Inquiry learning

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It is time to return to one of the themes of this blog. Inquiry learning is popular around the world, featuring heavily at education conferences and yet I am a skeptic. I will explain my skepticism and raise some questions that need to be addressed by those advancing a case for inquiry learning.

What is inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning is a process where students are asked to create, find out or discover something when new knowledge, concepts or procedures are first introduced and in the absence of explicit teaching of that knowledge, those concepts or those procedures. It may be scaffolded and so not a ‘pure discovery‘ form of learning. In my experience, the term ‘inquiry learning’ is most often used in science, the humanities and sometimes maths. Problem based learning and project based learning have similar features.

Some of the activities that students engage in under an inquiry learning programme may be identical to those used by teachers following an explicit approach. The difference is that explicit teaching involves fully explaining concepts at the outset, so such activities would come into an explicit programme of study later, as students are beginning to develop some expertise. The key difference is what happens at the beginning.

What’s wrong with inquiry learning?

Inquiry learning gives students too many things to pay attention to at any one time, overwhelming them and leading to less learning than an explicit approach. There is, however, limited evidence that an explicit-inquiry hybrid process known as ‘productive failure‘ can be effective. In this approach, students are asked to solve problems and are then given explicit instruction. I don’t think the evidence is overwhelming for productive failure at present and I am investigating it as part of my PhD research.

Note that I am making claims about the effect on learning of inquiry versus an explicit approach. If we are interested in different effects or are comparing inquiry learning with other alternatives then my claims do not necessarily stand.

For instance, if circumstances are such that the choice is between inquiry learning and no learning at all then inquiry learning is going to lead to better academic outcomes. An example of this might be an online game that tries to engage children in an educational activity at home. Inquiry may also be more motivating than explicit teaching. I’m not convinced that in the long-term, inquiry learning is more motivating than explicit teaching, but I can certainly accept that students may prefer to spend their Friday afternoon conducting a science investigation rather than engaging in explicit instruction on how to balance chemical equations.

A default

If I want to let my wife know that the drains are blocked and we need a plumber then I am likely to directly communicate this fact to her. It is for these kinds of purposes that we have evolved language. There would be no advantage, and considerable disadvantage, to letting her figure-out this fact for herself. True, if I scaffold her learning by dropping hints that the drains are blocked then she might be more likely to figure this out than if I say nothing at all, but it is still not clear why I would do that in preference to directly explaining this fact.

The direct communication of information is a default for humans. If you have ever observed a person attempt to teach for the first time then you will notice that they reach for a form of explicit teaching. What’s interesting about this is that they tend to approach it as if they were explaining that the drains are blocked. And yet the kinds of academic concepts that teachers find themselves explaining are usually more complex and hard to grasp than this. Effective explicit teaching therefore layers in additional levels of explanation and modelling and this is why inquiry learning versus explicit teaching represents a genuine pivot point. On one side we have an approach that gives less guidance – at least to some degree – than a straightforward explanation, and on the other side we have an approach that seeks to add additional layers of guidance, over and above that of a straightforward explanation.

Short circuit

Given the obviousness of the case for explicit teaching, why is inquiry learning popular? Firstly, there is a long history of educational ideas that seek to make learning a more natural process. Nobody teaches us how to move our mouths in order to talk because we figure this out for ourselves. Why can’t academic learning be the same? The answer is that academic learning is unnatural. We have been speaking and listening for perhaps hundreds of thousands of years, giving evolution enough time to help us develop mental modules for naturally picking up language. By contrast, writing, upon which all academic work rests, has been around for only a few thousand years and for much of that time, it has been the preserve of an elite. Evolution hasn’t had time to act and so it is an effort to learn to read and write.

Another motivator is perhaps a wish to short-circuit the learning process. Real scientists conduct experiments, so why don’t we get students conducting experiments? Real historians analyse sources, so why don’t we get students to analyse sources? This ignores the differences between experts, who have vast stores of relevant knowledge to draw upon from long term memory, and novices, who don’t. When a scientist constructs an hypothesis, she is bearing in mind everything that is currently known that is relevant to that hypothesis, what similar experiments have shown, what theory might relate to this experiment and so on. A novice is just making a guess.

