Last summer, following conversations with a colleague about a successful Year 12 Economics inquiry, Joe, a Politics teacher and one of our Lead Practitioners, suggested we design an inquiry together to deliver part of the A-Level Pressure Groups topic to his Year 12 students. It was an ideal opportunity because he had just delivered that topic so we were looking at designing something for his next cohort the following summer, which gave plenty of time to kick ideas around. Initial discussions suggested we had about seven lessons to play with over the course of 3 weeks. The material we needed students to learn centered around what makes a pressure group successful, so we decided to start with the idea of a debate on “is X a successful pressure group” as a starter task, with students using the notes they took from the debates to prepare to be interviewed for the job of CEO of one of these groups. The luxury of such a long lead time means that this inquiry has had time to ferment while Joe and I have been collaborating on other projects (see the Essay planners topic in this forum) and has evolved significantly. We are currently in the final stages of developing the resources with a view to undertaking the inquiry in May.
The main reason I chose the topic of Pressure Groups for our inquiry design is that I was so dissatisfied with the way I delivered it last year. As a subject area that relies on research into contemporary pressure group activity, and with the new course demanding detailed understanding of the successes and failures of groups (and the reasons for these), I knew that students must engage more closely with their findings. However, in the past, students have garnered only surface-level understanding, which involved very little depth or critical thinking. The simple reason for this was that I had never properly thought about what made an effective inquiry. Thankfully, Jenny had, and does, on a regular basis. Since our preliminary planning meetings, we have met roughly once every three or four weeks. Admittedly, we did become quite sidetracked by other amazing uses of FOSIL. Nevertheless, we are now quite close to creating a final plan, which incorporates FOSIL through different stages and activities, spread across lessons and prep time. What has been enlightening throughout this process is how engagingly FOSIL can be interwoven through my subject area. Jenny would be the first to admit that Politics is (was) not her speciality, just as openly as I can say that parts of FOSIL were alien to me just a few months ago. However, our collaboration has illustrated just how powerful teacher-to-teacher resource design can be. I hope that, by combining our specialisms, we can soon publish the results of our inquiry design.
Jenny and I are now very close to beginning the pressure groups topic with Form 6 A-level Politics students. I will be teaching them some of the basic nuts and bolts of pressure group types, methods and functions first, before we then deliver the entire topic through inquiry. Jenny has worked incredibly hard on the creation of inquiry resources, and we have met frequently to ensure they stay true to both the FOSIL cycle and my aims within the subject. I’m looking forward to seeing how it unfolds – resources and initial reflections to follow…
We are now right in the middle of the A Level Politics inquiry into Pressure Groups. This week, students have worked through the Construct phase in preparation for the Express stage (debates) in the next lesson. The overwhelming sense we have so far is of genuine, and deep-level, engagement with the inquiry. I believe this can be attributed to two factors;
The first is that I ensured students had a strong foundation of the key terms and definitions in the topic before embarking on the Connect & Wonder stages (although the resource I created to ‘teach’ this introductory element was implicitly Connect- and Wonder-based). This ensured that the Investigate stage was far more accessible.
The second factor affecting such strong motivation is the quality of the FOSIL resources themselves. The scaffolded, intuitive and vibrant direction that the resources provide are well-suited to the needs of all students, whether they are good independent learners already, or not. The standout resource at this stage is the Construct sheet, which not only brings together the content of the Investigation phase, but also begins to frame this newly-found knowledge in an analytical and useful way (both in preparation for the debates and external examinations).
It is always exciting when an inquiry gets underway, and this one particularly so because it has been a year in planning, on and off. What has really struck me in this first week and a half is the role of the skillful subject specialist in guiding and shaping the individual student experience. Having spent a long time collaboratively planning the inquiry and designing resources to support it, it is so tempting at this stage to take your foot off the gas and let the students ‘get on with it’ – and yet it is the skillfully applied nudges, gentle interventions, and sometimes hefty shoves in the right direction that ultimately determine success. Watching Joe teach is a real masterclass – he knows exactly how to get the best out of the individual students, and has very high expectations that they rise to meet. He also knows his subject inside out, and is constantly drip feeding appropriate facts to stimulate thinking and shape the direction of the inquiry, without ‘rescuing’ students or doing their work for them. He challenges weak or lazy arguments that students make, and unpicks strong ones to show other students where their strength comes from. Lessons, even during an inquiry, always have thought-provoking yet simple starters and his students know that there is nowhere to hide because everyone is expected to contribute.
