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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.
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.
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.”