Staffroom Subject Zone

What is enquiry? Well, I love it, because the word comes from the ancient Greeks, and it actually means ‘history’. Being a history nut, I find this really pleasing.


If you look enquiry up in the dictionary it means ‘finding out through asking questions and investigation’. This is a good definition. Be careful — this doesn’t mean giving the pupils five questions and letting them go on the internet for an hour to find the answers. Instead, we need to be mindful of Andy Griffith’s and Mark Burns’ great advice about how to be an Outstanding teacher: engagement, challenge, autonomy and feedback are crucial. Done well, an enquiry-based process provides the opportunity for all four.

So, what could the process look like? With the help of my thoughtful and intelligent textbook author Ian Dawson, we have come up with what we think the enquiry process could look like.


Enquiry Step 1: First evidence – asking questions

Start by showing the class one or two pieces of evidence. For example, show them photographs of skeletons buried in the ground that have been recently discovered. This should create curiosity, and allows the class to raise a number of questions that they want to answer about the evidence. You could start with a juicy problem you want them to solve.


Enquiry Step 2: Suggesting a possible answer to the enquiry question

At this point, the teacher would introduce a little more information or evidence that will help answer the main question that has been posed. But teachers shouldn’t give all of the information at this point, just a little. Groups or pairs of pupils are now asked to suggest a possible answer to the main question. This is their first hypothesis.

At this point it is a good idea to introduce the line of certainty and some tentative language. How certain are the pupils that their first answer is correct? As they do not yet have enough information to make an informed judgement, they should place themselves and their first hypothesis on the line of certainty and use the appropriate language.


Types of tentative language:

certain, uncertain, definitely, probably,
possibly, perhaps, maybe, not sure


Enquiry Step 3: Exploring more evidence and developing the answer

It is now time to introduce more evidence. If the teacher has planned the sequence well, the pupils should be more confident that their answer is correct. If not, they can change their hypothesis. It is a good idea to ask the children which pieces of evidence support their answer.

Re-introduce the line of certainty here. Are they more certain that they are correct? It is worth noting that Step 3 can be repeated on a number of occasions, depending on age/ability/availability of evidence.


Enquiry Step 4: Answering the enquiry question

At this point you want a final answer. The pupils should be clear in their thinking, and they should have lots of supporting evidence to prove they are right. They should also be using the language of certainty/uncertainty. You could model how you want them to write, or simply let them have a go independently.

This process has helped me with both planning and teaching. Over the years my lessons have been judged as Outstanding, and many teachers I have supported have improved their practice too. Is enquiry in vogue? I don’t know, but I can tell how well it works by looking at how engaged the students are, how their oral answers show their thinking and how their written work shows the progress they have made. SR


Written by
Richard McFahn

Richard specialises in active and practical teaching approaches that inspire and motivate. Richard has worked as an AST, adviser and senior leader. He has been regularly judged as outstanding by Ofsted. Richard has presented highly rated and hugely hands on national history courses. He has developed practical and successful whole school approaches to teaching and learning and written imaginative and active history textbooks for students; Richard currently works as a teacher with responsibility for teaching and learning, and as a consultant and trainer.

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