The Enquiring Minds vision
This guide develops a vision for how school might be if more responsibility for deciding on the content of lessons was given to students. By endorsing this view we are not favouring a ‘de-schooling’ agenda. We are not suggesting just ‘letting the kids get on with it’; that seems to us unacceptable and unlikely to result in empowerment for young people. Instead, we propose a vision for meaningful learning that starts from a principle of making visible and valuing students’ own ideas, interests and concerns, and for meaningful teaching which expands and extends from there.
It is important to stress, however, that students’ experience and ideas are just the starting point. In order for learning to be truly educational, the experiences and ideas that students bring to the classroom need to be viewed from different angles and different perspectives; students need to be supported to be curious about, to challenge, and to enquire into their experiences, interests, assumptions and aspirations. As such, Enquiring Minds proposes a ‘problem-posing’ approach to teaching and learning1.
Starting off from students’ ideas, interests and concerns, then, means finding ways of supporting them to encounter knowledge that they did not possess before. This knowledge may come from diverse sources – from the National Curriculum, from students’ own experiences, from new sources outside the classroom. The object of the initiative is for students to engage with ‘really useful knowledge’ and to explore how knowledge is built, is changed, and develops over time. At the same time, starting from students’ ideas and experiences also means finding ways of supporting them to acquire skills that were previously undeveloped. Education, after all, is concerned with making available to learners the opportunity to master a range of systematic ways of understanding and engaging with the world that they cannot be presumed to encounter elsewhere.
The teacher’s role in Enquiring Minds, therefore, is to enable students to engage with the world around them in deeper and more complex ways.
As we have learned through the Enquiring Minds research programme, managing the transition from National Curriculum approaches to a more student-directed form of teaching and learning is far from easy. For both students and teachers it can prove more challenging than the usual classroom routines. Some students’ expectations about how schools operate — that teachers ‘deliver content’ and students ‘acquire content’ — are likely to have hardened, and encouraging them to be more proactive may take time. Additionally, it may be quite difficult for teachers to get to grips with their students’ out-of-school experiences and values, and to see how these might be used as fertile sources and resources for learning2. Students themselves may feel that their social and cultural lives are quite restricted, or may resist the idea of sharing aspects of their social lives and the informal knowledge they have developed there in a school setting.
Despite these challenges, Enquiring Minds seeks to take seriously the proposition that students’ interests, experiences and ideas are important ‘living curricula’ worth exploring in depth and which yield powerful and important activities for both students and teachers. Some of these activities may comprise engaging with students’ day-to-day pressures and anxieties; for others, it may mean paying new attention to apparently trivial concerns or to seemingly esoteric and exotic special interest groups, and for others still, engaging with topical affairs of concern to students, community or country. During the development of the project, we have seen students pursuing enquiry in areas as diverse as child soldiering, medicine, sex, fashion, new technology, animal welfare, and sports. This places new and exciting demands on teachers. On one level it means teachers responding to these interests by locating resources and asking questions, facilitating exchanges and enabling activities that can support students to develop greater understanding and clarity from their initial ideas and enthusiasm. On another level it means that teachers have to understand the ways in which knowledge is produced, work in ways that go beyond their own subject knowledge, and develop ways to engage with students’ lives and cultures.
At this point we want to stress that Enquiring Minds is not designed specifically for extremely able students, nor particularly for those at risk of disengaging from the curriculum altogether. We think it should be an entitlement for all students. After all, there is a wealth of evidence that how students receive the curriculum (whether they welcome, accommodate or reject it) is affected by their own cultural experiences. The notion that ‘one size fits all’ is increasingly questioned. There is a trend towards opening the school curriculum so that students’ out-of-school cultures are recognised as valid and worthy of consideration. There is already evidence that this is happening across the curriculum. For example:
- in science there have been moves towards recognising students’ own scientific understanding and attempts to recognise popular understandings of science
- in English there is a long-standing concern to teach texts that are based on students’ own cultural experiences
- in geography there is a growing recognition that children and young people have their own ‘personal geographies’ and experiences of places and environments
- in history there is a growing interest in using local and family histories, as well as increased attention to social and cultural history.
In an age of globalisation, mass migration, rapid technological shifts and climate change, the question of what is to be taught and studied in schools is arguably the most important facing educators. If ‘knowledge is power’ then, in a knowledge economy, the question of what knowledge is and who gets access to it is of fundamental importance3. These questions are at the heart of Enquiring Minds as it seeks to contribute to this ongoing conversation. It seeks to create spaces where children have the chance to enquire as a means of tackling issues, ideas and concerns, and developing knowledge that is meaningful to them, their communities and the wider world.