A focus on developing enquiry skills will help with lifelong learning

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive.” So begins a child’s automated response to the headmaster Thomas Gradgrind’s request in Hard Times for the definition of a horse. In the “nothing but Facts” Gradgrindian worldview Dickens brilliantly captures the mind-numbing sterility of rote-learning, of facts churned out machine-like without even a wisp of grey matter actually being disturbed. Fast-forward 170 years and, according to the government’s own benchmarks, our approach to learning still lets down too many children: around 40% of 16-year-olds fail to reach expected standards in English and mathematics. We need an approach that helps children to learn effectively and think clearly, inspires a love of learning, and develops enquiry skills and a learning mindset that will benefit them throughout their lives.

Three questions immediately suggest themselves when thinking about learning:

  • What?
  • Why?
  • How?

We of course want children to acquire knowledge, skills and values, but many people are rightly critical of a system that skews far too much learning — and learning time — towards high-stakes tests and exams, especially in younger years. In a 2020 YouGov survey of parents of children in state primary education 73% of respondents said they thought their children were under too much pressure from government testing; 63% of them actually said that children’s happiness was the best way to measure primary school performance.

The ‘Why?’ question is fundamental to the life-based learning approach — nine themes through which the individual subjects of the national curriculum should be taught, in order to equip children with the knowledge, skills and values they need to tackle the modern-day challenges that we face.

But how do we want children to learn?

Two phrases in the introductory paragraphs of Marcelo Staricoff’s article Here comes philosophy man: Philosophising the primary school curriculum immediately resonated with this particular reader — ‘love of learning’ and ‘lifelong learning’. The article itself is a stimulating and uplifting read, full of practical examples illustrating how a thinking-skills approach — to the learning environment, to the curriculum and to the extra-curriculum — encourages creativity, raises self-esteem, challenges children of all abilities and enthuses pupils, teachers and parents alike. The benefits, Staricoff says, are “multidimensional” — in other words, the ‘how’ of learning is inextricably bound up with the ‘why’.

The YouGov survey mentioned above was commissioned by the campaign group More Than A Score. A spokesperson, Sara Tomlinson, is quoted by the TES as saying:

We need to ensure that our education system is one that focuses on developing skills in our young people and cultivates a love of learning for life, not simply on cramming them with facts. The government must now listen to those who know children best – educators, experts and, above all, parents.

Sara Tomlinson, spokesperson for More Than A Score, quoted in the TES

That phrase again — ‘a love of learning’.

John Perry is assistant professor of English in education at the University of Nottingham. His online article Teaching thinking skills makes children more intelligent is also well worth a read. He says that by teaching thinking skills to all children “we will help them live the lives they want to live, rather than simply teaching them to pass exams, important though they are.”

Whatever the name — ‘thinking skills’, ‘philosophy for children’, ‘learning to learn’ — common to all such approaches is critical thinking, a focus on enquiry skills, and a spirit of curiosity and open-mindedness.

Here’s how the website Philosophy4Children puts it:

Philosophy for Children (enquiry-based learning) offers a way to open up children’s learning through enquiry and the exploration of ideas. Children learn that their ideas have value, and that the ideas of other children have value too. Through Philosophy for Children they realise that they don’t always have to be right, but they gain the confidence to ask questions and learn through discussion.

from the website Philosophy4Children

Life-based learning brings together progressive approaches to children’s learning. A recent post discussed the importance for learning of a positive dynamic between teacher and pupils: “Progress in learning depends on children feeling safe, welcomed and valued by the teacher.” We have also blogged about the ‘brain-targeted teaching’ approach developed by Dr Mariale Hardiman at Johns Hopkins University. Its six targets include paying careful attention to the emotional climate for learning and the physical learning space. The approach also involves designing learning so that children connect old and new information and encouraging children’s creativity.

How children learn is so important to the life-based approach that one of its nine life themes — called The Mind — focuses on children using the brain effectively in order to accelerate learning. This includes:

  • children learning the way the brain learns, including knowing how the brain learns best, how to make effective use of the senses when learning, and how to improve short-term, routine, operational and long-term memory
  • helping children to construct their learning from what they know
  • ensuring that children feel comfortable in their learning environment, whether in school or studying at home

In his recent blog How were you taught when you were in primary school? Michael Mac, author of the life-based approach to learning, wrote:

Learning by rote and repetition are not a feature of life-based learning. This does not mean that children are discouraged from learning the words of songs or poetry. It means that the emphasis is on the learner leading the learning, not the teacher. The teacher spouting from the front of the class for extended periods of time is a no-no! And yet I would guess that this is the way most of us were taught when we were at school. Too much of it still goes on today.

Michael Mac, from How were you taught when you were in primary school?

We can probably all agree that education has to be about more than just acquiring knowledge and skills to pass exams, with schools little more than glorified testing factories. Another finding of the 2020 YouGov survey was that 77% of parents identified “teachers that care about their pupils and inspire them to learn” as a key factor in deciding the best school for their child. Nearly two centuries on from Dickens’ particular vision of educational dystopia, a much more enlightened approach to learning is still required — one that priorities thinking and enquiry skills, promotes curiosity, imagination and creativity, and draws on the latest insights into how the brain learns most effectively.

The image at the head of this article is taken from the website Journal of Victorian Curiosities.

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