Inquiry learning is not the solution

Somewhat predictably, the recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has prompted the usual calls in Australia for more ‘engaging’ science teaching. In The Conversation, Russell Tytler advocates for an ‘inquiry approach’ which is consistent with ideas about science education that he has been promoting for some time. When challenged on the effectiveness of inquiry learning in the comments, Tytler seems to edge away from any clear definition without offering one of his own. Indeed, it is a rather elastic term. In the article, Tytler links to his own 2007 review where he discusses the nature of inquiry, traces its origins to John Dewey and calls for an end to a model based upon the transmission of knowledge in favour of innovative teaching practices – a familiar constructivist argument. He complains that:

“This review has argued that science education has been trapped in a cycle of practice that relates to its early roots, with its focus on disembedded, abstract knowledge, supported by a largely teacher-centred, transmissive pedagogy. Part of the reason for the largely successful resistance to the many attempts at reform, from progressive educational challenges to process approaches to Science-Technology-Society reforms, has been the commitment of academic scientists, and teachers who have been schooled in these disciplinary traditions to this version of science.”

So this gives us a sense of what Tytler wishes to change.

It is worth stating a few areas where I agree with Tytler. He notes that in countries that do well on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) science tests, “Their teachers had high status, strong disciplinary expertise, and continuous professional learning was an important aspect of their practice”. The implication is that we should also seek to have teachers with strong disciplinary expertise and I would agree. He also states that, “They demonstrated high-level knowledge and their style, while strongly teacher driven, incorporated advanced conceptual challenges for students”. It is well-known that East Asian teachers use an authoritative teacher-led style and, given their levels of expertise, I am not surprised at their ability to communicate challenging concepts.

All of which is, of course, at odds with an anti-transmission, inquiry approach.

Tytler is concerned that, “despite years of research-based advocacy of inquiry approaches, traditional teaching models prevailed.” This raises an interesting question.

I am of the view that explicit instruction is superior to any kind of inquiry approach for novice learners due to human cognitive architecture. Few people will openly admit these days to supporting the kinds of pure discovery learning approaches that were heavily promoted in the past, but there is a large constituency who advocate for guided discovery or a period of problem solving prior to explicit instruction. If guidance is better than discovery then adding guidance to discovery will clearly improve it. I am not convinced, however, that guided discovery has any particular advantage over explicit instruction – there are some experiments that tend to show this but the effects are rarely large and the comparison conditions are often weak. We are likely to be dealing with a placebo effect. But perhaps this point is moot.

Teachers clearly struggle to implement inquiry-type approaches, despite the repeated best efforts of researchers. This is a key source of Tytler’s frustration. Teachers are just not doing it properly and instead revert to more didactic methods. So it seems that the issue is this: Either inquiry doesn’t work in principle or it doesn’t work in practice. Either way, it hardly seems like a good strategy to drive improvement in Australia’s TIMSS and PISA scores. Do we really think this is the way that Kazakhstan overtook us? Or do we think that a focus on the basics of teaching science explicitly using a rigorous curriculum is likely to be more fruitful?

Given that teachers don’t fully adopt inquiry methods, you might wonder what I am concerned about. In the absence of an alternative model based upon explicit instruction, teachers are left to cast about and try to make things work as best they can, individually and in a hostile curriculum context. I fundamentally disagree with Tytler’s complaint about an ‘outdated curriculum’. If he is referring to the Australian Curriculum then this already reflects many of his priorities and this is a large part of the problem. The Australian science curriculum currently consists of three strands. Just One of these strands is meant to cover the whole of biology, chemistry, physics and geology, with the other two strands being the inquiry focused, ‘Science as a human endeavour,’ and, ‘Science Inquiry Skills.’ It’s almost as if it is based on Tytler’s 2007 paper. It is hard for a teacher who wishes to prioritise the explicit teaching of knowledge and concepts to work within such a woolly framework.

As ever, Tytler’s argument for inquiry is made on the basis of engagement. Engagement is a poor proxy for learning and creating short-term situational engagement is no guarantee that students will develop a love of science. Moreover, while it is relatively straightforward to generate engagement within the novelty of a research project, I am not at all sure that investigating the ‘utilisation of local wetlands’, as is suggested in the 2007 document, is going to be any more interesting for students than canonical discussions of evolution or the extinction of the dinosaurs. It seems odd to me that inquiry learning advocates always claim this ground when there is an acute potential for boredom in the kinds of inquiries that they frequently suggest. Try telling a child obsessed with space travel that forces are boring and they should do a project on traffic flow instead.