Another interesting aspect of this inquiry is that exam technique is unashamedly central, which challenges the often heard argument that inquiry is a nice add-on if you have a bit of spare time but is actually a luxury because it won’t be on the exam. The expression of this inquiry is in debate format and Joe frequently explicitly highlights to the students areas where they are practising and refining ‘AO2’ (analysis) and ‘AO3’ (evaluation) skills. Throughout the inquiry students are learning subject content and subject-specific exam technique as well as inquiry skills. And they are so engaged with the material that after the end of one debate on Tuesday both students involved were saying “I know the debate is over, but can I just share this…” because they couldn’t keep what they had found to themselves! That’s not an unnecessary luxury, that’s exemplary classroom practice.
Another few lessons into the Politics inquiry, and I am increasingly impressed by the quality of the Express stage. It is testament to the work done during the Connect, Wonder, and Investigate phases that the debates this week have been so informative, critical and demanding. Students made effective use of the blue Construct sheet to plan in analysis that was then implemented during the debates. With only limited guidance from me, students generated impressive back-and-forth arguments. In some cases, I essentially faded into the background as debaters collaboratively ‘argumentatively taught’ the class!
Prior to the debates, students were only provided with two instructions; their pressure group name and the investigative focus (how successful has their assigned pressure group been?). At the beginning of each debate, I then assigned a student to each side of the debate (successful/unsuccessful). Each side would be allowed a one minute opening and closing speech, with the central part of the debate left to students to unpick the different criterion affecting pressure group success from their opposing perspectives. Those who had best-utilised their Construct sheets found this uncertainly in viewpoint easy to handle, as they had already preempted the analysis required to win the debate at the Construct stage.
Students clearly appreciate the FOSIL resources on various levels, not only in their utility in ‘winning’ the debate. The planning sheets also allow the accumulation of relevant and accurate knowledge, vital in the exam. More important, though, is the AO2 Analysis demanded at A Level, which students have now practised on paper and verbally. FOSIL is proving highly effective in tying together inquiry with the assessment objectives of the course.
We are at slightly different stages with the three different groups at the moment and earlier in the week I was involved with introducing the Investigate stage to the last group. An important part of this lesson is introducing them to CRAAP testing (for which we very successfully used the resources developed for the Year 9 Chemistry inquiry earlier in the year). This has been particularly powerful for this inquiry because we have been able to explain why they need to be very critical of their sources – beyond the usual and obvious arguments about why you should always use credible sources for academic work. Since the first Express stage in this inquiry is a debate, we explained to students that they should be ready to attack or defend the source of the information as well as the information itself. Not knowing which side of the debate they will be on until the moment they stand up to deliver their opening statements has focused their minds very powerfully both on providing credible arguments for both sides, but also on analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of those arguments so that they are ready to attack or defend them – a critical skill they need for their exam. An interesting side-effect has also been that they haven’t felt the need to attack each other’s sources in the actual debates, possibly because they have all made a real effort to use credible sources so there are no dubious facts being peddled. This whole experience actually reinforces a broader point about not necessarily giving students full instructions for their Express phase until Construct has been completed, which keeps the focus on the understanding not the product.
Students have generally been very engaged with the CRAAP testing process, and picked up the idea very quickly as we stepped through an interactive CRAAP test together. One student this week was brave enough to challenge my scores at the end. I gave the Breitbart article zero for Accuracy, Authority and Purpose and he felt that was unfair, essentially because they had put the effort into making it look credible (date, author, linked evidence, named quotes and a decent-looking chart). It was actually a wonderful opportunity to reinforce John Royce’s point that you cannot accurately assess the credibility or a source using information from that site alone. It may look good, but that doesn’t make it true!
To reinforce Jenny’s message about critical thinking above, a quick note on what the audience does during debates at the Express stage. Whilst the Construct sheets are used for the debaters, non-participants are busy completing their Express sheets, gathering evidence on each side of the argument for each pressure group as they are debated. These are structured in a similar way to the Construct resource; divided into the five success criterion for pressure groups, with space afterwards to form a judgement on whether success has been achieved by each pressure group. As Jenny says, the Express stage is about the quality of the argument, not just a regurgitation of facts in a non-discriminatory fashion. Though only one student has referenced the CRAAP testing explicitly, it is clear that the debates only gained their analytical edge due to the student’s approach to the Investigation before it.
