4 ways to prep your class for enquiry-based learning

Enquiry-led learning can have lots of benefits - but teachers need to be conductors to keep everyone on the same page

Ruth Luzmore

To make enquiry-based learning work, the teacher has to think of themselves as a conductor, says Ruth Luzmore

As a primary academy, we have been allowed in the past to be selective about our curriculum, choosing the best of national curriculum, the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme and other curricula to suit our school vision and pupils.

So we feel somewhat controversial in openly stating that we seem to be bucking the trend by following an enquiry-led approach to our non-core subjects.

"But what about the children?" I hear you say. How will they possibly learn if their curriculum is not mapped out in hourly detail for the first seven years of their life?  

Well, enquiry learning, can – if done well – lead to some pretty exciting and broad learning. And each unit of enquiry begins by "tuning the pupils in".

So what is "tuning in"?

Recall the last time you saw an orchestra play. You’ll remember that before they began the conductor signalled for everyone to tune their instrument to one another, to get to the same page of music and to ready themselves for the music ahead. 

Making enquiry-based learning work

It’s the same concept for "tuning in" to a topic or subject for learning:

  • To find out what students already know and think about a topic.
  • To give pupils focus on what the forthcoming learning is.
  •  To ascertain what questions the students have about the topic.
  • To provide an opportunity for students to engage with the topic.
  • To help plan further experiences.

And it is not just the students who are tuning into the learning; the teacher is tuning into students' thinking, too – allowing them to adapt the curriculum.

How can this best be done though?

1.  Pre-unit vocabulary exploration

While some disciplinary topics have self-explanatory topic titles – eg, The Romans, Space, etc – enquiry units require some vocabulary unpicking. "Media is a powerful tool which impacts our perception of the world around us," for example, requires time to get everyone on the same page.

Exploring these words, their roots and contexts gives pupils a headstart into challenging vocabulary used in the unit.

 2. Objects and images to provoke

Enquiry units have their own areas in the classroom. Here not only related books are stored for reference, but also images and objects borrowed from local libraries are present at the beginning of the unit. 

A recent unit on how cities around the world develop and change had images of London – where we are based – but also of comparative cities from across different continents. In addition, historical maps showed the development of areas over hundreds of years. It was a great starting point for discussion about movement of people through the Industrial Age, for example.

 3.  The use of viewpoints to spark discussion

Opening up discussion with pupils in structured ways is great in helping teachers to get to grips with pupils' understanding at the beginning of a unit. 

At the beginning of a unit on social hierarchies and structures, pupils were asked to decide upon and justify what they saw as the hierarchy within our school.

Some did so by age, eldest to youngest (I was pleased to be way down the list); others chose our school chaplain to be at the top as they were "the closest to God"; others gave their perception of authority, which went headteacher top closely followed by the school office manager (though there was some discussion that it was actually the other way around). 

4. Recording pupil questions to shape learning

Some of us will remember and still use the KWL charts (Know, Wonder and Learn) that start a unit. We use Post-it notes of initial questions as a quick way of doing this, and these are then displayed on working walls. 

In one unit on how economic decisions impact on individuals and groups, these questions were really important in establishing what common knowledge pupils had and what they were missing. 

While the teacher had plans for sessions on fair trade, a number of good questions about how value is attached to paper notes came up.  From this, the teacher used resources from the Bank of England to add to the unit and the pupils’ knowledge.

A number of us are feeling the pressure to power through curriculum content at the moment, but taking that time to tune your class into your new unit may just teach you something.

Ruth Luzmore is headteacher at St Mary Magdalene Academy in North London. She tweets @RLuzmore


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