Creating conditions for Independent Enquiry: Thoughts on engaging reluctant learners


Yesterday, I gave a presentation at Pedagoo South West. As usual there was the fantastic buzz and sense of excitement that accompanies these events – all under the wonderful captaincy of @ictevangelist, @rlj1981 and @DoctorMassey,  held in the spectacular Bristol Grammar School.

If anyone hasn’t presented before, do. It’s a brilliant way of focusing the mind, clarifying what you think, reflecting on your observations and analysing and justifying why you have reached the conclusions you have. All to a deadline. None of us are trained researchers and whenever I put together my presentations, I have a mini Tom Bennett and Dr Ben Goldacre sitting on my shoulders tut tut tutting away, every time I carelessly insert a sweeping generalisation – and rightly so. As Rachel mentioned in her opening keynote, there is more than one way, more than one right answer, more than one possible approach. We are in the business of dealing with people after all, with their billions of variations in responses from one millisecond to the next.

So my presentation yesterday dealt with a fair few questions – largely because I don’t know the answer – presenting is a way of me trying to work towards finding an answer. I’m surprised no-one on Twitter has yet to make the connection that maybe there isn’t ‘an’ answer. People have been taught for over a millennia. With the titanic-sized body of knowledge that has been amassed in that time, we still don’t have the answer.

So here were my questions:


It seems that if we want to consider how to create the best conditions for students to become more naturally independent in their thinking and engage those that are switched off in the classroom, we have to first consider, why this is and what are good conditions for independent learning.



Early years learning suggests that the acquisition of skills and learning can be rapid, can leapfrog other skill development, can undergo processing for extended periods (as in the silent phases of language acquisition) and most importantly autonomous and based of immediate needs and wants. This element of choice and need seems at the heart of the reason why the love of learning can be lost in formal education. I gave an example of my 5 year old daughter, who, as a summer born child, sometimes feels overwhelmed by school. When I tried to coax her with the carrot of all the fab facts she would learn that day, she wailed ‘but they don’t teach us any of that stuff there!’





Mick Waters and Martin Robinson provide absolutely fantastic reads on Schooling and Education. But, the reality is that we need to live in the here and now and get on with the daily task of getting students through benchmarks – exams, controlled assessments, the next level etc. And if the student has lost a sense of awe and wonder for learning, if they have lost a sense of purpose of what it is for, if they have lost choice and it fulfils no ‘need’, can we implement some of what works in early years to secondary scheme and lesson design?





We know choice works. We use it as a key behaviour tool – but how much do we use it in lessons? I recently read a reply in a comment thread for one of @learningspy’s posts. The comment read (sorry I don’t have the author’s name) ‘the reason students don’t like school has little to do with thinking hard and everything to do with the lack of autonomy and passivity that would annoy any one of us’. This struck me as true. Have we scaffolded students within an inch of their lives? Have we destroyed the very thing we tried to build – thought? I first gave a low set a challenge of Mastermind 4 years ago. I thought it was a huge gamble then, that I could lose the students for the year. But they rose to the challenge and more. They each chose a specialist topic and revised. I got my swivel chair, put a lamp on the floor, downloaded the music, pulled down the blinds and we were off. Each year, I crown someone the Mastermind champion. And it leaves students feeling like champions.

Another element of choice, is presentation of work. Why do we have to work on lined books? Why can’t we give students more freedom to present their work how they like? I know they have to write essays for exam, but if we want the learning done, why can’t students have a bit more ownership of it?




We ask students a lot of question. A phenomenal amount of them. How often do we encourage and allow for students to ask their own questions? If they did, isn’t that learning? Asking a question about something means you are engaged, thinking about it, trying to make connections, trying to work it out. What difference does it make when a students asks ‘what is….?’ as opposed to ‘I don’t know, Miss’  or more authentically  *shrugs.  With this in mind, I set up a mini-project with my tutees. I asked them to ask any question they wanted to – what did they want to know, just because they wanted to know it. Their eyes lit up (not measurable data, I know) and they came up with a great set of questions which we then we set out to decide which questions we would need to ask to find out the answers. What I was surprised by, was how much thinking they had to do, and how willingly they took part.


Can we embed more student question time into our lessons? Will it deepen knowledge and understanding? If anyone has done any similar projects, I’d love to hear about it, and any observations you have.

Finally, a huge, huge thank you to @musicmind for saving me and letting me use your laptop!



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