If you have a spare couple of hours, I recommend you read the 'Enquiring Minds' [PDF] report from Futurelab. Enquiring Minds is a joint project between Microsoft and Futurelab, and is to be commended for pushing back boundaries with a radical new approach to education. Although much of the document reads like a turgid pseudo-sociological essay, at its core are the experiences of teachers and children in two Bristol schools who agreed to experiment with a class of year 7 and year 8 pupils respectively. I concluded that the positive outcomes were overshadowed by the negative. Here is some of my favourite excerpts from the report, but please read it for yourself and draw your own conclusions.
As we worked on the project, it became increasingly clear how different people had different ideas and concerns about the purpose and direction of the project. These were not simply differences of perspective, but were rooted in very different ways of making sense of experience. Consequently, we do not claim this report as the truth of what happened on the project. We sympathise with Maggie Maclure’s belief that educational research is an unavoidably rhetorical affair. Research truths and findings are put together (‘fabricated’ is the word Maclure uses) to achieve particular effects and structures."
Arguments about the types of children we wanted to produce in schools could not be separated from debates about the changing nature of society. Was the lack of interest we saw in some students linked to issues of social class, or their way of acting in relation to knowledge in a media culture? Was the fact that some teachers were resisting the approach taken a result of
our failure to be clear about the direction of the project, or was it related to questions of teachers’ involvement or professionalism? Were the voices of the students we talked to authentic, or were they being spoken through powerful discourses of consumerism?
An important aspect of the Enquiring Minds project was that the content of the curriculum was not specified. In these lessons, the question of what counts as worthwhile and valuable educational knowledge kept surfacing. It was the question that would not go away." "In another classroom, more emphasis was placed on the project’s potential for improving the skills needed for learning. The teacher prefaced the project by talking about the poor GCSE scores and
his hope that these lessons would improve students’ motivation and ability to learn independently.
One of the most interesting tensions that existed ... was the status of popular cultural knowledge. ... in a highly structured National Curriculum, the question of legitimate or valid knowledge does not come to the fore; it is largely accepted as given.However, teachers and students were faced with a seemingly content-free curriculum, so the question of what counted as valid knowledge had to be negotiated on a daily or lesson-by-lesson basis. ... One example involved a group of Year 8 students who had decided, through a process of discussion and
ultimately voting, that the focus for the class enquiry would be fashion. Over the next
couple of lessons, the teacher allowed students to discuss what was interesting about fashion for them. The discussions were rich in providing evidence of the importance of fashion in children’s lives. They talked about the issue of how they felt under pressure to keep up with the latest trends, and about perceived injustices on the part of teachers towards dress, and explained how dress and fashion was linked to sub-cultural identity. The discussion was wide-ranging, students were engaged, and there appeared to be plenty that could become the
basis for further enquiry. However, during these lessons the teacher found it increasingly difficult to hide his concern about whether the things the students brought to the lessons were of much use or interest. In addition, the teacher was unable to develop critical framings that could have increased the level of cognitive challenge in the classroom. The result of this was that there was very little of interest to focus on in the classroom. Ideas would be aired, and for a brief moment there would be a spark of interest. But without a set of procedures to develop the questions further, activity tended to focus around low-level web-based searches for information."
Whilst there was an explicit call for students to work together and cooperate in the classroom, when it came to getting down to enquiry work, virtually all of the activity centred on individual enquiry. Indeed it was common for teachers to ask students what was their own question and to valorise independent enquiry over collaborative or just paired enquiry.
Before he left the project, Mike (teacher) expressed his doubts about whether the assumptions of the project were valid:
I never was at the beginning and I’m still not entirely convinced that its foundations are strong enough, are valid enough. I’ve got a sense that if we’re talking about getting them to enquire into their own lives and then lead them out wider than that, that actually their own lives are too shallow and too familiar, and they’re not ultimately that interested in their own lives.
I’ve been disappointed that we’ve been so crap at team planning I have to say”. Mike attributed this to the “cult of the individual” that tends to dominate in schools. This means that rather than work together to develop an approach, teachers tended to want to say “this is how I do it”.
What Mike’s story demonstrates (as does the work of the other nine teachers who participated in the first three years of Enquiring Minds activity) is that change in schools is contingent upon the personal biographies and professional identities of staff.
It should be noted that, for some students, the opportunity to define what went on in the classroom was greeted with apathy and a certain amount of disdain. We observed this kind of behaviour most strongly in a few students labelled by schools and teachers as ‘high ability’. These students appeared to think what teachers were offering was a distraction from the more serious business of subject lessons. Some students also worked out very effectively how to play the game, so that they made every appearance of embracing the opportunity but were observed putting in very little effort and spending most of their Enquiring Minds time involved in social chatter."
... the project’s child-centred approach risked adopting an idealised, even romantic view of the child as being innately inquisitive, whose interests and enthusiasm for learning will be freed up and liberated once the restraints of the curriculum have been loosened.
...where aspects of Enquiring Minds have not worked out this is due in part to teachers struggling to reconcile their existing professional identities with the demands of the new identities and positions that go with it.As one teacher on the project glumly assessed it:“Many do not know how to pursue personal curiosity after so many yearsof just being in school and doing what they are told to do
It requires teachers to understand and value children’s worlds, and to develop a repertoire of classroom strategies to support them to take their knowledge further.
Some have really thrived on the approach, while others seem to have found it quite risky to their professional identities."
[Teachers] claim that in order for changes to be made meaningfully the process has to be a slow one, involving the taking of risks and learning from trial and error, followed by continuous reflection alongside teachers going through similar experiences. This kind of supportive peer arrangement, however, has proved challenging to maintain in the context of busy secondary schools; although the organisation of the project made it possible in the first
two years, by the third year it had become much less possible to do on a regular basis. An additional consequence of this is that it limits the opportunities for the initiative to grow across the institution.
Teachers’ work is currently caught up in a debate about how to be creative and innovative practitioners whilst also being accountable to standards." ...
Recent years have seen a remarkable outpouring of policy texts and initiatives (including Enquiring Minds) which set out to transform or reform the education system ... Adapting the education system to meet all of these needs and more requires slow and careful metamorphosis, not a seismic shake-up that threatens to destabilise everything in it."