Penny Bentley (@penpln) recently tweeted a link to the following clip where John Hattie discusses inquiry learning:
I have a few comments that I would like to make.
Hattie’s view is consistent with cognitive load theory
It is reasonable to propose the use of inquiry learning once sufficient domain knowledge has been developed (even if Hattie’s choice of the pejorative term ‘shallow’ is unfortunate). In fact, this is a structural feature of our education system where the culmination of study in a particular area might be a research-based masters degree or a doctorate. However, it is also possible to conceive of ways of employing inquiry more immediately.
Imagine a science unit of work where, instead of a test at the end of the unit, there is a test two-thirds of the way through. Students may then move on to conducting some form of inquiry within this domain. Perhaps it might be contingent upon them demonstrating sufficient knowledge and understanding in the test and this would therefore act as a hinge-point, with some students being retaught the concepts rather than continuing to the inquiry.
We then might derive some significant gains from the inquiry component. Students will maybe deepen their understanding through application. For instance, if students had sufficient grounding in projectiles then a projectiles-based inquiry would further develop ideas around experimental methods and uncertainties, the effect of air resistance and so on.
It ain’t going to happen
The problem with such a model is that the reason teachers choose inquiry is linked to students having little domain knowledge of what they are inquiring into. Teachers think that students finding things out for themselves is motivating. They confuse the way that experts gain knew knowledge in a domain – epistemology – with the best way of teaching well-established knowledge to novices – pedagogy. This fundamental confusion between experts and novices is both widespread and misguided.
A student who already knows the theory behind projectiles is going to have a good idea about what is likely to happen and is not going to develop their own idiosyncratic hypotheses. Yet proponents of inquiry tend to value the ‘skill’ of inventing such hypotheses.
At best, inquiry enthusiasts will promote ‘just in time‘ teaching of concepts i.e. the focus is on the inquiry element, with teaching of domain knowledge minimised to as great an extent as possible.
The precise opposite has been proposed
The book “How People Learn” by Bransford et. al. for the National Academies Press in the US is highly influential and certainly good in parts. If anything, it can be be given credit for being freely available and for helping raise the profile of cognitive science in education, but I have two main problems with it. The exemplars of good teaching do not reflect what we know from research, and the following passage from Chapter 1 seems to conflate explicit instruction with ‘simply providing lectures’ and is in direct opposition to the position described by Hattie [my emphasis]:
“Fish Is Fish (Lionni, 1970) and attempts to teach children that the earth is round (Vosniadou and Brewer, 1989) show why simply providing lectures frequently does not work. Nevertheless, there are times, usually after people have first grappled with issues on their own, that “teaching by telling” can work extremely well (e.g., Schwartz and Bransford, 1998).”