Active Learning on

How can Enquiry be used constructively at GCSE & A Level?

This is not a full discussion of enquiry post-14 – that would require a book or two. Nor does this section deal with the most obvious course units with ‘Enquiry’ in the title such as Edexcel’s GCSE Source Enquiries. This short section is about

• building enquiry into day to day teaching post-14, so that students retain and develop a sense of enquiry being at the heart of History

• using enquiry to help students learn more effectively by working their way from initial answers to detailed understanding.


The following notes take teaching SHP’s Medicine through Time as an exemplar but the principles are transferable to all courses at this level. The ideas were worked out as part of the process of rewriting SHP’s resources for ‘Medicine’ for the new 2009 specifications.

1. Treat Medicine through Time as an enquiry as well as a Development Study across a long period of time. Whichever specification you follow you can build teaching the whole of ‘Medicine’ around a core enquiry such as

‘Why do people today have better health and live longer than people in the past?’

What are the benefits of pursuing such an over-arching enquiry?

a) It continues to emphasise the centrality of enquiry in History, established at KS3.

b) It unites the whole course and helps students to organize their knowledge. It is easier for students to develop an overview narrative of medical history in relation to a specific question than in a vacuum where information is acquired for its own sake rather than for a purpose – to undertake an enquiry and answer a core question.

c) It gives a rationale for individual period activities and helps students see why these particular 'period' enquiries have been set up – they contribute to an overall enquiry.

d) This particular question has the great advantage of helping students relate their Development Study on ‘Medicine’ to the present day, showing how history provides a perspective on life today.

e) It helps create a sense of achievement in developing a deeper answer to the enquiry through the course than students can offer at the beginning.

2. Using the enquiry process to help students learn more effectively.

Two of the problems that students have in learning effectively in the Development Study are

a) seeing the course as a whole, getting the chronology right and being able to make links and contrasts across time

b) seeing the wood for the trees – establishing the outline of developments in a single period without getting bogged down in so much detail that it drowns out the outline.

The enquiry process described earlier in the KS3 notes can help with both these issues:

a) tackling the overview - when starting the course, begin with the core question ‘Why do people today have better health and live longer than people in the past?’. Use a limited amount of material to help students build up a quick overview – but an overview with a purpose, creating a hypothesis that’s a first answer to this question. This hypothesis could include reference to the key elements (changes in understanding of disease, public health etc) and also the pattern of improvement (slow development or sudden improvement) and when this might have been. Spending a lesson or two juggling a range of clues from different periods enables students to build up a sense of the key periods and their sequence while creating their hypothesis. This has then created a framework of understanding that gives them a context for moving onto individual periods.

b) stopping students drowning in detail - a common problem for students at all levels is that they don’t think they can answer a question until the very end of a unit of work. Therefore they feel they have to build up a lot of knowledge before they can begin to use it – and this is a recipe for acquiring lots of information without any pattern or purpose – or, simply, doing lots of stuff without taking in anything significant. Whether getting stuck into medicine in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance or whenever, a much more effective model is to begin with a question and develop an outline answer based on a limited amount of information and then, if necessary and students can handle it, plunge into more detail to test and develop that outline answer. Thus in SHP's new ‘Medicine’ books we have begun each period with a ‘Medical Moments in time’ page, providing key points through the medium of people talking in a scene from 200AD, 1347, 1665 etc. This gives students enough information on one page to see what is happening in public health, understanding of disease, treatments, surgery etc and then to answer each period’s key question such as ‘Why didn’t medicine improve in the Middle Ages?’ or ‘Why was the medical Renaissance important when it didn’t make anyone healthier?’. Having established their hypothesis students can then move onto look at the period in more detail – in the context of that outline. This helps confidence – they already have an answer to build on. They don’t have to learn all that stuff about Harvey, Vesalius etc before they can begin to see the pattern of the period. You could even save a lot of time by dividing detailed topics amongst the class, secure that everyone has knowledge of the key features of the period.

A level

Again a common problem at A level (and at degree level) is that students think they have to learn lots before they can begin to make sense of a topic or start to put answers together. But without hooks (the question and hypothesis of the early stages of the enquiry process) there’s nothing to hang this learning on and that creates the ever-present danger of lots of reading and note-taking without any clear sense of direction. That in turn leads to frustration and reduced motivation – ‘I’ve done loads of reading but haven’t retained much/can’t make sense of it.’ In practice, having a question and hypothesis to work on from the beginning make a huge difference, guiding reading constructively and making for much more effective learning. This process also combats the sense of ‘not knowing’, making explicit that it’s OK to know little or nothing at the outset but that uncertainty is a natural and accepted part of getting to grips with a topic.

This is most easily demonstrated using an example. Imagine you’re about to set your Y12 to work on the events of 1471, focussing on why Edward IV was able to regain his throne after being deposed only months earlier. Never mind if you don’t teach this (or know anything much about Edward IV) – it’s the process that’s critical, being transferable to any other context. The key to students tackling this effectively is to move straight into the question and to construct a possible answer in the first lesson.

So, begin by presenting students with the question – Why did Edward regain his throne in 1471? Then ask them for ideas – after all, they’ll have looked at why he lost the throne – but you can’t rely on this, some students won’t have the confidence to make the mental leaps across topics. So, give them the answer! Not a complete answer but a list of possible factors on cards and ask them to organize them into groups

a) reasons which seem to link to Edward’s own strengths and qualities

b) reasons which seem to be his opponents’ mistakes or weaknesses

c) other factors which don’t seem to fit into (a) or (b)

Note the use of the word ‘seem’, very hypothetical, very reassuring that you’re not meant to be certain or to know the answer at this stage. The factor cards can be organized onto a washing line running from Edward’s strengths to his opponents’ weaknesses – a washing line that has a cunning relationship to an essay plan! And the washing line has created a hypothesis – the answer is a mix of Edward’s strengths and his opponents’ weaknesses – which do students’ think is likely to have been more important?

Now at this stage students just have a list of factors, organized into a pattern – factors such as ‘Edward’s military leadership’ and ‘Clarence changes sides’ – so they don’t know much but enough to enable them to look for detail on these factors in their books – exactly how was Edward a good military leader, when exactly did his leadership play a part, was this a factor at critical moments? Thus the initial identification of a question and hypothesis helps students read much more effectively because they’ve got a target for that reading. The pages of their books no longer comprise an obstacle course full of completely unfamiliar material. The benefits of the approach are confidence, a sense of direction, improved motivation, and improved reading. And, in the long-run, better writing because knowledge is more secure, having been built up in layers, from outline to depth.

Thus creating a hypothesis at the outset of 4 or 5 lessons-worth of work provides a structure that students can follow, realising that it’s OK to know only a little at the outset but that they can build that knowledge and understanding as they go – and you’re giving them the tools to become more and more independent in their learning. At some stage take away the scaffolding – the list of possible reasons – and insist they come up with their own ideas. Creating independent thinkers and learners is what A level should be about – not students who can’t cope without a book covered in exam board logos and detailed guidance on how to get from level 2 to level 3.

For a fuller description of this activity (with resource cards) see – 1471: Why did Edward IV win his crown back?

BACK                        NEXT

Enquiry Section

Enquiry Skills

Importance of Enquiry

Enquiry and KS3

Enquiry at GCSE & A Level

Enquiry at Sites & Museums


Downloads Plus

Download the entire ‘Enquiry’ discussion (PDF)

Download ‘Enquiry & Sense of Period’ Article

Independent Learning at A level

Flipped Learning and Independent Study: a 1970s Forerunner?



Do you remember when … we did an enquiry?

Vocabulary Cards

Question Dice