What does PISA tell us about inquiry learning in science?


It seems like a no-brainer. If we want to reverse our students’ stagnation in international science tests then some argue that we need to transform the way that we teach science. Instead of boring, teacher-dominated forms of instruction where students are expected to passively absorb facts, they suggest that we need to engage students in what real scientists do: Students should be working in groups, formulating their own hypotheses, discussing the science and carrying out investigations. In this vision, the teacher is a guide-at-the-side who is there to ensure that students have the right resources and don’t go off track. This approach is generally described as ‘inquiry learning’.

It doesn’t work

Unfortunately, the evidence to support inquiry learning is underwhelming. Approaches that have low levels of teacher guidance have repeatedly failed. Those where the amount of guidance is increased have more supporting evidence but, even then, under the favourable conditions of a research study, the effects are small.

Now, we have new evidence from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for 2015. These are no experimental results and so we have to treat them with caution. Yet they do offer the chance of investigating inquiry learning in the wild and the results are striking. An increase in the amount of inquiry learning that students report being exposed to is associated with a decrease in science scores. On the other hand, an increase in traditional teacher-directed instruction is associated with an increase in these scores. What’s going on?

Schoolkids not scientists

Firstly, it is worth examining a couple of assumptions. The model of inquiry learning is based upon the idea that the best way of learning science is by behaving like a professional scientist. This is not necessarily true.

The second assumption is that inquiry is more engaging for students. However, it’s not clear that an investigation into which paper towel absorbs the most water is more interesting than a whole class discussion of the fate of the dinosaurs. Even if it were, how can we be sure that short-term interest in a particular activity will translate into a long-term love of the subject? A key driver of long-term motivation seems to be getting better at something. So we want to choose teaching styles that ensure students learn lots.

The cognitive science

If we consider how the brain works then we see a potential problem with inquiry learning. Students are novices who do not know a great deal of science. This means that they need to process everything in a very limited working memory that quickly becomes overloaded. When a professional scientist formulates a hypothesis, she has lots of background knowledge that she can draw upon. High school kids do not have this knowledge and this is likely to send them down a few dead ends – they might even learn the wrong things. Even if they manage to complete an investigation, there will be little cognitive capacity left over to learn from this process.

Teacher-directed instruction is effective because students don’t have to think about lots of things at once. Instead, the teacher can fully guide them through the important concepts and features and ask lots of questions to ensure that these have sunk in.

Ban the Bunsen burners?

This does not mean we should ban practical work or small group discussion or never allow students the opportunity to formulate their own questions; all hallmarks of the inquiry method. Science lesson would be dull if they consisted of the same thing all the time. There is cultural value in conducting scientific experiments at school and this needs to be retained.

What is clear is that we should not be basing science teaching on inquiry methods. Students need expert science teachers who spend a considerable amount of time explaining scientific concepts to them. This might not look very sexy but it is supported by the evidence and our knowledge of cognitive science.


19 thoughts on “What does PISA tell us about inquiry learning in science?

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  2. As we mentioned Vygotsky some days ago, I’d like to clarify one thing, before some “Vygotskian” tries to tell you otherwise:

    Vygotskys claim regarding scientific concepts and the corresponding “mental functions” clearly was that they can NOT be achieved following a “natural” path of cognitive development. What is needed is cultural transmission – “education” in whatever way. So, as far as it concerns me, those who claim that by pure “enquiry” students can grasp new scientific concepts, should consider to at least theoretically show the errors in Vygotskys thoughts. Which is not so easy, as Vygotsky, like other Hegelian and Marxist psychologists, knew their business of logic and theory damn well…

    Of course, it is possible to design “learning environments”, where students can enquire but are, as a result of your design, able to “find” the concept. Possible in priciple, but very hard – and actually depending on the teachers working on the concept anyway.

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  4. As a non-Science teacher who has spent a lot of time in junior secondary Science classes in Australia, I suspect an important missing ingredient at these levels is narrative. Could more key concepts of Years 7-9 be framed through the stories of the key discoveries, debates, experiments, people…? Might this help understanding and retention in some units?

    Does PISA offer anything to test my hypothesis? 🤓

  5. That fact that we assume PISA and other tests are still the best measure of learning is troubling. They typically focus on short-term recall and even under the best circumstances, I would argue that if we ask students a year later to take these tests, students, who had more experiential interactions with science would do better.

    Inquiry learning, when done right combines background knowledge with experience and discovery. True inquiry is rarely done well largely because it’s a concept tossed out to teachers with the hopes they’ll figure it out. Lack of PD is at the core of this issue.

    Given that the testing itself is rarely questioned and the implementation of inquiry is also in doubt, it’s easy to say, let’s just do things they way we’ve always done it. We can do better.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Given that the testing itself is rarely questioned …

      Oh, you have to be joking! All round the world the nature and meaning of tesing is under extreme scrutiny. In many places, such as NZ, the entire nature of formal school testing has been radically overhauled as a result.

      Nor is PISA’s testing without plenty of scrutiny. Or do you think all those countries just let them do their thing without any care to examine it?

      and the implementation of inquiry is also in doubt, ..

      Not where I live. Here Inquiry is the dogma, and those of us who fight for largely Explicit Instruction are not winning.

      it’s easy to say, let’s just do things they way we’ve always done it. We can do better.

      We must do something! This is something. We must do this thing!

      Many attempts have been made to make societies better by trying to overcome human nature. The results have not been promising.

      Perhaps our biological limits are such that we cannot radically overcome our limitations? i would argue that radically better ways of teaching are not possible, and that incremental improvements are actually more likely to work.

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