One of education’s sardonic ironies occurs when actual scientists somehow find themselves caught-up in programmes to teach science or maths in school. These hard-headed rationalists go all romantic and Dewey-eyed. Learning science and maths should be learning through doing, they proclaim, never once pausing to question what the scientific evidence has to say on the matter.
And so it shouldn’t really surprise anyone to hear that the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers has teamed-up with the Australian Academy of Science to spend Australian taxpayer’s money on a project to push more inquiry learning in the nation’s maths classrooms.
We have known for some time that inquiry learning is ineffective for teaching maths – and pretty much any academic subject – to school-aged students. This is because they are relative novices and learning through inquiry overloads their working memory. This is why the folk tradition of teaching by breaking things down into small chunks and fully explaining these chunks has been so enduring.
There are numerous sources of evidence that show that explicit forms of teaching are superior to those that require students to solve authentic problems and build their own knowledge from the outset in the way that inquiry learning does. For instance, there are correlational studies that look at the teaching methods of effective teachers. There are experimental studies. There are the effects of state-level policies.
Interestingly, when the OECD surveyed students on the activities they completed in maths class they found a negative correlation between inquiry-style activities and the 2012 PISA maths results in almost all countries. The more ‘student-oriented’ the maths classroom, the worse the maths results.
Which is even odder to contemplate when you realise that this new initiative is being sold as an answer to Australia’s decline in international tests such as PISA.