In this article we hear from a variety of people who were involved in the Learning Futures independent enquiry project described in issue 42 through edited excerpts from the Learning Futures blog.

These first-hand accounts raise many questions about the nature of enquiry teaching: how it feels for teachers to let go; how to assess what is being learned; how to support students in their independent learning and how it feels for students when they are asked to work in this way. But what they provide evidence of is the varied, and overwhelmingly positive, learning experience of all those who participated in the projects: teachers, parents, mentors, consultants and students alike.

The Learning Futures project
The ‘Facilitating independent enquiry’ case study in issue 42 considered the experience of leading independent learning projects across both the mainstream setting of Biddenham International Upper School and the Parent Led and Community Education (PLACE) scheme in Bedford. Students used an object of their choice as the starting point for a project that resulted in research, a written report, the development of an artefact, a public presentation of work and, for many, a qualification. This article contains blog entries from participants in the project.

Responsibility versus independenceDavid Bailey, head of school and Kayte Judge, independent consultant, November 2010
The last few weeks have seen us in preparation for launch of the Biddenham Project which goes live in early January. These events will see Year 9 students work alongside home-educated students in a dedicated off-campus sessions that will provide, we hope, the bedrock of skills needed for these students to become independent enquirers. We are asking that all students source and communicate with a ‘community expert’ in their chosen field of enquiry, a requirement that tests our rules of engagement with the world outside school. We are treading a fine line between the freedom of independent enquiry and our responsibility to our students. It seems that so much of the innovation we are trialling requires a ‘letting go’; letting go of control, of learning, of our positions as experts, and ultimately letting our students out of our classrooms. These are not easy things for us.

11 March 2010
Independent enquiry is, at times, invisible to us. The past few weeks have allowed the students to simply get on with their own individual projects, with access to their teacher in class time for the mainstream students, and the option of one-to-one slots for the home-educated students. With 96 projects under way that is a lot of hidden learning. Tomorrow the students will present their progress on their projects to their peers and supervisors. We are excited and hopeful that we will see a lot of interesting work. We also know that, at what is the mid-point in their project, those who may not have made progress still have time to catch up, should they want to.

We asked one mainstream class some questions, in preparation for tomorrow’s mid-point review. They were asked what they liked about working independently, and what they found challenging. Below are some of their responses.

  • ‘The thing I have enjoyed the most about working independently is that I have had to manage myself and the project… One of the things I have found challenging is relying on myself not others.’
  • ‘I enjoy working on my project because I know I will be motivated until the very end. The pressure has been challenging.’
  • ‘I have become more independent and I actually know what I am doing. If it goes wrong it is my fault, I don’t have anyone to rely on.’
  • ‘I have liked the fact that I am not limited to an initial concept of one idea. I like being in charge of what I do.’
  • ‘I have liked figuring things out on my own and finding my own information.’
  • ‘I prefer working independently. When I find it hard I’ll ask someone for help.’

So, invisible learning can be big learning too.

Engaging in interesting work
Kayte Judge, independent consultant, 25 March 2010

A parent emailed me to say her daughter wanted to withdraw from the project. She wasn’t finding her chosen topic engaging enough: ‘I appreciate this is disappointing news but although she will not finish the project she has learned a most important lesson from the experience. She now realises that she should engage herself in work that she finds interesting and wants to do for herself and not just because her friends are doing it.’

Disappointing? Not at all. What a lesson to learn! We will of course work with her to bring her back into the fold, should she want to come, and help her to recognise that this is exactly the kind of learning we hoped to engender.

Learning from different sources
Rachel Kershaw, head of English, 18 Jun 2010

Two key questions I feel I should ask myself as the Year 9s complete their projects: What have they learned and what have I learned? Step A: ask the students what they’ve learned. Their responses are encouraging: ‘Skills like planning, working at my own pace and confidence’; ‘How to manage my time effectively and the processes that make up researching’; ‘More confidence in my writing and, because of my topic, a greater sense of what is happening around the world’. So far, so good. Our initial thesis, as far as it went, was that by removing some of the weighty baggage of teacher-led learning and by allowing students genuine choice in what and how they studied, they might actually learn more, or more effectively.

