DfE clarifies reference to enquiry-based learning

Rebecca Sullivan, published 8th August 2018

Following the Department of Education’s recent call for pilot schools to bid for Curriculum Development Funds, the Historical Association (HA) sought clarification specifically connected to disciplinary understanding. Within the guidance, the DfE sets out its criteria for programmes, one of which is that they should be structured on the basis of teacher-led instruction rather than enquiry-based learning.

The DfE has clarified that references to enquiry-based learning within the guidance refer to a pedagogic approach where lessons are based around the principle of children discovering facts for themselves.

The HA had written to the DfE outlining how 'enquiry' is used in history teaching, its development and integral role in history. Over the past 20 years we have published a number of articles in the journal Teaching History that have developed and refined our understanding in this area.

The role of 'enquiry questions' in history teaching

The principle of a structured historical enquiry – often referred to as an ‘Enquiry Question’ – has been developed and refined by history teachers over the past 20 years or more and was, in part, developed in direct opposition to the principles of ‘discovery learning’ and to the assumption that pupils would become effective independent thinkers simply by being given more independence. It was also part of a reaction against de-contextualised, skill-based exercises that failed to take into account the role of knowledge in making sense of the past. An ‘enquiry’ in the history education community is shorthand for a sequence of lessons integrated by a direct focus on a single ‘enquiry question’ and within which pupils build knowledge systematically and cumulatively in order to be able to answer that question by the end of it. A well-crafted enquiry explicitly facilitates a knowledge-rich approach to history and allows the teacher to guide the pupil through complex and contrary histories rather than leaving them to reach ill-informed judgements without adequate knowledge. 

Without an enquiry question the disciplinary dimensions of history listed in the 2014 National Curriculum cannot be met. By keeping a strong focus on the enquiry question, the teacher ensures that pupils make sense of the past with reference to the essential second-order concepts that underpin the subject at all levels – within the National Curriculum, GCSE and A-level. Enquiry questions framed, for example, with reference to the extent of change within a particular period, or dealing with the causes of an extraordinary event teach pupils how different kinds of disciplinary questions can be tackled and demonstrate the need for detailed substantive knowledge to be able to reach a well-reasoned and substantiated answer. 

The enquiry question in history teaching is therefore a planning device for teachers, enabling them to structure coherent sequences of lessons, building knowledge systematically within well-organised frameworks. It thus helps pupils to see the links between one lesson and the next, and through sustained attention to a single question, ‘to make connections, draw contrasts, analyse trends’ as the National Curriculum requires. Pupils’ ability to answer the enquiry question at the end of the sequence – most often by means of a written narrative or analytic essay – also serves as a fundamental means of assessing both their historical knowledge and their ability to produce an analysis in response to a type of historical question before moving on to the next lesson sequence.