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How we transformed aspirations in further education using philosophical enquiry

4 min read
The impact is evident in the College’s 98% positive progression to employment or further education

This article is about the pursuit of excellence, creativity and innovation in further education (FE). An Open Futures approach to learning and teaching, particularly involving askit, has been transformative to the community of learners at Central Bedfordshire College (CBC).

The impact of philosophical enquiry (askit) is evident in the College’s 98% positive progression to employment or further/higher education as well as the May 2016 QAA Review and April 2016 Ofsted inspection reports. The College is now embarking on an ambitious project, in partnership with the Helen Hamlyn Trust (HHT), to help seven other FE colleges adopt the practice. This approach could also be very valuable to education of offenders (Crabbe, 2016).

Open Futures

In 2004, the HHT developed an integrated education programme for primary schools to reach children at the earliest stages of their education. The purpose was to improve engagement and aspirations, and thus outcomes. In 2006/2007 askit was developed in conjunction with Society for the Advancement of Philosophical Enquiry and Reflection in Education (SAPERE) to put enquiry at the heart of the Open Futures Programme and to underpin learning in the context of a skills‐based approach.

Working with schools and their communities, Open Futures has had widespread success and reached more than 30,000 children in the United Kingdom. It is based on a thinking skills pedagogy, developed over 40 years ago, and is used in over 60 countries (Fisher, 1998). The approach fitted in with the CBC’s philosophy on developing students as independent learners and thinkers, alongside developing their problem-solving and literacy skills. In summary, askit complements what is an essentially vocational skills-based curriculum.

Central Bedfordshire FE College – a case study

Central Bedfordshire FE College (CBC) is a general FE college of approximately 5,500 learners and a turnover of around £13m. The college has three campuses across Central Bedfordshire – in Dunstable, Houghton Regis and Leighton Buzzard – and a fourth in Luton.

The college offers a range of full‐ and part-time courses, including vocational and academic, from further to higher education. The vocational curriculum includes engineering, robotics and automotive, construction, science, hospitality and catering, digital media, public services, sport, hairdressing, holistic therapies, child care education, health and social care, and teacher education. Students study vocationally‐orientated, skills‐based subjects that relate directly to their lives and careers beyond the college.

In late 2013, CBC was judged to be good (Grade 2) by Ofsted. Following the inspection, the college looked for new pedagogies in its pursuit of excellence. The college worked in partnership with the Open Futures Programme of the HHT to explore the possibility of adapting philosophical enquiry to the technical and vocational education and training sector. The purpose was to use this work as part of a strategy to drive further improvements in teaching, learning and assessment, and raising the aspirations of learners and the expectations of teachers. CBC is the only FE college to have adopted askit to date.

The work focuses on vocational teachers engaging with learners on matters that directly impact their aspirations and self-esteem.

askit In the College

CBC has developed a new way for FE learners to make sense of their realities and how their vocational studies will impact their future career and society. The work focuses on vocational teachers engaging with learners on matters that directly impact their aspirations and self-esteem in relating their training and their locality to their future careers. It is based on developing learners’ ability to articulate philosophical questions and to deal with each other’s views in a mature manner. It is an enquiry-based approach to teaching, learning and assessment that develops students’ ability to think critically and creatively and learn independently (Topping and Trickey, 2007). Its power emanates from what students are able to do by the time they finish any course at whatever level at the college.

Philosophical enquiry is a methodology inspired by the work of the American philosopher John Dewey, and more recently in the UK by the Open Futures Programme in collaboration with SAPERE (see Topping and Trickey, 2007). It has also been reviewed by the Centre for Learning and Teaching at the University of Newcastle (see Crabbe et al., 2015). askit has a specific procedure and use of learning materials that results in students asking and discussing their own questions, under the direction of a trained teacher, so that the discussion has a direct impact on the students’ ability to think and learn independently.

The impact of askit, and its future in FE

The impact of askit is evident in the CBC’s 98% positive progression to employment or further/higher education as well as the May 2016 QAA Review and April 2016 Ofsted inspection reports. The QAA Review notes, ‘…the following features of good practice … the introduction of philosophical enquiry as a methodology across all programmes to enhance student capacity for analytical, critical and creative thinking’ (CBC QAA Review Report, May 2016). Ofsted similarly notes, ‘Teachers have adopted an approach which gives students the confidence to develop further their thinking and reasoning skills and to become more independent in their learning’ (CBC Ofsted Inspection Report, April 2016).

askit develops a ‘community of enquiry’ where every individual is valued for his/her unique experience and interests. Key aims are to develop understanding and good judgement, and the sense of community grows as students learn to listen to each other, building on each other’s thinking and respecting differences. This is based around the ‘Four Cs of Thinking’:

  1. Caring: listening and valuing what others say, showing interest, being sensitive
  2. Collaborative: responding and supporting, building on each other’s ideas
  3. Critical: questioning and reasoning, seeking meaning, evidence, reasons, distinctions
  4. Creative: connecting ideas and suggesting comparisons, examples, alternative explanations.

Plans to expand askit

CBC is leading the way in using academic research to improve practice in teaching, learning and assessment in the FE sector.  Additionally, the college is embarking on an ambitious project, in partnership with the HHT, to help seven other FE colleges adopt the practice. This will hopefully get teachers to think:

  • Is there any department that doesn’t have potential for developing a community of enquiry?
  • Is there any subject – vocational or academic – that doesn’t have any ‘big ideas’ within it?
  • Is equipping our learners only with subject-specific skills sufficient to prepare them for the workplace?

Such an approach will enable FE colleges to contribute directly to business growth and prosperity by closing skills shortages in their localities, as well as developing their own culture and expertise, like the learners they serve, to the maximum of their potential.

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