Inevitably, there were some dissenting voices: ‘I think that we should be learning grammer [sic], adverbs, pronouns, long and short sentences’; ‘I have learned how to reference to a high standard. However, I learned this from my Mum.’

Maybe it’s because I’m an English teacher and prone to obsessing over the meaning of individual words, or just professionally neurotic, but it’s that last ‘however’ which bothers me. Here is a highly able student, whose project is one of the best we’ve looked at, who has acquired and developed all manner of skills along the way, who has just dismissed a whole, vital area of learning because it didn’t happen in school.

One of our hopes at the outset of this project is that students would grasp the opportunity to learn from a whole range of different sources and would understand learning as something which extends far beyond the classroom walls. Here is a student who has done just that and yet almost dismisses it as learning because the information wasn’t channelled through the appropriate medium: school. And yet, I’m left feeling that we’ve given it a really good shot: students, in a very short space of time, have produced work of a quality which is in many cases breathtaking and far exceeds the standard I would have typically expected from 13- and 14-year-olds. Moreover, they have developed, quite organically, impressive skills of self-management and displayed an intrinsic motivation which, as teachers, we so often lament to be lacking. And while I can take no credit for their achievements (beyond creating a fertile environment in which they were allowed to take real, genuine ownership of their work), I still feel a sense of professional pride when I read the feedback of one student: ‘The most positive aspect was being able to write about something I cared about and was interested in’. Don’t we wish we could give students that opportunity to feel like that every day?

What, to my mind, made this project a success was giving them a genuine freedom to take responsibility for their own work and to be the true beneficiaries of its success.

Developing my own ideas
Amy Jones, home-educated (PLACE) student, 22 Jun 2010

My biggest challenges in the project was my time-keeping; having the confidence to teach games to groups of disabled children; speak to people on the phone and to visit various places and talk face to face. Much of the project was similar to the way I have always learned at home, in that I could be independent, choose a topic and develop my own ideas. I really enjoyed the times spent with the pupils from the school, and discovering more about how I personally learn. The best bit for me was the actual presentation at the end where I was able to show what I had achieved and also see what all the others had done. Overall I felt it was a really worthwhile thing to do, and it helped me in so many ways.

Independence and self-motivation
Fi, Amy’s mother and PLACE liaison for the project, 22 June 2010

As a home educating parent I felt that the Learning Futures project was a great step forward in helping to create a more self-led, independent and challenging style of learning for both students at school and home educators. One of the reasons we took our children out of school was that we wanted them to see the whole of life as a ‘learning experience,’ and to be independent and self-motivated when it came to their education. I feel that this project certainly helped in fulfilling this.

As part of the Learning Futures project team I found it helpful and interesting exchanging ideas with those present and developing a deeper understanding of how the teachers worked and what their views on education and home education were. I believe the Learning Futures project was overall an experience which can only have helped the pupils and ourselves to understand better home education and school education and the ways in which we all learn.

One thing I found interesting was the fact that both sets of children developed friendships, and cooperated with each other despite their different ‘learning’ backgrounds. Perhaps the best part for me was the event at the end where they all celebrated their learning and presented their projects. It was wonderful to see so many young people both passionate and well informed about their topic, and perhaps more importantly having gained a greater understanding of the best ways in which they each individually learn. At the end of the project most of the students were far more confident about themselves than they seemed to be at the beginning. For my own children it was exciting to see them develop new skills, eg with the computer, organising themselves better and keeping to time limits, an increase in confidence and an ability to speak to anybody to get the information they needed.

Letting students fail in order to succeed
Steve Lambert, community mentor, 30 June 2010

Everybody has their own way of working and learning; making mistakes is part of the learning process. With a programme like Learning Futures, you need to be prepared to allow students to fail to help them succeed. This goes against all of your instincts and takes a conscious effort to achieve, but is the only way to help the students to help themselves.

The biggest challenge for me was not interfering and allowing people to develop and run with their ideas while providing the necessary support and encouragement. At the second mentoring session, the progress made by different students seemed fairly extreme and again the focus was encouragement, not interference. However, seeing the final projects at the open day, along with the enthusiasm and pride that many of the students displayed, made the whole experience a rewarding and very fulfilling one.

Read the blog in full

Kayte Judge is a creative facilitator