The power of enquiry based learning in the classroom

Ruth Brown, Head of Creative Arts, shares how creativity comes alive at Duchess's Community High School

In Summer 2019, the Creative Arts Faculty at Duchess’s Community High School, embarked on a project, now called CREATE, to fully embrace enquiry-based learning at Key Stage 3 (KS3).We aimed to achieve this through the development of a bespoke Curriculum model based on thematic enquiry across Art, Music and Textiles, underpinned by Habits of Mind . The Centre for Real-World Learning’s five creative habits of mind model and Artsmark Quality Principles were, and continue to be, at the core of our planning and form the backbone of our work, our language and our teaching pedagogies. We achieved our Artsmark Platinum award in April 2021 and continue to use the Artsmark's flexible framework to support our ambitions of embedding creativity across the curriculum.

Creative thinking is a powerful capability for our children to master and it felt right to develop a thematic based, enquiry led curriculum at KS3 to build stamina and capacity to stretch, model and raise aspirations and achievements for all our students. We wanted to create an authentic real-world experience within the classroom, to give a sense of authority and ownership for student’s ideas and values. We wanted our students to be actively involved in the planning process and to aim high, being proud to be valued members of the school and wider community.

Focusing on five creative habits

The five creative habits of mind and the idea of the high functioning classroom and its authentic pedagogies developed by Paul Collard and Bill Lucas became the model by which we framed our thematic enquiry across Art, Music, Textiles and Drama.

Students were asked to be imaginative in their approach to their learning and understanding of the Creative Arts, inquisitive in their enquiry and understanding of themes and skills, persistent in their ability to stick at something longer term as they refine their craft, collaborative without fear of judgement and disciplined in how they approached their learning and practice.

Through these five creative habits we believe that all students can be challenged and develop into critical and creative thinkers.. We want our students to be engaged and active in their learning, not to be afraid of the unknown, aspire beyond their social boundaries ,freely ask questions about the world and communities they live in and develop a passion for their learning within a real world context.

Embedding creative capabilities in the arts

Our partnership with Creativity, Culture and Education (CCE) helped us deepen our understanding of creative habits of mind and of the impact of enquiry based learning. It was empowering to work freely and collaboratively with the Faculty team and be mentored by Paul Collard. With Paul we unpicked each core strand from each arts discipline and mapped it against the Artsmark Quality Principles.

Initially we targeted our new Year 7 intake but the success of the project has developed to include Year 7 & 8 and is modelled throughout years 9-11.CREATE puts students at the centre of everything we do, by giving authentic learning opportunities and experiences within a real time context. Students were asked collectively and individually, to reflect on their communities, their cultural values and what it meant to leave a legacy within their community.

A Year 7 student exploring elements of their world and where they make their mark. Classical thematic enquiry based on mark making enquiry through traditional and non-traditional means.

We asked them to be inquisitive about the sounds of Northumberland, the voices, stories, poetry, the dialect and what that meant to them personally. Students explored the heritage and legacy of their own families and how stories, heritage and craft. We explored how this could be transferred into a visual language to support the development of notation scores in Music. From this we created ’tribal’ banners for each form group (inspired by Grayson Perry) in Textiles to explore each form groups cultural diversity and how through collaboration, dialogue and performance, they could translate their visual practise into music scores, screenplays and visual practise. The result was fantastic and opened up a new narrative about their world and culture, creating a sense of community and belonging.

Celebrating joyfully


Year 7 exploring community, self and landscape through mark making

Our celebration events at the end of each termly topic are full of joy with every student being represented.!. All work is shown as a collaborative piece of enquiry led practice. It is curated by our students to share with the whole school community, visitors and most importantly the wider community including family and friends. By celebrating students’ work, it gives them a platform to practice their public speaking and presentation skills, developing their confidence and ambitions to aim high in life.

Evidence of impact

Through empowering students to work with their creative capabilities, rather than the perceived traditional skills set for each discipline, we have broken free of the boundaries and barriers which often held back our most vulnerable or disengaged young people.

What is striking is the positive empowerment of students and teachers in our approach to teaching for creativity using enquiry. Lessons are full of diverse conversations, busy hives of activity with students spilling into the facility areas to compose and perform. Mark making and creative inquisitiveness is practiced without fear of failure and dialogue is rich, seamlessly crossing over the invisible boundaries traditionally held by subjects within a rigid curriculum structure. Attainment is high and continuing to rise, particularly for boys, pupil premium and less advantaged students.

For me, this sense of creative flow within CREATE and enquiry based learning at secondary level is embodied by the teachings of Italian educator and physicist, Maria Montessori. It means children working with such intensity and engagement, being fully absorbed in their enquiry based learning. They are fully engaged with their peers, having rich dialogues as independent, creative learners.

As the education system continues to change at a staggering pace, in particular in light of Covid-19, the work at our school is gaining momentum, with the creative habits of mind central within the whole culture and pedagogy of the school for 2021-2022. It is at the heart of our work both in school and in home and blended learning. Our hope is that students will embrace their core creative capabilities across all areas of the curriculum, which is a very exciting journey to be on!

Ruth Brown is Head of Creative Arts Faculty at Duchess's Community High School, a large rural High School in North Northumberland with around 1500 students and a catchment area the size of Greater London.

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