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Why is Historical Enquiry important?

One major reason is that it provides continuity across History courses, from primary to university level. Students often find History difficult because they constantly feel they’re starting again. They see the surface details and think each new topic is different because it features new or mostly new names, dates, places etc. This camouflage prevents students realising that they can use what they’ve learned before to help them with a new topic. Therefore we need to help students realise that what they learned in Y7 is useful in Y8 and even in Y10 and Y12.

The second major reason for focussing on Enquiry is that it is intimately linked to the ability of students to work independently and effectively by the time they reach the age of 18. This development of effective independent study is clearly a broader educational aim and one very much needed at university and in life beyond education, but history has an important and helpful role to play in this development.

Several elements contribute to how we do this:

a) developing conceptual understandings so that, for example, students use sources more effectively as evidence as they mature.

b) building knowledge and understanding of the map of the past so that, for example, students are better able to compare and contrast events, periods and individuals, making those elusive links across time and developing a sense of period.

c) and perhaps even more fundamentally, understanding how we go about the process of enquiry, being able to move from knowing nothing or next to nothing about a topic to having a satisfying grasp of the issues and being able to answer questions about it with confidence – be they informal oral questions or demanding written exam questions. Students can then use this explicit process as a template when faced with other enquiries on other topics.

What is the Process of Enquiry?

So what is the process of enquiry? This has doubtless been the subject of much learned debate but I’m afraid that has passed me by. My pragmatic definition is along the lines of:

‘question – hypothesis – use of evidence to test the hypothesis – reformulation of hypothesis’

and so on, repeating the last two stages for as long as time and patience allow.

This short description could be debated and occasionally teachers at courses have debated it, asserting that this pattern is ‘wrong’ in some way or begins with the ‘wrong’ item. However over-prescriptive precision can get in the way of a broadly useful idea. I agree that sometimes we begin with a question, at others with evidence or contextual information that inspires a question – these are variations on the theme. What’s far more important is that there’s a readily comprehensible sequence of activity that students can explicitly describe, apply and continue to apply as their History studies continue– and which helps them tackle their History more effectively and more confidently.

The Purposes of Studying History

Apart from its centrality to the study of History, Enquiry is also important because it’s at the heart of arguments about the value of studying History. Explicit focus on enquiry helps students, parents and school management see one of the important benefits of studying history – thinking and planning a way through a problem, asking questions, undertaking research, independent thinking, making judgments, effective communication. This is all the more important given the findings in the research of Richard Harris and Terry Haydn which concludes that ‘large numbers of [pupils] have a limited grasp of the intended purposes of a historical education …’

For more information see articles summarising this research in Teaching History editions 132 and 134.

Also see Factors influencing pupil take-up of History post Key Stage 3, Final Report September 2007. To download this PDF from the UEA website [ click here ].

If we are to make significant in-roads on students’ ideas about the purposes of studying History then it seems essential to make clear the process of enquiry and its transferability to the world outside the classroom. Enquiry encompasses how to go about problem-solving, independent and team-driven research, identifying relevant evidence and evaluating its reliability, moving from tentative to firmer conclusions on the basis of that evidence and finally reaching a judgement and knowing how certain that judgement is, balancing the arguments for and against. These are widely-transferable skills, both in the contexts of individuals and teamwork – and developed in History in the most important context of all, the actions and motives of real, individual people.

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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