In addition, students complete peer assessment with small Reflect slips for the audience to complete for each debater, providing successes and tips for the speakers. This has two uses; for the students and for us. We are interested to observe peer- and self-reflection as students honestly react to their debate performance, and the process leading up to it. But we also want to take a long view on this inquiry project, and will return to these peer comments when we review the success of each FOSIL stage.
The final stage of this inquiry has been an opportunity for students to design their own pressure group, using what they have learnt to make sure it will be successful. They had to fill in a design sheet, where they considered all the areas we have been looking at, such as funding and strategy, and then produce some promotional materials that would speak for themselves. They weren’t allowed to present their groups to the class. Everyone left their design sheet and promotional materials on their desk and went around to assess each other’s efforts, marking them out of 10 in 10 categories. At the end, they voted for the two groups they thought most likely to be successful (based on their scores) using £1,000 ‘cheques’. Something I hadn’t thought about in the design was that some of them were a bit baffled by the cheques because they are used so rarely these days!
Engagement was high and there were some phenomenal efforts, with many informative posters and leaflets and a few very professional looking interactive multimedia presentations on laptops. We also saw a wide range of ’causes’ from conserving honeybees through to legalising gun ownership for self-defence in the UK. More importantly, it was clear that a great deal of thought had gone into the group design and that students had a clear idea of what a successful pressure group would need. Our only concern about this stage was that students had put a great deal of effort into designing their groups but would not be able to use them as case studies in the exam (because they aren’t real groups). We have already begun to think about how we might improve the inquiry for next year – our own ‘What Went Well’ and ‘Even Better If’ process has begun…
Jenny is absolutely spot on in her two central assertions here;
1. The student-designed pressure groups were of the very highest quality. Some of the winning presentations were so good we found ourselves wanting to sign up for the pressure group membership quirks they offered! I believe the high calibre of this final express stage is the culmination of the deeper-level thinking that we have witnessed in the earlier investigate, construct and express stages (as seen in the debates). In the main, it is clear that students have engaged well with the success criteria for pressure groups, and produced at least the standard of work we expected.
2. Regardless of the wonderful final products (they really were superb), this task may have been an unnecessary ‘bolt-on’ rather than a vital end-product, central to the process. This has led us to instead consider a more useful (but still formative, inquiry-based and engaging by nature) task, with the two of us providing a selection of varying important pressure groups to focus on. There are some pressure groups that have not been sufficiently investigated and require greater depth of understanding, particularly the comparison of the traditional trade union movements, pitched against modern cyberactivists and think tanks.
The students have undoubtedly gained a mastery of the pressure group topic as a whole, combined with a much improved ability to self-regulate their learning. If we can direct this metacognition towards an improved final task the students will be even better off next time around. The brainstorming of new ideas has already begun!
I have now posted the full Pressure Groups Inquiry Journal in the resources section. It is not a traditional inquiry journal in the sense that it could not really be issued as a booklet – it is more a worksheet bundle. The PDF page sizes vary between A4 and A3 to reflect the fact that 3 of the pages are intended to be printed on A3, and two of the other pages are clearly intended to be cut into individual “feedback slips” or “cheques”. Hopefully, with this topic thread, it is reasonably self-explanatory but please do ask if it isn’t clear what a sheet is for. It is PDF only because some of of the sheets were created in Publisher and I cannot upload Publisher documents. If anyone is interested in editable versions, I can also upload the Word versions of those sheets originally created in Word.
To give some idea of the inquiry structure, have a look at the inquiry timeline (which we issued to the students at the start to help them to plan their time). The three pages represent the three different groups (6A, 6B and 6E) who followed slightly different patterns because of the way half term fell in relation to their lessons. Each row represents a 1 hour lesson (or a 2 hour weekly prep task). The groups had 3 lessons with Joe each week (and 3 lessons studying the other half of the course with their other teacher).