Burden of proof

Advocates for inquiry learning therefore need to provide evidence to support their case. It is not simply enough to question the evidence for explicit teaching, given that it is both obvious and a default. If we need to shift to a different form of teaching then we need to know why.

Some will point to the literature on ‘active learning‘. This often involves studies of university students where one group is given straight lectures and the other group is required to interact with the material in some way, perhaps by having periodic discussions with a partner or by answering multiple choice questions. The latter group is not involved in inquiry learning. Rather, this group is being subjected to strategies that will help ensure they pay attention to the material to be learnt.

It may be true, as some argue, that inquiry learning assists in the development of skills that are not captured by typical tests. That’s entirely possible but I don’t think this possibility alone is enough to cause us to abandon explicit teaching, given its effectiveness for achieving academic outcomes. We would need evidence. Where is it? If you reject randomised controlled trials or the PISA data on enquiry and student-oriented learning, then where is your alternative set of evidence that convinces you of the case for inquiry?

That is the challenge for any advocate of inquiry learning. Can you advance your case based on evidence? Otherwise, as Christopher Hitchens said, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”


11 thoughts on “Inquiry learning

  1. One difficulty in looking at studies on teaching methods is the research constraints put on the context. The inquiry definition that I am comfortable with as a teacher is different from those of researchers who carry on to conclude based on that. Communication is part of teaching but is different for different context. So if I beat around the bush in communicating a known fact in day to day communication, it is probably not appreciated. If I set a scene to communicate an unknown fact for learning, what will be interesting is looking at the depth of understanding/learning after some time. I worry about the of the controlled environment needed for research purpose that might not be realistic yet results suggest it’s impact on the ground. Good that you are looking into this and adding to the knowledge of it. Very good article you wrote that got me up!

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    You’re being too generous by half. In 2006, Kirschner, Sweller and Clark published “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. It should be required reading on all ITT courses.

    You provide a link to Deanna Kuhn’s arguments against the above article. She cites the old ’21st century skills’ argument, making the mystifying claim that because it is “next to impossible to predict what kinds of knowledge people will need to thrive in the mid-21st century”, we should just let them go wherever their inclinations lead them. Only a modern educator could possibly believe that the knowledge pupils construct for themselves will somehow be more useful than the best that has been thought and said, or indeed that they can learn “study skills” that will be more useful than actually knowing something about a subject. Using Google, or even Google Scholar, is no trick at all if you know enough about a subject to ask intelligent and pertinent questions. And the richer your stock of knowledge, the more likely you are to understand new information, relate it to what you already know, and retain it in long-term memory.

    Sadly, professional educators really have no idea how long it takes to amass enough knowledge so that you are both motivated and capable of independent inquiry. I’ve met very few undergraduates who, given a choice between the bar at the student union or the library, would choose the latter.

  3. Iain Murphy says:

    Reading Greg’s description of the inquiry model makes me think I am doing it wrong.

    The assignments in my Science classroom that would be considered inquiry are some of the most popular. I think it’s because the students can immediately understand the starting point and finishing point of these tasks. For example my year 7s create their own planet. They recognise the start and immediately look forward to making models or posters that have their stamp even if it’s just the name. Along the way we explore gravity, orbits, tides, seasons all through the model of the Earth and explicit teaching.

    Comparing this to a year 8 assignment looking at specialised cells which is more academically rigorous with students doing a lot of research is less effective as the students feel less connected. Again there is explicit teaching of the organelles but this doesn’t translate as well.

    Engaging imagination and creativity in students can be a powerful motivator and is probably the heart of the inquiry model schema. Not sure it can be measured with any of the procedures Greg champions which doesn’t make it weak, just that it shouldn’t be used in isolation.

  4. The research on active learning in higher education is often very badly done. There are the usual statistical atrocities (pseudoreplication, multiple regression with correlated predictors, you name it) as well as study designs that actively introduce confounding variables. For example, some instructors will explicitly tell students that active learning is effective to get “buy-in” — but don’t do so for the control group. Or they’ll assign pre-class reading, followed by a quiz to make sure students have done the reading — and then attribute all the difference between the experimental and control groups to the in-class activities, as if quizzing wasn’t a powerful learning tool. It was that kind of nonsense that drove me to start reading cognitive psychology.

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