Enquiring Minds in action

In this section we talk about what Enquiring Minds should look like ‘in action’. In it, we talk about how the ideas discussed so far may be translated into practical changes in classroom relationships, teaching approaches and use of resources. We also present the ‘enquiry cycle’ which can be used to structure these changes in practice.

Teaching Enquiring Minds

Enquiring Minds teaching is demanding teaching, going beyond the notion of ‘restricted’ professionalism (“my job is to teach my subject as well as I can”) to an expanded notion of professionalism (“my job is to contribute to a broader concept of the ‘public good’ and to understand the social and political context of my work as a teacher”)1.

Enquiring Minds is based on the idea of education for empowerment2. What we mean by this is that through Enquiring Minds students are able to understand the forces that shape their lives. Empowerment requires knowledge. So teachers who empower students ensure that they have access to knowledge: functional, cultural and, most importantly, critical knowledge. Quite simply, if knowledge is passed on without an examination of how it was constructed, by whom and for what purposes, then students are disempowered. Enquiring Minds classrooms are characterised by a restlessness that results from wanting to know more, and then seeking to take that knowledge apart to see what assumptions it holds about the world and what students can contribute to changing/developing/building on this knowledge. Empowering teaching demands that teachers take seriously students’ lives and cultures. If the real experiences of students do not form the basis of study, then enquiry is not student-led.

The ‘good’ Enquiring Minds teacher therefore has the following characteristics:

Exposure to this type of teaching can have a profound effect on students’ cognition, because it challenges them to develop their enquiry skills to make sense of a complex world. Teachers who possess these characteristics are not prepared to allow theories, ideas and knowledge to go unchallenged.

The process of reaching new understandings of the world is one of co-construction: teachers and students together create knowledge that is personally and socially meaningful. This suggests that the relationships between students and teachers must be predicated on ideas of sharing, trust and reciprocity; in short, the values of democratic classrooms. At each point in their enquiries, students are involved in decisions about how to proceed4.

All this means that Enquiring Minds is a challenging approach to teaching and learning, not least because it appears to go against some of the most deeply held beliefs about teaching and learning in our current system. For instance, it questions the ideas that students bring little to the educational encounter and that the role of the teacher is to pass on either (a) the commonly accepted stock of knowledge valued by society or (b) the skills young people need to take their place in the economic system. Although these are important goals, they need to be part of an education that serves to develop students’ capacity for democratic deliberation, critical judgement and rational understanding. Underpinning the Enquiring Minds approach is a belief that the challenge teachers face is in connecting with aspects of students’ interests and experience, encouraging them to examine those things and better understand the forces that shape their world.

What we are describing is the change from what some people have called ‘transmission’ pedagogy to a ‘co-constructive’ pedagogy (or what we call here an ‘enquiry’ pedagogy). Transmission pedagogy has a number of features:

The features of enquiry pedagogy include:

The shift to enquiry pedagogy does not represent a clean break from existing principles of effective teaching. Enquiring Minds instead builds on existing good practice. It relies on good interpersonal relationships and mutual respect between teachers and students. This involves being honest, challenging ideas and (where necessary) confronting patterns of behaviour.

It is important to clarify the difference between Enquiring Minds and other social constructivist approaches to learning. The fundamental difference is that in Enquiring Minds students choose the content and the focus for enquiry and teachers adapt and respond to this. This places knowledge at the centre of the teacher-student relationship and demands that the teacher’s role is to advance students’ knowledge and understanding. The central tenet of Enquiring Minds is that the development of the curriculum starts with students’ interests, ideas and experiences. This requires strategies to make visible students’ interests, ideas and experiences as a valid subject for enquiry and to recognise the potential value in them. Some of us do not find this easy in the face of children’s cultures that seem dominated by commercialism and celebrity. However, enquiry pedagogy is committed to engaging with and working with students’ interests, whatever they may be.

A common misconception about enquiry might be that it involves the teacher setting students off and letting them get on with things. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, successful enquiry requires high level skills on the part of the teacher. It is important to state that Enquiring Minds is not about personal preferences that simply reflect children’s immediate worlds, nor is it a progressive child-centred pedagogy that places the greatest emphasis on the individual and what they are able to do for themselves. The teacher’s role in an Enquiring Minds classroom is crucial, starting with where students are at and then helping them to explain, expand and explore further from that starting point. It might be useful to think of this in terms of a 'critical pedagogy' which enables teachers and students to work together to illuminate or decode aspects of their experiences.

