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Teaching Issues

Enquiry Questions at Key Stage 3: A necessity not a luxury.

I am often late to the party. Fact.

Sometimes I don’t even turn up. The curse of the socially awkward and the residue of an inferiority complex perhaps?

I know I am very late to one particularly party  but why change the habits of a life time?

The party I am discussing was prompted  by the huge response to a  Lee Donaghy’s tweet in late January 2018 which asked (jokingly?):

‘…been wondering whether enquiry-focused history curriculum is a bit overrated for KS3. Time is often so limited it seems an unnecessary luxury + difficult to know how much pupils need to know to answer them meaningfully.’

I will not pretend to be able to understand any issue in history teaching compared to the many really clever people who responded  to Lee’s tweet. The response was overwhelming.

Nevertheless, I can talk from a personal perspective about the power of the enquiry question (if correctly constructed) complete with engaging end product, and the enquiry led curriculum. I don’t think its a luxury as the tweet asked / suggested- in my opinion it is a necessity.

What is enquiry in history?

Enquiry approach in summary:  – hook, enquiry question, teaching sequence which leads to a substantial end product.

Not only do enquiry questions structure learning, but it helps teach the second order concepts that students are being assessed against. By tweaking the enquiry question, the clever history teacher can major in a different historical concept and use the enquiry to teach the substantive knowledge.

For a detailed view of the power of the enquiry read Ian Dawson’s work here.

Why are enquiry questions a necessity to history teaching?

Personal experience:

My own classroom practice was fundamentally and dramatically  improved by taking an enquiry based approach. There I was in the late 1990s teaching in a style that some may now describe as, ‘direct instruction’. Reading from textbooks, answering comprehension style questions and then trying to get my pupils to answer extended writing style essays.

The quality of the work produced by my classes was often variable,  disappointing even – the really bright got it and nearly everyone else didn’t.

Then, the epiphany:  having invested departmental money in the Think Through History series by Bryom, Counsell and Riley, I was immediately blown away by the massive improvement in the quality of the work and analysis produced by all of my students. They could write more, their thinking was better and, crucially for some people today, could recall more information in subsequent end of year exams and tests.

This was true across the board for children of all abilities. This was because the enquiry question focused them (when I learnt to keep returning to it throughout the lesson sequence).Also, the end product forced them to, in Bryom’s words, ‘join up their thinking’.  They had to revisit their prior learning from the steps in the enquiry and use this knowledge again within the structure of the end product, often a piece of extended writing.

Cognitive Science

Developments by cognitive scientists have been rightly taken up with much vim by some elements of the history teaching community recently.

This can only be a good thing. However, taking at face value what is said about general teaching practices by cog. scientists, without considering the context of this work in the subject specific area of history teaching / research, flies in the face of the critical thinking we require our GCSE students to perform. Surely we should take heed of our own advice?

Nevertheless,  Daniel T Willingham’s often used quote:  ‘Memory is the residue of thought’ (2010) does seem valid. And it does seem to be a strong argument for the use of enquiry questions with meaty end products.

After all, by forcing students to join up their thinking by answering the EQ, the teacher is asking the student to think deeply about the prior learning they have undertaken.

Although this is an ‘unnatural act’ to many students to start with, the re-visiting of,  and hard thinking about the knowledge at the end of the enquiry question fits in with Willingham’s maxim. At least it did in my own teaching practice. The use of the enquiry question and end product led to  improved answers to quizzes, knowledge tests and end of year exams.

Willingham himself advises teachers to plan using big questions, ‘consider what the key question for the lesson might be and how you can frame that question so it will have the right level of difficulty to engage your students’ (2010 p20-21)

If we want students to think  and remember (after all memory is the residue of thought), Willingham says ‘Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and a again – the unifying ideas of each discipline.’ (2010 p48). In the discipline of history these include the second order concepts.

Willingham then states: ‘Teachers should not make the importance of knowledge to mean that they should create lists of facts for students to learn…knowledge pays off when it is conceptual and when the facts are related to one another, and that is not true of list learning.’ (2010 p50)

The best way to develop this kind of disciplinary thinking is to know what you are aiming for in each second order concept- read Alex Ford’s wonderful work on progression as starting point here.  Then plan to develop this thinking around well crafted enquiry questions that major in one area of each concept.  For example, for causation: Why did the ideas of Martin Luther go ‘viral’?  For interpretations: ‘Why did two undergraduates argue about Oliver Cromwell?  

Subject specific research into how children learn history

Rather than focus solely on the work of cognitive science it is a good idea to look at research into how children learn history. Ashby, Lee and Shemilt did this in a chapter in How do students learn history in the classroom (2005). On page 79 they state: ‘the substantive facts and ideas of history must be understood in the context of a conceptual framework that includes second- order concepts such as those associated with time, change, empathy, and cause, as well as evidence and accounts.’  The enquiry question and enquiry led curriculum in history helps focus students thinking on many of these concepts.

Clearly a curriculum should be planned with detailed thought about the big picture of time, the overview and depth. But they enquiry question should be at the very heart of it.

List learning?

If time at KS3  is reduced to list learning then we may as well all pack up and go home. Factual recall is important. Fact, substantive knowledge is also important. One reason its importance is to free up students minds for analytical thought.

If history lessons are reduced just to memorising facts and dates for the sake of memorising facts and dates then the party is over for me.  This isn’t what I signed up for all of those years ago when I trained to be a teacher. 

My parents, educated in the 1950s hated history at school. Why?  They were part of the Great Tradition in history teaching:  they focused on list learning. They cannot remember anything apart from the  boredom they encountered with this approach.

The enquiry question, placed within a well structured history curriculum that emphasises big picture, overview and depth, is a necessity and not a luxury.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I could go on and on an on. That’s why you don’t want to bump into me at a party. Set me off and before you know it, your eyes will be glazing over, you will be nodding politely and looking for any excuse to get away.

The curse of the socially awkward.

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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