Tytler is right that the inquiry argument traces back to John Dewey. It actually goes back even further to Herbert Spencer and Rousseau. So it has a long history of not working and failing to deliver. It does not represent a solution for Australia in 2016.


18 Comments on “Inquiry learning is not the solution”

  1. Joe says:

    “It is well-known that East Asian teachers use an authoritative teacher-led style and, given their levels of expertise, I am not surprised at their ability to communicate challenging concepts.”

    While they may be able to communicate them well, they are not able to apply them as well as other countries.

    “Either way, it hardly seems like a good strategy to drive improvement in Australia’s TIMSS and PISA scores.”

    I guess if you believe learning can be truly accounted for in a test score you may be wrong, but the benefits of inquiry can’t be “tested” easily, if at all.

    “Either inquiry doesn’t work in principle or it doesn’t work in practice.”

    As a teacher, I don’t believe I have been trained well enough use this method. It is far more nuanced to execute efficiently than explicit instruction. Education schools here in America certainly don’t have a college level course where it is the main focus. The only way you can figure out the teaching style is to learn it on your own or have PD on it. Neither of these choices is sufficient. If teachers were immersed in the learning style for weeks or an entire course I believe it would work far better in practice because you will have actually been able to learn the nuances and then practice it.

    “Try telling a child obsessed with space travel that forces are boring and they should do a project on traffic flow instead.”

    This is a straw man. Inquiry learning has nothing to do with forcing a student to do a project he or she does not find interest in.

    Unfortunately, if you are basing your entire argument on the idea the big standardized test scores are actually good indicators of learning then you will find explicit instruction will probably always be the best option. Will it teach kids skills they will actually use in their adult lives? Probably not all that much, but hey, they will have high test scores, and isn’t that really what every parents dream is?

    • Greg Ashman says:

      “While they may be able to communicate them well, they are not able to apply them as well as other countries.”

      Where is your evidence for this? On every measure I have seen, East Asian students outperform the rest of the world. This includes measures of open-ended problem solving. Is this just something that people say?

    • Richard I says:

      “If teachers were immersed in the learning style for weeks or an entire course I believe it would work far better in practice because you will have actually been able to learn the nuances and then practice it.”

      It sounds suspiciously as though you think that novice teachers wishing to learn inquiry-based teaching should be taught it using Explicit Instruction. What’s wrong with letting teachers learn inquiry-based teaching through inquiry-based methods. In fact, shouldn’t they already have come to this conclusion through perfectly natural methods.

      • Joe says:

        Rich, you are putting words in my mouth. Many places teach inquiry methods through inquiry methods as well as coaching and team teaching.

    • teachwell says:

      You may not like standardised test scores but you have zero evidence that progressive methods produce the best scientists.

      If academic scientists, you know the ones who actually contribute to the field of science, do not think it is the best way then there is good reason for this.

      My fiancee is an astronomer. The number one problem his department faces is that they have to compensate for the lack of knowledge that students arrive with. He is not alone, they have even had to extend the course and change focus so that there is less inquiry because quite frankly, the students are not capable of it due to lack of knowledge.

      As someone with a research masters myself in political science, how on earth does one work out what to inquire about if one does not know the field?

      Name me the scientists educated progressively and who are successful and I would be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Instead I sense I am faced with someone, who like me, is not a scientists, not academically successful in any of the fields.

      Unlike me you are ideologically committed to a set of beliefs about the world which are not supported by evidence, based on shaky assumptions and which have done nothing to improve any academic field.

      I will teach as my partner and his colleagues ask before how an ideologue does any day of the week.

      • Joe says:

        So, students now are learning almost exclusively by explicit instruction and you yourself said, “The number one problem his department faces is that they have to compensate for the lack of knowledge that students arrive with,” so I am not quite sure how you then defend it.

        I have majored in biochemistry and molecular biology and teach the sciences in America. There is a clear difference between doing inquiry labs and normal labs. Doing normal labs isn’t doing science, it is following directions. Inquiry labs cause you to follow the scientific process, making you create a claim in which you must then support with evidence. Of course, you need some background knowledge, who is arguing you don’t?

