In an ideal world, there is a place for both. Inquiry-based learning can be effective—but only when strong teacher-directed teaching is in place. This suggests that teachers need to be able to clearly explain ... concepts and students need to have content mastery to fully benefit from inquiry-based learning.
The report also makes clear that inquiry based teaching (in the context of science teaching or 15 year olds) has a positive impact upon both students' passion for science and their belief that science is worthwhile for future careers. Both these factors are vital for application of learning beyond school.
If then the ideal learning environment is one that hits a sweet spot between direct instruction and inquiry why is there a tendency to tribalism by educators in relation to the two approaches?
How then do we find the sweet spot where students are engaged and passionate about learning with teachers selecting the best pedagogical approach for that child and that time to move them forward rather than being dogmatically attached to one pedagogy?
I once heard Ewan McIntosh use the great phrase of 'intellectual fumes' to express the concerning situation that occurs in some inquiry based classrooms where students are working on tasks long after the point where their knowledge and skills enable them to add depth to their understanding. A similar phrase I've heard used is 'shared endarkenment' where a group sit together and discuss something they don't understand amazingly enough to no useful end! How can these consequences of bad interactions of inquiry be avoided whilst hitting the sweet spot and providing the best for our students.
In this post I'll make a few proposals but hopefully you'll use the comments to join in the debate.
1) Be clear what the desired end point is but be cognisant of the current position
We want our students to become empowered independent learners who can manipulate and challenge ideas. We must however acknowledge that they do not start in this position. One common error is that because teachers want students to become experts they start off treating them as experts.The flip side of this overconfidence in student ability is to make the mistake of thinking that because the student is not yet an expert we will deny them the opportunities to make any choices or take ownership of their own learning instead hoarding control with the adult in the room. This results in what Kalyuga and others refer to as the Expertise Reversal Effect
I have found the SOLO taxonomy particularly useful in thinking about the issue of understanding the students current level of expertise and matching it to the appropriate pedagogical approach.
- At the prestructural level of understanding, the task is inappropriately attacked, and the student has missed the point or needs help to start.
- At the unistructural level, one aspect of the task is picked up, and student understanding is disconnected and limited. The jump to the multistructural level is quantitative.
- At the multistuctural level, several aspects of the task are known but their relationships to each other and the whole are missed. The progression to relational and extended abstract outcomes is qualitative.
- At the relational level, the aspects are linked and integrated, and contribute to a deeper and more coherent understanding of the whole.
- At the extended abstract level, the new understanding at the relational level is re-thought at another conceptual level, looked at in a new way, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding
I would argue that Inquiry based teaching is of great impact in moving students through the relational and extended abstract levels. Where more directed instruction is most impactful in moving students through the unistructural and multistuctural phases. The incorrect marrying of the phase with the pedagogy can lead on the one hand to time and energy wasted on working in share endarkenment and on the other of students not developing a deep coherent understanding of the whole or to generalise their learning into new directions.
2) Be aware of cognitive load
The work of John Sweller in the field of cognitive load theory has been sized upon by those who argue for direct instruction as a critic of inquiry based approaches. Unfortunately this has led to a lack of debate as to how our understanding of the link between long term and working memory can make inquiry approaches more effective. In particular how do we ensure that we are not expecting students to learn new skills whilst simultaneously learning new knowledge? How do we match the complexity of the task to the students current level of expertise and thus the demands on their cognitive load? Linking to the SOLO taxonomy above, at the relational stage students have schema to enable effective retrieval and encoding between the working and long term memory. Prior to these stages the cognitive load of tasks will need to be carefully managed to ensure the development of schema.
Cognitive Load Theory also has important insights as to how information can be presented both by teachers and students. An active discussion of cognitive load theory and its implications for structured inquiry will certainly be an interesting area in the coming years.
Implicit in both of the points made above is the need to really know our students and act accordingly on that information. Direct instruction and inquiry are not ideologies to sacrifice our students learning and well being to, they are both effective tools, when used in a timely and skillful manner, to enable our students to become empowered independent learners who can manipulate and challenge ideas.
It is our challenge to as educators to find the sweet spot for each of our students to best impact their learning. To help meet this challenge I've created a check sheet which can be found in the resources section for matching the pedagogy with the students needs. As with any check sheet this is a massive over simplification of a complex art but by drawing out some individual parts may be useful in allowing teachers to select the correct pedagogical tool at the time that is correct to optimize their students learning.
As Dylan Wiliam has said "the great thing about teaching is that you'll never be any good at it" As we search for the search for the sweet spot in our teaching I encourage all teachers to be constantly asking what will work best and not how does this fit into my preconceived ideas of what learning 'should' look like.