So you have found yourself under pressure to implement inquiry-based learning, project-based learning or something like that. How do you respond?
I tend to see things through the lens of cognitive load theory (CLT). A key finding is that learning new, complex concepts like algebra or writing is likely to overload working memory (but not learning very simple things like lists of words). Guided instruction reduces the load, and fully guided, explicit instruction is better still.
However, despite a few abortive attempts, cognitive load theory does not incorporate a theory of motivation. And another important finding is the ‘expertise reversal effect’ where, once sufficient expertise has been developed, experiments show that problem solving is better than explicit instruction. This may be because, at this stage, it adds to episodic knowledge – ‘ah, I’ve seen something like this before!’ It probably also aids transfer by cycling students through different kinds of problems and so helping them to apprehend the deep structure.
So my ideal sequence, the one I use in my own teaching, is explicit instruction that gradually fades to individual or perhaps group problem solving. The final few weeks of a Year 12 course involve me in very little teaching because students work independently, calling on my input only for clarification or when they get stuck.
However, explicit instruction followed by inquiry or project-based learning in the same domain could achieve much the same result and might have an additional benefit in terms of motivation (I say ‘might’ because I am not convinced by this). This is important. If we examine, for instance, Expeditionary Learning schools in the U.S., my understanding is that they have roughly 8 week units, the last third of which is an inquiry or project. If I was under a lot of pressure to use inquiry then this is the model I would try to adopt. To be honest, I’d struggle to do this in maths but I can imagine it working well in history or science.
If the decision has not yet been made and you are still able to influence the discussion then I would reach for some good papers and send these around to the parties involved. You can’t really go past American Educator for this kind of stuff. Teachers seem to find the articles readable and yet they are well-referenced and substantive.
The best two papers on explicit instruction are:
They complement each other well. Clark et. al. mainly rely on cognitive science and specifically CLT, whereas Rosenshine takes a broader view and draws more on the teacher effectiveness research of the 1960s (which is mostly correlational). It’s actually this kind of triangulation that convinces me of the case for explicit instruction and so it is worth highlighting.
Gregory Yates also has a great little paper which draws on the teacher effectiveness research and that gets teachers thinking about research issues without hitting them over the head with polemic:
I have also written this for The Conversation. It is more forthright but it’s been quite well-received:
Project-Based Learning is shakier, in my view, than Inquiry Learning, but it is being pushed hard, particularly by the kind of consultants who are keen to speculate about the future of work. In this case, it’s worth looking at a review by Britain’s Education Endowment Foundation that they conducted as part of an RCT:
I mention the review rather than the findings of the RCT itself because these were compromised due to so many schools dropping out of the Project-Based Learning condition; which also tells us something.
Inquiry Learning in maths tends to be synonymous with problem-based learning so I would probably return to cognitive science (this is why I can’t see it working at the end of a Unit but I don’t have time to expand on that here). There is an interesting correlation between the decline of maths performance in Canada and a move to more inquiry-based curricula but I’m not sure I could point to much apart from op-eds, although the Howe Institute report is very interesting.
Inquiry in science usually involves asking students to design and conduct their own experiments. My favourite critique of this idea is by Paul Kirschner but it’s a little dense for an ordinary reader:
Interestingly, PISA 2013 found a negative correlation in all participating countries between a ‘student-orientation’ and maths results, with the construct roughly mapping onto some forms of inquiry. Even more strikingly, PISA 2015 found a negative association between increased use of ‘enquiry’ methods in science class and science performance. However, the OECD don’t seem keen to publicise these findings and so, sadly, the best sources tend to be blogs such as mine or this one (note that this piece was written about PISA 2010 and never mentioned these findings, even though they are the strongest correlation, focusing instead on a memorisation which the data suggests doesn’t correlate with anything).
Finally, there might be a content/pedagogy overlap. Teachers might privilege student control over learning. If so, the links in this blog post might help. I also find that when many people argue for inquiry learning, at root is some idea that it is superior for developing critical thinking skills, problem solving skills or creativity. These are all highly dependent on domain knowledge, which doesn’t necessarily refute inquiry as an approach but it disrupts the idea that these can be developed in a general sense and that inquiry will therefore deliver this. If someone points to critical thinking then I tend to use Dan Willingham’s American Educator article on the subject. If they point to problem solving then I might use this by Tricot and Sweller:
Unfortunately, its very technical. I don’t really have a ‘go to’ article on creativity but the same principle applies (and I would be keen for links to any in the comments).
The case of generic skills is partly why I have moved away from thinking about the reality of content and teaching methods as independent of each other, whether or not they are in principle.
Let me know if you encounter and argument that isn’t covered here.