        You all speak of having no evidence so I must assume you have no children or have never been around them. I have never taught my son how to put blocks in the block sorter, I sit and watch him attempt to but the square block in different shaped holes over and over until he figures it out. I could have just showed him, but don’t think the brain is doing something different while he is trying to figure out the puzzle? If the world didn’t we would show them how to do everything and never let them to try things out on their own. Do we do that? Of course not!

        There is a reason that even though American test scores aren’t the highest we dominate the world as far as patents created though. Ironically, those in the high-scoring countries are real good at building our inventions, maybe because they are so good at following explicit instructions?

        All you guys can prove is that explicit instruction will lead to higher test scores. Wow, what evidence. Guess what, cutting the arts out of school and solely focusing all classes on prepping for the high stakes test will raise scores too so I assume you view that as a superior form of learning.

      • teachwell says:

        Traditional teaching has produced generations of scientists. I reiterate, where is your evidence that the methods you advocate for have an impact?

        The results that my partner faces are in the UK and after decades of child-led methods being used in schools. The fact that academics object doesn’t mean that this has been taken into account. The promotion of progressive methods as part of teacher training has resulted in poorer subject knowledge in primary school in particular, therefore students start their academic journey with one hand tied behind their back effectively.

        There is a difference between you sitting back and allowing your child to work out one puzzle and trying to work out knowledge that has taken humans thousands of to discover. More to the point, why should they have to? Standing on the shoulders of giants has led humanity to gain insights that no-one human could have come to individually. This is what children are being asked to do.

        You comment about patents and high-scoring countries is a sweeping generalisation.

        As for test scores – I agree that there is more to teaching and learning than high stakes tests. In the UK, we now have more of these precisely because of the damage that inquiry-based methods have had on the system. When there was more explicit instruction, we didn’t. Go figure.

    • “While they may be able to communicate them well, they are not able to apply them as well as other countries.”

      Joe, the PISA assessment is designed upon the assumptions of RME education, a Freudenthal-Instituted-based approach to learning that says education should be immersed in real world problem solving contexts. PISA is designed to test these “competencies”. If there is a large-scale assessment that can test who is “able to apply them” it would be PISA.

      The East Asian countries dominate PISA and leave the rest in the dust.

      “I guess if you believe learning can be truly accounted for in a test score you may be wrong, but the benefits of inquiry can’t be “tested” easily, if at all.”

      I don’t know what you base this belief in. You can test anything with concrete, detectable consequences. What’s the difference between saying a form of learning can’t be tested, and saying that it has no consequences? If you can’t measure the “benefits of inquiry” then in what sense do those benefits exist?

      It seems to me that, if you are right here, then belief in the benefits of inquiry learning falls into the same category as belief in unicorns and bigfoot.

      • Joe says:

        Testing in the scientific sense is far different from testing in the classroom sense. Though the word test is used in both cases, the actually “testing” is nothing alike.

        Using brain scans to test learning may be better than a multiple choice test, but again, when we talk about tests in the classroom we are talking about pen and paper things, not the analysis of the physical structure of the mind which learning methods beyond explicit instruction may effect more greatly.

        I am unfamiliar with the PISA, but if it includes a great deal of MC questions I would question its usefulness.

    • Chester Draws says:

      I guess if you believe learning can be truly accounted for in a test score you may be wrong, but the benefits of inquiry can’t be “tested” easily, if at all.

      Testing can be a very effective proxy for learning. We’ve had centuries of testing, and we can write tests to test for pretty much anything.

      That it isn’t a perfect proxy is to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.

      One of the giveaways that some medical practice is bogus is that it is reputed not to show up on blind tests. Likewise you will be laughed at if you say some process has an economic benefit, but it won’t show up on any economic indicators.

      So my contention is that if your educational practices have no effect on test scores, then they have no effect on learning.

      You might convince me that it only shows on some kinds of tests. Or that it takes time to filter through. But I won’t give you a “get out of jail” card where you claim something is effective but that its effect can’t be measured.

  2. Hi Greg. I agree with your implication that inquiry or discovery learning is not the means by which Kazakhstan overtook us in TIMSS. However I am concerned that these approaches are poised to overtake Kazakhstan. Interested in their success I did some looking for English-language documents about their reform of education, and indeed since 2012 there has been a deliberate, concentrated effort to improve things — though I suspect the initial steps of reform must have happened prior to that. But I found nothing comprehensive enough to detail exactly what has changed. Mostly what you learn is that they have worked to improve teacher qualifications.