Thanks for posting this very interesting thread, and for the link to the resources. It’s a definite area of weakness in my teaching of the subject, I think because it’s one that lends itself the most to independent investigation which isn’t an area I’ve really concentrated on. In addition, in the early post the original inquiry seemed to include an “Imagine you’re the CEO” element which doesn’t seem to be mentioned later on – perhaps it was dropped? I wondered about what value that added. Similarly, I think I agree with your and Joe’s analysis of the end task involving made-up PGs, making leaflets etc.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a bit sceptical of end products that don’t obviously benefit the learning. For example, I often wonder about the point of “Make a newspaper front page about X”. For me, unless it is part of learning about journalese, the newspaper element is just a distraction. It leads to more thought about punchy headlines, alliteration and “See our amazing feature on Love Island on [the non-existent] page three!” than about whatever it was they were actually supposed to be learning. This is why I’m so interested in FOSIL, which seems to me be an excellent and noble exploration into how to marry to joy of discovery with some rigorous scholarship and due respect for content.
One more question. In Urban Myths About Learning and Education, Bruyckere, Herschel and Hulshof state that research shows problem-based learning (which I assume this is) “is not really suitable for acquiring new knowledge” (p56). They say this is because it tends to overload working memory. They go on to add that it can, however, give great value where used to apply existing knowledge. If I read your resources correctly, there seems a chance that you are trying to do the acquisition at the same time as solve the problem, which would run counter to the research quoted in the book. How would you refute this? (My contact with Jenny and Darryl thus far suggests you will have thought hard about it!)
Yes, we did drop the CEO interview idea because, following the debate, we were concerned that it would take too much time to go through ‘presentation in pairs’ work again for very little gain.
Regarding the design of their own groups, I am absolutely with you that the product needs to be focussed on the learning aims and, while allowing for some creativity is part of helping students to make the content their own and engage with it more strongly, their creative energies need to be channeled towards helping them to engage with the material they are supposed to be learning. For us, that has been one of FOSIL’s strengths (particularly lower down) as it gets students to focus on the material not the ‘pictures, crazy fonts and colour effects’ aspect of poster making that younger students in particular tend to gravitate to. In the Lower School we often don’t tell them what the product will be until they have mostly finished the Investigate and Construct stages. In this case the design of their own groups wasn’t entirely frivolous – Joe and I both felt that most of the students had an excellent grasp of what a pressure group requires to succeed by the end of the exercise, which they wouldn’t readily forget. However, the initial idea was that they should be building up case studies to use in the exam and this element didn’t help with that (although the debate was brilliant for it). Our plan for next year is, instead of the group design, to ask them to write an article to ‘enter’ for an investigative journalism award (such as the Pulitzer, but trying to find a UK example) on the success (or otherwise) of a different named group, dividing think tanks, cyberactivists and trade unions between them. They could then read and judge each other’s efforts. This has several benefits: the articles wouldn’t need any complicated layout so all the creative energy would go into the investigation; it would give them each one more case-study to look at in depth; they would gain even more case studies by judging other students’ work; and it will allow us to introduce different types of group. An element of competition is also a helpful driver for some students! All embryonic ideas at the moment, but we’ve got almost a year to think about them.
Your last question is interesting and important, so I’ll consider it in a separate post!
Regarding your comment about the quote from Urban Myths about Learning and Education, it is probably worth considering the whole paragraph (Bruyckere, Kirschner and Hulshof, 2015, p.56-7):
“And why does problem-based education seem to score so poorly in professional literature? Research shows that in practice it is not really suitable for acquiring new knowledge. Some studies have even recorded negative effects in terms of knowledge acquisition, which means that students can sometimes even learn the wrong things. If, however, you use problem-based learning to apply previously acquired knowledge to a new problem, then it has a significantly positive effect. In other words, problem-based learning is very suitable for applying and honing existing skills and for making connections between different concepts. But it is far less appropriate for acquiring new knowledge or insights. This leads to the conclusion that it is very important for the teacher to play an active role in thinking about the different solution strategies and providing new insights.”
Just to be clear – what we are doing with FOSIL is Inquiry Learning not Problem-Based Learning. These two approaches are related but not the same. “Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic or issue. It requires more of them than simply answering questions or getting a right answer.” (Kuhlthau, 2007, p. 2). “Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered approach in which students learn about a subject by working in groups to solve an open-ended problem. This problem is what drives the motivation and the learning.” (Nilson, 2010). You can see from the definitions that Inquiry encompasses PBL but is much broader. Also, Inquiry is driven by a question (which may lead to a problem), whereas PBL is driven by a problem.
