One of the implications of Cognitive Load Theory is that inquiry-based learning is ineffective. When I make this point, I often provoke a response similar to Mike Ollerton’s response here:
The second point perhaps has some validity. No matter how many instances I can point to where it doesn’t work, I cannot rule out that there is a context where it does. However, it is the first point that has caused me to reflect.
There are two reasons why my own PhD research is different to a school student learning basic maths or science. I am further along the novice-expert continuum and so less guided forms of learning become more effective – this is the ‘expertise reversal effect’ from Cognitive Load Theory. I am also trying to answer a question which has not been fully answered before. If it had, it may be more efficient for me to obtain the answer from someone else.
Which strikes me as something of a key point.
I am currently working on my thesis and part of this is a lengthy literature review that attempts to summarise every major development that precedes and is relevant to my experimental work. It is interesting to note that those who advocate for inquiry-based learning on the basis that it is the way that real scientists, mathematicians, historians or whoever work, rarely seem keen to replicate the literature review component. There would be a major problem if they tried – the answers to inquiry questions posed at school are already known and so students would stumble upon them as part of any literature review process (if they are able to understand the literature, that is). I suspect it is also the case that although literature reviews are absolutely central to any genuine scientific investigation, there is a disjoint here between practice and philosophy.
Inquiry-based learning is essentially a modern incarnation of educational progressivism with its emphasis on natural learning through exploration and play. Insofar as the work of professional scientists matches this ideal, their example is useful to the cause. However, the highly artificial process of literature review is not something children do when they play or learn to talk.
I need to write about 80,000 words for my thesis, so you may be forgiven for thinking I must have found out a lot about the world, but this is not the case. Most of that is a literature review and a discussion of the methods I have used.
My main findings could be communicated relatively quickly and simply. I have tested the effect of the order of problem solving and explicit teaching under certain conditions. The theory of productive failure predicts problem solving prior to explicit teaching is a more effective order because problem solving primes students in some way for the explicit teaching (there are various suggested mechanisms). Cognitive load theory predicts the reverse order, at least for relative novices dealing with reasonably complex materials. So that’s what I have tested and I think I’ve designed a pretty good way of doing this. I will not communicate the results on this blog until they are published in a peer-reviewed journal, but, when I do, the overall findings will be pretty easy to communicate. You will be able to ‘learn’ them from a short blog post.
In contrast, arriving at these findings myself has been a nearly four-year project so far. That perhaps gives us an extreme example of the efficiency of learning from others when contrasted with discovering something for yourself. In some cases, where the required knowledge does not exist, discovery is the only option, but it seems perverse to insist on it in other circumstances.
If you want to read more on the difference between learning science and behaving like a scientist then I recommend this piece by Paul Kirschner.