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Enquiring Minds: Responsibility, Authority, Power, and Learning

Enquiring Minds is a research project focused on investigating how students "can be effective in shaping their own learning." The three-year project was initiated in the summer of 2005 and is based in the UK (Enquiring Minds FAQs). The partners include Microsoft (UK), Teacher Development Agency (TDA), the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the National Assembly of Wales (NAW) and NESTA Futurelab. The purpose of the project is to enable young people to take personal responsibility for their own learning by changing the emphasis from what they learn to how they learn. This statement implies a shift in power and authority in education and, like the project itself, is worth further investigation...

Responsibility For Learning

The question of power and authority in education is one of the most important questions facing any education designer. A well-known and frequently commented problem in education is the design of the prerequisite. It is an oversimplification, but this approach is typically characterized as predetermining the "what" in education in the absence of the students. The Enquiring Minds project is based on the premise of shifting the question of what should be taught to the question of how people learn. These are very different questions indeed.

In designing and implementing the Connected Intelligence Program the question of how people learn and therefore assumptions about where the real authority and power in education was located were key. Power and authority in learning, unavoidably and by default, always rests with the individual regardless of the intentions of the system they find themselves in. This is not, to my thinking, something that must be enabled - it is simply an unavoidable fact. If we shift from the question of what to teach to how people learn the designer must also be aware of potential limitations.

For example, it is entirely possible to frame a prerequisite in terms of how people learn. That is, we impose pre-defined methods and processes that are characterized as facilitating learning, or "empowering" the learner. In this sense, there is really little difference between the design of a prerequisite focused on the question of what versus the question of how. I have seen teaching colleagues impose a predetermined model that embraced something called "the inquiry method" on all students over several years. The model had benefit, but the point here is that the model was static, did not evolve based on the experiences of students, and the students themselves had no direct input into the nature of the model itself. The language used to describe the model, however, embraced democratic notions such as self-directed learning, thinking skills, and creativity.

None of this is to say that Enquiring Minds has a similar problem. However, it is to say that this problem is one that will inevitably need to be addressed in their work. For example, the idea that there is a "we" that must help "enable" students to take "responsibility" for their own "learning" implies a kind of prerequisite. In this case, the prerequisite may no longer address the question of what to teach, but may instead attempt to predetermine how to learn. The idea of enabling students to take personal responsibility implies that a curriculum of how to learn can help them.

How Do People Learn?

Simple questions can be the most profound and difficult questions to answer. For example, take the basic question:

How do people learn?

The answer is also deceptively simple, and that answer is:

Nobody really knows.

Although I have designed and developed learning models and frameworks and attempted to have the students change and evolve the model as well as develop their own, it became obvious to me that there is no model or framework that can capture how people learn. Last week's model never looked the same this week. However, what I did discover is that students are the experts and will investigate the question of how people learn. In this sense, it is the question itself that becomes a "framework" for learning.

The question is both the model and the framework.

If we are to enable something called "personal responsibility" for learning then we are authentically engaging people in the question of learning, not a model or framework about it. This is a fundamental problem for education, since education does not openly embrace questions but instead attempts to instill facts, data and answers, not about meaningful questions, but about predetermined content. It matters not whether this content is referred to as the "what" of education or the "how" of education.

When deeper and more profound questions are asked, examined, investigated and explored there is no implied timetable, subject discipline, curriculum, hierarchical organizational structure, principal, curriculum consultant, educational technology designer, expertise, system of assessment or evaluation, or report card. There is only the investigation itself. Deeper questions cannot be meaningfully examined in any system that imposes such constraints.

If learners are to "take responsibility" for learning, if we assume they are not taking enough, then the education system must take the responsibility for getting out of their way. I do not mean this in a literal sense, but to delude us into believing that people can authentically explore deeper questions within the confines of a system that imposes numerous sets of control and limitations and time, place, thought, and creativity. In other words, it may be that we do not enable people to learn as much by promoting a certain set of capacities and skills as we do simply giving them the time and space to get involved in something that matters to them. This does not mean that we simply leave them alone and let chaos take hold, but it does mean that allowing people to take responsibility can also mean getting out of their way.

Learning: Authority and Power

Many projects that promote values such as independence, self-directedness, inquiry-based learning, democratic education, and so on, either have a limited shelf-life or are confined to isolated examples. As Enquiring Minds correctly points out, none of these issues, ideas or values is new. But implementing them in a sustainable and durable way would be.

The main goal of the Enquiring Minds project is to create a model:

The Enquiring Minds model is the main outcome from the project, and will provide a framework to help anyone interested in implementing an Enquiring Minds approach in their schools.

I find this idea, as a main goal, to be quite disappointing - although it is still very early in the project. There is no point in adding another model about learning to the shelf. Of students are involved in deeper questions, and they have been given the opportunity to pursue those questions in an authentic manner free from the confines of a hierarchical system, then should this not be the outcome? Would it not be far more beneficial to attempt to capture and communicate these experiences, or far better have the students do the communicating? Can we assume that a model will have the same interest, power and authority when compared to what students really do? Do we really believe that by predetermining skills and capacities in a curriculum, instead of subject matter, we are fundamentally changing the educational proposition? Can the what and how of education both be content? Are we to assume, yet again, that a model is the best way to communicate and extend something like Enquiring Minds into other school systems?

I believe that projects like Enquiring Minds are very worthwhile and needed in education. But after you have created and implemented a few of them yourself, you come to realize that in spite of the efforts of people to promote change, the education system itself does not evolve as a result. Why is this? It certainly does not mean we should stop trying. We ask students to take responsibility for learning, but are the systems we create responsible? Are we in fact telling people how to be responsible and defining the ways in which responsibility should look? Or are we giving them the authority and the power to be responsible?

I do get a sense that Enquiring Minds is attempting to address the more fundamental questions of education. At first glance, this is a project worth following. Perhaps some of the questions here may be addressed over time.

Related Entries

  • Power and Authority
  • Connected Intelligence
  • The Virtual Community Project
  • Comment in Enquiring Minds WIKI

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Nice to hear from you Sebastian. I agree with your description and have experienced it a number of times. It would seem that the practical reality of something called self-organization is really an illusion fostered by a preference for word-crafting. The ideas rarely leave the paper they are written on, though the propaganda surrounding the "innovation" is broadcast far and wide. Creating the appearance of something seems far more important than actually making it. Talking about it more important than actually doing it. Even when ideas do leave the page, they often have a very short life span. I wonder if we are just too selfish for something called self-organization.

Hello Brian,

thanks for your comment on this issue.
It fits nicely with a post I have published the other day at

I have recently joined an EU financed (ICT) research project in which we are supposed to create "educational models" that would inform new ways of supporting "scaffolding for self-organisation", and such.

It all sounds great on paper but as soon as you try to work on these issues in an interdisciplinary team you are confronted with all these "calls" for controllability, modelling, and measurement.

The blind search for efficiency renders all attempts towards "getting out of the way" and increasing the degrees of freedom for all participants as being "too soft", lofty, un-scientific... and so forth. I find this increasingly hard to deal with.

ICT research and its dominating professions (engineers, programmers, economists...) are rarely ready to accept that human change processes do not really comply to their methodological approaches.



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