Page last updated at 16:16 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Lessons for enquiring young minds

By Katherine Sellgren
BBC News education reporter

James, 12
Enquiring Minds develops life skills, says James

If we all went vegetarian, what would happen to all the cows? What causes erosion? I've seen ghosts on the internet, so they really do exist, don't they?

When given a chance to let their minds go, it's amazing what children can come up with.

In Bristol, a special style of lesson has been developed precisely to give pupils in Key Stage 3 (11 to 14-year-olds) an opportunity to further investigate questions and issues like this.

In these lessons, called Enquiring Minds, pupils are given a general steer - for example global warming - and are encouraged to explore relevant issues that capture their imaginations.

So rather than the teacher transmitting knowledge, the lesson sees some of the power shift to the children, who may be brainstorming, discussing with their peers or logging on to the internet to find out more.

Steve Moseley
Steve Moseley hopes Enquiring Minds can raise pupils' aspirations

For James, a pupil at Ashton Park School, it's an opportunity to explore erosion - a theme that has intrigued him since primary school where he was shown a picture of rock that looked like a camel.

"I like the way erosion happens, there are lots of places that have been caused by erosion, like the Grand Canyon," says James.

"On holiday I dug a hole in the sand and then I went in the sea for a long time - when I came back, there were lines around it, it's where the wind had eroded it away. On harder substances, that would have taken years."

Switching on to learning

Assistant head teacher at Ashton Park, Steve Moseley says Enquiring Minds lessons help motivate pupils by focussing their learning on things that interest them.

He says this is particularly important at his school where teachers struggle to get all pupils achieving five A*-C grades at GCSE.

In other lessons Miss tells us what to do

"We're getting the kids switched on to education, because we can't rely on the parents to do that," he says.

He believes middle to lower-ability children in particular benefit from the lessons, which take place at his school three times a fortnight in place of personal health and social education lessons.

"They get the most out of it because they're doing things they don't do naturally. Bright kids will do it naturally - they'll pick up knowledge and enquire for themselves.

"We've had fantastic discussions about vegetarianism and whether there's a God. One lad said he knows ghosts are real because he's seen pictures of them on the internet.

"So we got our photography teacher to show him how pictures can be manipulated and he now says it's all a hoax."

Tom enjoys having a bit more freedom in class

The scheme was developed under the guidance of independent charity Futurelab, which assesses the future of education and technology and develops resources to support new approaches to learning.

Sarah Payton, learning researcher at Futurelab, says: "In many ways children come to school with a backpack of knowledge and the curriculum often asks them to leave it at the door.

"Enquiring Minds is about trying to build on that existing knowledge."

As Key Stage 3 pupil, Tom, says: "We're allowed to choose what we want to learn about - in other lessons Miss tells us what to do."

'Broadens your mind'

James adds: "You're not told how to do it, you have to figure it out.

"It's life skills. It teaches you to rely on yourself - you can't always rely on other people to do it. Like at work, you can't rely on your boss to tell you what to do all the time."

Madi, 13, who is exploring what impact global warming has had on animals and their habitats, says: "It's quite weird, because it's so different to anything we've done before.

"It's really good because it teaches you to think for yourself. It broadens your mind completely on to things you don't usually think about," she says.

Madi, 13
Madi has been looking at how animals respond to changing habitat

"You have to keep to time yourself and keep to the task and finish it."

The teacher

So if pupils are taking so much control of the lesson, what is the point of the teacher?

"To set us the task in the first place," says Madi. "And you have to have someone to ask if you can't find the answer on the internet or in a book."

Steve Moseley says Enquiring Minds lessons need teachers with specific skills.

"We need teachers who are in to kids, who are interested in friendly discussion. We need teachers who can think on their feet.

"Enquiring Minds is about discussion, listening and reacting. It's very reactive as opposed to proactive.

"Some teachers like to prepare and deliver lessons - Enquiring Minds is about reacting to what happens on the day."

Futurelab estimates that 30 schools are now using the Enquiring Minds programme, after it was developed at Ashton Park and Gordano Schools in Bristol over a three-year period.

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