The whole quoted paragraph is important because it underlines some really important features of successful inquiry design:
A properly thought-out Connect phase which allows students to root what they are about to do in what they already know. This may involve some basic pre-research – it may also involve some front-loaded theory teaching. In this case Joe spent a lesson introducing some of the important theory and terminology students would need for the inquiry with a particular focus on key words and phrases. Students also read some carefully chosen introductory articles to help them to ground this theory. Yes, the inquiry began with new material, but students were supported through this and by the time they reached the Investigate stage (where they needed to go and look for new sources themselves) they had a good idea of what they were supposed to be looking for.
A ‘hands on’ approach by the teacher. It is very easy to look at inquiry as a break – “I can get my marking and reports done while they teach themselves this bit” – but done properly it is just as hard work (if not harder) than didactic teaching methods. You should be talking with individuals all the time about what they have found and what they think it means (and using tools such as the Investigative Journal, and a suitable Construct resource, to help students to make their thinking visible throughout the inquiry), guiding them down new paths and challenging misconceptions. I started my career as a physics teacher (with a secondary science PGCE and a background in Maths at university. I have since acquired an MSc in Library and Information Studies) and it made me smile to read “students can even learn the wrong things” as a criticism of problem-based learning. Really? And that never happens with didactic teaching methods? So why do science teachers find they need to spend so much of their time challenging and correcting student misconceptions? It is our job to spot and challenge misconceptions as they arise however that happens – inquiry learning /PBL is not an excuse to sit back and ignore them!
“It is very important for the teacher to play an active role in thinking about the different solution strategies and providing new insights”. Absolutely! I find it helpful to think of the role of the teacher in inquiry as an expert mountain guide helping the climber to reach the summit. You don’t stand by and watch your climber fall into a crevasse, you guide them around it, but equally you don’t climb the mountain for them and then just show them your photos when you get back.
As a final thought, as an adult, how do you now acquire most of your new skills and knowledge? These are my answers – yours might be different:
By listening to someone talking and making my own notes? Not really.
By repetitive practising? Yes, sometimes – but usually that is how I cement skills and knowledge I have already learnt, not how I learn new things.
By investigating, pursuing a question that matters to me, pulling information from various different sources (books, websites, personal conversations and experiences), consolidating and cross-checking it and drawing my own conclusions? Yes, all the time. And these are the skills we are trying to help students to learn and refine through inquiry in increasingly sophisticated ways as they progress up through the school.
I’m sorry I’ve rejoined the party a month late. I seem to a have missed a conversation that gets to the very heart of FOSIL and why I chose to approach Jenny about our Politics inquiry in the first place; how do I teach this topic through inquiry?
Sam, you raise a fundamental point about curriculum design and the pitfalls of tacking on a vacuous activity just for fun. I fear we partially fell into this trap last year, though the creation of one’s own pressure group did generate some of the most imaginative and engaging student work I have ever seen (granted, I see a lot of essays, so perhaps my bar is low!). In addition, it moved students up to the higher order thinking skills of application and evaluation, something I know FOSIL is so effective at doing across the board. Nevertheless, as Jenny says, this year, we will be altering the final phase of the inquiry into something that more closely-follows the Politics specification, by utilising real pressure groups. Indeed we have targeted think tanks, cyberactivists, etc owing to the focus the exam board places on these different brands of pressure group.
Coming back to the main issue, that of knowledge-acquisition, which Jenny has already clarified so thoroughly from the FOSIL perspective (particularly in pointing out the teaching of core topic knowledge that we undertook within the Connect and Wonder stages) and in differentiating problem solving from inquiry learning. From my Politics teacher standpoint, the thing that prevents inquiry overloading the working memory as the quoted ‘problem-solving’ based research suggests is that the cycle and resources we produce as part of FOSIL make it clear to students that everything we do is of ‘take-home’ importance. Each lesson follows a clear stage of the FOSIL cycle and, as Jenny says, we as ‘mountain guides’ scaffold learning in a way that allows student agency to flourish, whilst never becoming superfluous or overloading. For example, in our debate lessons for UK pressure groups (is group x successful?), the non-debating students are not passive audience members; they are actively completing notes that will prepare them for their exams, whilst also adding value to the arguments of the two debaters by using their own Express and Reflect resources. Everyone in the room knows that they are acquiring new understanding and developing their arguments, but the debaters are also inquiring (and problem solving for that matter) on the spot, in a live debate; pre-empting counter arguments and crafting their own rebuttals. The intrinsic and instrumental value of these FOSIL activities was plain to see throughout the process.
This idea of combining inquiry and knowledge acquisition is now something I strive to achieve as regularly as possible with my students.