Making Enquiry Learning Effective

The 15 Minute Forum this week was led by geography NQT Ben Crockett.

Dylan Wiliam asserts that sharing objectives (or intentions as he prefers) is essential in opening up a discourse about learning and that students need to know where they’re supposed to be heading if they’re going to have a chance of getting there.  There’s a potential problem here though.  Over the course of the day, students will be exposed to a range of learning objectives, in a variety of forms.  David Didau says the following:

“Every lesson I have observed in the past 5 years has objectives (or aims, or intentions, or outcomes, or whatever) dutifully written up on the board and copied into students’ books. Does this mean that the learning objective has become mere white noise; a meaningless routine enacted in thousands of classrooms with very little impact on learning? Well, sadly, yes; this is probably all too often the case.”

(David Divau, 2013 –

crockett1Enquiry learning could hold the answer to this.   Roberts (2003) says that there are 4 main aspects to enquiry learning:

  1. Creating a need to know approach to learning – “students will learn more if they have been made curious about what they are going to learn and can ask their own questions.”
  2. Encouraging students to use data/information as evidence.
  3. Making sense of information – “students being actively engaged”.
  4. Encouraging students to reflect on learning.

Many teachers have been put off enquiry learning due to the fear/ belief that enquiry learning has to be 0% teacher control/ input and 100% led by students.  This is not the case – it’s more about encouraging students to be curious about a topic and then think deeply about it.

So it can take this kind of format:

  • Base the lesson (or the start of the lesson) around one central mystery question (Leat, 2001), that is unusual and so makes students think.
  • They are given data/ information cards, to prompt thinking
  • They need to process this data to answer the question.
  • Finally students reflect on what they have learnt through a debriefing or answering of original question.

So here’s an example – an unusual question that students are posed at the start of the lesson:


This will generate lots of questions and discussion, that can be guided by the teacher – by probing questions and reshaping their responses.  The answer is of course that Anthony Dubber is the Head Chef at the British Antarctic Survey Station. Growing fresh vegetables in the Antarctic is very difficult due to the climate so they have to be grown in special heated and lit laboratories. This makes it very expensive to grow fresh crops.  So rather than starting with a dull set of learning objectives, start with a question that will get them thinking. and then lead this into a lesson on environmental conditions, food production etc – avoiding the white noise of learning objectives at the start of the lesson and stimulating thinking.

Another example:


Maura runs ultra-marathons and once got lost in a desert.  Why did he make a bed of coal?  He buried hot coals (found at a shrine) under the sand and slept on top of them over night to keep him warm, and to prevent hypothermia.  This then leads in to a lesson on environmental conditions and adaptations.

Other examples of enquiry questions that have been used:

  1. What has human hair got to do with the BP oil spill? (Human hair naturally absorbs oil and is used in clear ups).
  2. Why does Angelo live on a wing? (Settlement patterns – Brazillia is shaped like a plane)
  3. Why is Dr Maurizio wearing a new costume to work? (Based on news story of doctors dressing up as clowns to comfort children after earthquake)
  4. Why does Tweetie Pie not turn into KFC? (Based on birds on over head cables and step up transformers)
  5. Why can’t we trust paintings of Queen Elizabeth I? (Based on portraits and representation of the queen)

So, why do these enquiry questions work at the start of the lesson?

  • They catch their interest.
  • They appeal to our fondness for ‘story telling’
  • In the words of Chip and Dan Heath, they ‘open up the learning gap’ and so make students want to find out more – so ‘making explanations stick’.
  • We avoid telling them about the learning at the start of the lesson – so keeping the ‘mystery of learning’ alive.

The following diagram as a helpful tool in terms of planning enquiry learning:





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1 Response to Making Enquiry Learning Effective

  1. nappits1443 says:

    Nice post. Anything that gets away from the white noise of learning objectives is ok by me.

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