of supporting independent enquiry in both mainstream education and home education it seems that there are some lessons that can be shared.

The first year of our project spanned a mainstream setting, Biddenham International Upper School, Bedford and PLACE, a parent-led and community education scheme connected to the school. We took 80 mainstream and 20 PLACE students through an independent enquiry project which resulted, for many, in the AQA Project Qualification (see box). For the mainstream students, controversially for some, the independent project replaced their Year 9 English curriculum. This year I am working with a small group of 12 PLACE students to undertake a similar project and am refining some of the techniques used in the earlier project. It is for this reason that this case study shall draw on experiences in both settings.

The AQA Project Qualification
Students are required to develop an independently managed project which results in a product that could be a written report or essay, a production or event, or an artefact such as a piece of art, built furniture, or website, alongside a written report. The focus is on the process of independent learning, with emphasis on one-to-one support and independent enquiry rather than class-based group teaching. The taught element focuses on skills such as time-management, creative and critical thinking, research and report writing, discernment and decision-making, accessing help, giving and receiving feedback and staying safe. The qualification requires a public presentation of work at the end.

The settings
Biddenham International Upper School serves 1,100 students from a catchment area in the bottom 10% on deprivation indices in the UK and is the most socially and ethnically diverse school in Bedfordshire. PLACE is a hybrid of home education and school education. The only scheme of its kind in the country, it was developed through the partnership of a home education group and Biddenham School and has developed into a novel educational model. Parents remain the primary educators of their children while the children come together to learn, commissioning specialist tutors or teachers to cover subject areas or distinct projects. It is not subject to the same restrictions as the mainstream – timetabling, locations, delivery methods, geographical location are all flexible, allowing experimentation with pedagogical design that would be difficult for mainstream. We felt that PLACE could provide models of independent enquiry for the mainstream students as it is their modus operandi.

The goal of our project was to move from a ‘have to’ to a ‘want to’ curriculum. At the heart of our project was an attempt to enable children to become masters of their own learning. We drew on prior knowledge alongside the Enquiring Minds resource developed by Futurelab and the nine-step enquiry model as developed by Vital Partnerships. Our aim was to develop a curriculum that enabled the generation and realisation of projects of personal significance to the learner alongside the skills required to undertake independent learning.

Projects of personal significance
The nine-step enquiry model begins with an object of significance to the learner, and this is how we began. Learners were asked to bring an object with them to the initial session. A series of activities were undertaken designed to broaden and deepen the consideration of the object through focusing and refocusing on the object through different lenses.

These included the description of the physical aspects of the object, with learners being encouraged to draw, feel and measure it before exploring its personal significance, describing and sharing why it was important to them.

Prompt questions such as ‘What came before?’ ‘Who owned it first?’ ‘What would a Martian think of it?’, ‘… a caveman?’, ‘… a Victorian?’ ‘How many uses does it have?’ encouraged different viewpoints to be considered. This divergent thinking was captured using mind-maps and used to generate possible ideas for project topics.

The object was a rich place to start. It was a tool that served to uncover the values and core interests of the learner. Beyond this initial stage work was done to help the students decide which topic to pursue. In our first year this was achieved through Dragons Den type conversations while the current group used mapping tools from exploratree.com. The link between the object and the final choice of project can be direct or tentative. A few examples may illustrate this better: a photograph of a group of friends at an end of year party resulted in a film about a journey; a camera resulted in a photographic wild-life project; a vintage handbag resulted in a project on fashion through the ages. The object, if truly important to the student, will represent something close to them. It functions as a symbol for the values and interests of the student.

Preparation for independent study
The taught element, beyond idea generation and initial selection of the project question, was focused on developing project skills such as time management, research, report writing, presentation skills and giving and receiving feedback. We also included in-depth engagement with the marking criteria and production log paperwork required by the qualification. These skills were vital building blocks in supporting independent enquiry projects. However, there is another reason for focusing the taught element on generic skills: In a group of students who are studying areas as diverse as Olympic dinghy sailing, figure skating and furniture building there soon becomes scarce common ground to teach to. The expertise required to help the learner was often outside of the classroom. Much of the learning required facilitation rather than subject knowledge, which required adjustments on behalf of the teacher and the learner.

Supporting independent learning
Independent learning requires different approaches at different times. The taught element of the project took the familiar form of interactive didactic teaching to groups, sometimes very large groups, of children. Support between these taught sessions looked different in the two settings. Our PLACE students disappeared. They made progress towards their projects at home and were able to contact their supervisor through an online Googlegroup set up to serve the learners, or via bookable one-to-one slots dotted throughout the term. The mainstream students were more visible, using their timetabled English classes to work on their projects and to talk to their teacher about their projects, although starkly different levels of engagement were reported. This downtime was unnerving; the learning that was taking place went on under the radar and we could not be sure if it was happening at all. So we put stakes in the ground; all students had to attend the collaborative events, all had to undertake a learning profile and attend a mentoring conversation, to present their embryonic ideas to their peers and to hand in a draft copy of their project in anticipation of their presentation to their supervisor, the public and their peers.

These ‘non-negotiables’ proved invaluable. In the shade of an impending deadline students became visibly engaged in their own projects and began to access the information that was supplied to them on day one; the marking scheme, the qualification requirements, bibliography and research help-sheets, Survey Monkey, and the expertise of others.

We learned that independent enquirers often need resources outside of the classroom – computers primarily, but also other people. During the evaluation of the project many mainstream students reported that they had undertaken most of their work at home in the evenings and weekends and were accessing other adults to help them, with neighbours and aunties featuring high on the list. This use of an extended learning network was vital. We worked with the students to identify people who could help them with their project and provided guidance on how to engage with them. We also supplemented the project with mentors recruited from the sixth form, parents and public, providing the students with key opportunities to discuss and reflect on themselves as learners.

The final public display of learning was facilitated through a festival of learning that took place at the school. Logistically tricky, it provided a clear and public showcase of the learning that had taken place. Students decorated their own stalls showcasing their projects and answering questions from parents and allocated supervisors, while others chose to undertake a PowerPoint presentation and question and answer session to an audience. This experience provided a subtle but significant lesson for the young people themselves: they had a responsibility to bring the resources they needed and there was very little that could be done to ‘save’ those who had not thought through or requested the correct equipment. Importantly, learners could clearly see how their work compared to others. In the final evaluation this ‘freedom to fail’ had a positive impact on the students.

Lessons learned
This type of learning requires adjustments in both the learner and the teacher. Other adults are required, those with expert knowledge in the project area and those who may have neither teaching nor topic expertise but simply have the capacity to hold learning conversations with the students. The logistics of one-to-one conversations in a large group can be difficult for one teacher. We found parents, public and older students all willing and able to take on this role.

The experience of facilitating independent enquiry can be an uncomfortable one for the seasoned teacher. You must ‘let go’ long enough for the learner to recognise their own responsibility and power in learning and yet you must redouble efforts to furnish learners with the key skills needed and knowledge of the qualification requirements. You must let others into your classrooms, and sometimes, let your learners out. The public presentations provided ample motivation to engage most students, with ‘mini’ presentations along the way proving useful. A balance must be struck between freedom to fail and learn, with clear ‘non-negotiable’ deadlines and requirements. Furnishing the learner with some symbolic tools such as a reflective journal, dedicated time, privileged access to IT and off-site provision can help to indicate that this is a different kind of learning that is valued within the setting.

On balance we found that a compelling project of personal significance supported in a variety of ways by a range of adults, plus a public and authentic presentation of work, led students to deliver excellent projects under their own steam. It is fertile ground for learning.

Kayte Judge is a creative facilitator

Project website