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.