With young people taking the lead in inquiry-based learning at Hamilton College, genuine passion and curiosity are now inspiring all

THE CONCEPT of pupil-led learning has gained traction in recent years and one school in Scotland is showing it can produce good results.

Rather than the traditional pedagogical approach which centres on a teacher dictating to a class what they should learn and how to learn it, Hamilton College’s Junior School is letting pupils take the lead.

This doesn’t mean throwing out tried and tested ways of teaching but it does mean pupils take ownership of their education.

The fact they have more input into what and how they learn certainly seems to be having a positive effect. “The children are so excited to come to school; they really are,” said Jenny Paterson, Head of Junior School. “They are excited about projects and what they are going to do next. The children are truly engaged.” 

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Whilst recognising that pupil-led, inquiry-based learning is not a new idea, Mrs Paterson cautions that changes should be brought in gradually so that existing good practice can be built on and developed further.

“We are tailoring inquiry learning into our school context and looking at how we can authentically involve the children, so they become real and vibrant learners,” she said.

“The approach is child-led, and my job is to bring the teachers on the journey because sometimes it can be difficult to let go of the reins and allow children to drive learning forward whilst still covering everything the curriculum requires. 

“The aim is that pupils are set up for the future. Pupils will make bold choices about their learning. They will explore multiple channels, collaborate and take risks. The skills they gain are highly transferable for what is required in the 21st Century – be this in higher education or the job market.”

She added: “People often think teaching has to be one way or the other, but an inquiry-based approach is about ‘and’ rather than ‘or’. It links in perfectly with the curriculum as a whole. For example, we still teach the fundamentals such as phonics and maths, but the fundamentals come alive when children are given the platform and tools to explore them in real-life context.

"It will spark learning, challenge their thinking and theories and push them further to discover and achieve. At Hamilton College, we are intentional that their fire stays lit with natural wonder and curiosity.”

For example, the school’s Christmas Market put mathematics in a real-world setting, according to Mrs Paterson. The pupils of the Junior School were divided into 13 mixed age groups who then decided how they would contribute to the market.

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A managers’ group liaised with the school’s marketing and finance departments to organise publicity and cash flow while other groups decided what to create and sell.

On the day of the market, parents and guardians attended while the children sold the goods using coins and notes. “As well as showing them how maths can work in the real world, the children also said they enjoyed the teamwork,” said Mrs Paterson.

This year the school is focused on pupil voice, and the structure of the Junior School committees has changed to elevate that focus by ensuring every child is on a committee with a unique project in the school or wider community. 

For example, the Junior One class has decided to enhance the school’s outdoor learning environment, whilst another year group is facilitating monthly donations to local food banks. Others are strengthening existing intergenerational connections, reading to young children at local libraries and litter picking in local communities.

“The pupils are excited about the committees because they can see the direct impact and are part of something that is bigger than them,” said Mrs Paterson.

“Children come to us with that spark already lit and our job is to keep that fuelled and make it grow brighter as they go through life,” she said. “I really think this approach is the way to do it.”