The freedom to explore

18th November 2011 at 00:00

GK Chesterton would not have approved of enquiry-based learning. In his 1910 book What's Wrong With The World, he poked fun at educators who believed it was best to encourage children to learn for themselves.

Those modern theorists believed that "somewhere far down in the dim, boyish soul is a primordial yearning to learn Greek accents or to wear clean collars; and the schoolmaster only gently and tenderly liberates this imprisoned purpose". He did not agree with such "half-baked and hypothetical philosophies". The one eternal in education was, he wrote, "to be sure enough that something is true that you dare to tell it to a child".

Some of these criticisms could be levelled at the latest incarnation of enquiry-based learning (pages 4-7), one of the classic approaches to education that has rolled in and out of fashion over the decades. In the US, where it has arguably been more popular than in the UK, it suffered a blow last year when a study by Western Michigan University found that, in science, "as long as students are actively engaged, direct instruction does just as well as enquiry-based teaching".

As with many debates on teaching approaches, the issue is clouded by terminology. The proponents of an enquiry-based approach quoted in this edition of TESpro are not using the term to mean project-based learning or theme weeks. Nor are they talking about the standard practice of steering pupils tightly through material by posing questions. Instead, they want to encourage pupils to look into areas where the teachers may not have prearranged answers.

This would be especially alarming for GK Chesterton, as well as for current traditionalists. But in today's tightly managed curriculum, pupils will appreciate opportunities for genuine freedom more than ever.

And where are we seeing the most enquiry-based learning in the UK? Arguably in the small, but growing, number of schools teaching the International Baccalaureate primary years programme. These are not state schools teaching lefty dogma. They are private schools - and GK Chesterton certainly approved of them.

Michael Shaw is editor of TESpro @mrmichaelshaw.

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