Grannies, the mafia and Henry VIII: how good questions take pupils places

Fergal Roche

From the frontline - purpleAlthough I was a teacher and headteacher for most of the first two decades of my career, I confess that I found my own schooling to be gruelling and pretty tedious. Maybe that’s why I became a teacher and headteacher.

As a school boy, I trotted from one 40-minute lesson to the next to be told what I was going to learn next. It was rare for a teacher to start from my world and what I  was interested in. We did the Tudors, but the teacher didn’t ask me how old my granny was (87), or how many granny-lives I’d have to put together to get to 1530 – the time of Henry VIII. If he had, I might have started to get more interested. There’d have been some maths, of course. And we’d soon have realised it’s only a handful of granny-lives (5 ½ now) back to when our murdering king lived.

“Wow, was he really a murderer?”

“Vicious. Worse than the mafia”.

“Who are the mafia?”

“ Ah, well let’s study a process of enquiry that compares the government of Henry VIII to the Chicago mafia in the 1920s – roughly 400 years apart”.

Now we’re going somewhere, with a class of 15-year-olds gripped and eager to learn more.

Richard Dunne, headteacher.

Richard Dunne, headteacher.

Our world is connected. We got to where we are today by our tangled history. We breathe the gases we breathe because our environment is alive. We eat tasty vegetables because bees are fuzzy, fuzz makes static electricity, and that’s enough to make pollen stick (really?).

These kinds of connections bring learning to life, and it’s good questions that take us to them. So, why not start the curriculum with patterns of enquiry – with questions framed in the right language for each age group?

Richard Dunne, the headteacher of Ashley Church of England Primary School in Surrey,  is passionate about this enquiry-based approach to learning. I asked him to convince me it can work. Here’s what he said:

quote-startCan we really make this happen?

Yes, we can!  We have long known that a more integrated curriculum of learning where subjects link together around a theme or enquiry makes a lot of sense to our children and to us.  The new curriculum is an opportunity for teachers to weave engaging projects of learning together. Good early years practice does it. We need to do the same with our primary and secondary teaching.

Planting Aspen to attract Tortoiseshell butterflies in the Ashley grounds.

Planting aspen to attract tortoiseshell butterflies in the Ashley grounds.

And this isn’t happening at the moment?

From what I see, not nearly enough. Learning tends to become more fragmented and departmentalised as pupils get older, but this is not how life is. As adults, we use a range of subject skills in our work and this is what we should be striving to do with our teaching. It’s interesting that Finland, whose education system is regarded as one of the best in the world, has recently committed to project-based learning throughout the school curriculum. I believe we should do the same and let children’s ideas and questions guide their learning. Teachers must be able to integrate a child’s interests into the learning journey. It’s key that the project enquiry is the starting point – and the subject knowledge is woven through.

So, how do you do it?

In our school we run 42 ‘enquiries of learning‘ over a child’s primary schooling, one each half-term.  Each enquiry then breaks into weekly questions, which focus the learning for the week.  We have tried to make the enquiries age appropriate so while the reception children learn about ‘What lives outside our classroom?’ and year 1 explore ‘How have our toys changed over time?’, the older children in Key Stage 2 will be investigating questions such as ‘Why should we protect the rainforest?’, ‘What can the Ancient Egyptians teach us?’ and ‘How can we build biodiversity?’.

Marbled canvasses for year 5's 'How can we keep our oceans amazing?' enquiry.

Marbled canvasses for year 5’s ‘How can we keep our oceans amazing?’ enquiry.

Each half-termly enquiry then links in purposeful writing, applied maths and science that is relevant to the season of the year and the local environment.  Yes, there is a need to run phonics, mental maths and reading sessions on their own, but beyond that the learning is linked to the wider enquiry.

So the project enquiries are linked to children’s day-to-day lives. Okay, but what else? What else do you do to make it engaging?

We also underpin the learning with sustainability themes.  This gives the learning much more purpose.  For example, when the children learn about which wildflowers they love, they also sow seeds and grow wildflowers.  When they learn about where their food comes from, they think about local, seasonal, organic and package-free food.  These issues really get them thinking about what kind of food they want.  When they study our local river, they consider how we can conserve water.  And when they explore the earth in space and our solar system, they research solar energy and then present their findings to the school community.

The enquiries are clearly connected to the outside world. What about bringing in experts from beyond the school gates, then? How do you bring the world to the children?

Collecting honey from the 'Ashley bees' to share at the Green Stall.

Collecting honey from the ‘Ashley bees’ to share at the Green Stall.

We are very proactive about finding people in our community who can enrich or enhance this learning.  It could be a local artist or gardener or sculptor, the local authority, the Environment Agency (who recently gave us all the latest information on fish species in our river), or allotment growers, who are always very generous about sharing their produce.  The partnerships provide memorable experiences for the children, which really bring the learning to life.  What is more, they are often free and they definitely build a stronger sense of community.

And what’s the output? How do you know what they’ve learnt?

The children culminate each half-term’s enquiry by making, presenting or performing what we call a Great Work.  This brings the learning together in a meaningful way and gives a real sense of purpose to what the children do.  It could be a poetry recitial, a hand-made book, a soundscape, a banquet, the spinning off and jarring up of honey, the harvesting of seasonal food to create a dish or an exhibition of some kind.

What does Ofsted think of this kind of learning? 

Well, if our children are engaged in what they are doing, learning in exciting and meaningful ways, and making progress as a result, then Ofsted will surely be impressed.  But with all due respect, this is not about Ofsted.  It is about providing a curriculum of learning that captures the imagination of our children and gives them a real sense of purpose in what they do. quote-end


If you’d like to explore the concept of a thematic curriculum further, have a look at how you can go about it in your own setting (login required). 

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