The subjects of the curriculum are the crucial building blocks for undertaking enquiry. This is because they provide distinctive perspectives and approaches to understanding the world. For instance, an enquiry into ‘how school dinners can be improved’ would benefit from ideas and concepts from a range of subjects, including science, economics, geography and history. In communicating their research, they may draw upon skills and concepts from English and media studies. The point is that in such an enquiry, school subjects provide perspectives that enable students to further their knowledge and understanding. It is important to recognise that many questions and problems require an interdisciplinary approach (for instance understanding an issue such as climate change) and this creates challenges for teachers and students5.

Organising classrooms, resources and time

The changes in approaches to knowledge, curriculum and pedagogy we are advocating imply particular types of interactions in classrooms.

In most classrooms the resources used are chosen and controlled by the teacher. These may include, for example, textbooks, videos, worksheets or websites. In an Enquiring Minds approach there will be a wider range of resources available for use in learning and these will be suggested (and in many cases supplied) by students. In addition, we would expect to find a wider range of people involved in the process of enquiry as learning may take place beyond the classroom walls. What this means is that resources and sources not necessarily regarded as educational in the conventional sense are likely to be prominent and important. The Enquiring Minds classroom is as likely to feature a stack of teenagers’ magazines as history textbooks. The point is, enquiry approaches that start from students’ own ideas, interests and experiences are likely to require creative thinking about the resources that can be used to develop knowledge and understanding.

Adopting an enquiry approach also does not mean forever reinventing the wheel in terms of redeveloping resources or conceptual frameworks. For example, textbooks can be used in both transmission and enquiry approaches, but they would be used in different ways and for different purposes. They are still, however, resources that might be identified and mobilised for use by both students and teachers.

The process of enquiry will involve different patterns of time use and organisations of space. Though the organisation of time is a central aspect of the work of the school, not all learning proceeds at the same pace. For example, it is possible to imagine lessons being geared to the paces of individual learning. Different students may be working at different speeds and in different parts of the classroom. In an Enquiring Minds classroom, students will have a greater role in determining when a task is finished, or how long they wish to spend on a task.

Teachers usually control the time it takes to complete activities because it is the best way of ensuring that lessons have pace and that all students are keeping up with the work. Therefore, disrupting these temporal arrangements is likely to be difficult and challenging to manage. Yet it will become increasingly imperative for teachers working in an Enquiring Minds classroom to have to differentiate time targets according not only to students’ abilities but to the type of activities in which they are engaged. This certainly does not mean allowing students to ‘coast’. It means agreeing with students time-bound targets and involving them in reviewing and monitoring their progress, and working out with them a realistic completion target.

When it comes to space, although the design of a classroom does not determine the nature of teaching and learning, it does suggest particular messages about teaching and learning. For instance, tables with students seated around each table suggest a democratic, participatory pedagogy, and a constructivist approach to curricular knowledge. It suggests that knowledge can be produced by students in the work of talk and discussion, out of their own resources, augmented by the teacher. On the other hand, the panoptic arrangement of rows of desks suggests a need for surveillance or control. A number of classroom routines are also patterned by the space it provides. For example, students routinely ask to be allowed to move around the room, or request to go to the library.

Although it is often difficult to rearrange classrooms already cluttered with furniture, an enquiry approach implies that classrooms can be reorganised as flexible spaces. This includes being able to move tables according to activity and groupings, and use of wall space not just for presentation of completed products but as spaces for the collaborative collection of ideas. Furthermore, Enquiring Minds envisages that learning does not always need to occur inside the classroom. School grounds themselves are fertile sites for the collection of data or for making observations. Alternatively, since it attempts to engage with young people’s out-of-school cultures, the locality itself can become a site for enquiry.

Clearly, Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) have the potential to support the kind of learning at the heart of Enquiring Minds. The idea that information is easily available, and that software enables people to communicate and share information and ideas, has the potential to enable students to participate in knowledge sharing and collaborative production of knowledge both within classrooms and in collaboration with others. Indeed, ICT seems to ease some of the strains on time and space that have just been outlined above. It allows students to reach beyond the limits of their school’s resources, to experience other spaces (albeit virtually), and to be able to make more efficient use of time6.

Finally, it is worth spelling out what exactly are the potential benefits of students undertaking their own enquiries in terms of their learning. The promise of Enquiring Minds is that it potentially allows students to expand their cognitive capacities in the following ways:

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