    Then I came across a very recent document which is quite comprehensive, and is produced by the Kazakh government. It describes the shape of FUTURE reforms – or at least proposals for such. And … you guessed it … they are proposing that their schools “follow the West” in introducing more discover-based and child-centered learning.

    Note: slow loading. Go for coffee.

  3. mrekstein says:

    Hi Greg,
    There is a lot of evidence that active learning is far more effective in science teaching than passive learning (at least on the unergraduate level). Active learning isn’t identical to discovery learning but it does differ from the traditional lecture centered teaching and it somewhat overlaps with discovery learning. Perhaps that should be the focus rather than discovery learning.


    you can also see the research by Eric Mazur.

    • Chester Draws says:

      but it does differ from the traditional lecture centered teaching

      This has not been the main mode of teaching for a very long time in high schools. I virtually never saw it at school, and I went to a quite openly old-fashioned school over thirty years ago. Since then it has dropped even further — precisely because we all know it isn’t particularly effective.

      So active learning is better than the sort of lecture centered teaching that no-one does any more. Well, I be damned!

  4. […] hard to imagine that some methods of covering the material could be more time-efficient (and more effective) than others. Furthermore, accelerated students may not need as much time and practice to learn the […]

  5. Brian says:

    Although I have read this one with great interest, I feel as an observer of the debate that these issues are more about the egos and potential careers of teachers, academics and such rather than the best interests of students, or should I call them people.

    Referring back to Rousseau and often misrepresenting him is a popular ruse for what one could broadly call “neo traditionals”. The idea that individuals form their own schemas in response environmental stimuli is hardly rocket science and as far as I am aware little disputed.

    The arguments around whether cognitive process are simply bits of knowledge rather than skills and all of the nonsense that arises from such seems to be to be a bit pointless.

    One can develop learning outcomes for learners and usually it is fairly clear which sorts of teaching strategies might help learners learn and probably more importantly which sorts of learning strategies are most likely to be efficient and/or effective for a particular outcome. Such design seems to work when one uses taxonomical classifications for outcomes.

    To make statements like “inquiry learning is not the answer to Australia’s educational problems” or “direct instruction will not solve the UK’s educational crisis” are for me simply a complete waste of time, because I am a professional educator.

    Every time I come into direct/indirect contact with a learner who is looking to me to improve their learning, I make decisions as to the knowledge and understanding they will require to solve the particular dilemma they are facing, I will give my opinion on how they could best arrange the resources at their disposal and I will happily give feedback around the progress they are making towards the outcome.

    Suggesting that “inquiry learning” is less effective than “direct instruction” per se is like saying that a “1/2 inch AF spanner” is less effective than an “M4” spanner at undoing nuts on an automobile.

    Of course I would agree that teaching/learning on a one to one basis is different to teaching 30 kids in the same class and for me this is where the issues start to arise. The idea that the PISA results for the UK can inform my teaching in any way at all is I think just silly, and for this reason I do not interest myself in them other than when thinking about Government Education policies.

    As a professional educator, my choices of approaches to be used, teaching strategies to adopt and learning stratedies to be adopted are for make and for me to be held accountable for. I use explicit instruction when the need arises, I advise inquiry learning when I believe it is most appropriate and I base my choices around the needs of the individual learner, the learning outcome desired and the resources/environment available.Sometimes didaxy is appropriate, sometimes autodidaxy is appropriate.

    Academics should adopt the same approach when informing teachers. Rather than trying to convince everyone that the mast they have nailed their colours to when they were really quite naive are the best way to go 10-20 years on seems to me a bit daft.

    I am an advocate of keeping academics away from classroom practice. I feel that academics are best to look at RCTs, PISA results, meta analyses of meta analyses of meta analyses, effect sizes and the like so that they can pontificate about populations and global effectiveness.

    While they do this myself and the other half a million professional educators in England can carry on teaching people. As soon as I am told that I must use “traditional methods”, “progressive methods”, “direct instruction”, “inquiry learning”, “VAK”, “brain gym” or any other approach against my will is the day I will stop working in the education system in question.

    Is is fascinating to watch the same old arguments going around and around and around while teachers get on with the job.

  6. […] Inquiry learning is not the solution by Greg Ashman […]

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