I was discussing the merits of inquiry-based learning yesterday with a colleague who had read ‘The case against inquiry-based learning’ in the blog of the journal Education in Chemistry (Seely, 2015a). The article suggests that inquiry-based learning is ineffective compared to direct instruction and superficially it seems convincing. However, a little critical thought and the weaknesses of the argument become all too apparent. I have listed the problems I have with the article below.
Problem 1: Not all inquiries are equal.
The author sets up a straw man. The article (and the article by Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark it cites) compare direct instruction with minimally guided inquiry. Minimally guided inquiry is rather passé and not very common (I would hope). The FOSIL framework and tools are expressly designed to help teachers guide pupils through an inquiry and avoid the unguided approach to inquiry. A carefully planned pupil inquiry, guided by teachers who understand the inquiry process and are aware of potential misconceptions that unwary pupils might pick up is very motivating to pupils and a good way for them to use and build upon their existing subject knowledge.
Problem 2: Is the only explanation for differences in PISA rankings down to differences in teaching methods?
The article commits a common fallacy by suggesting that it is solely the difference in method of instruction in China and the UK that results in differences in PISA rankings in Maths and Science, ignoring contextual and cultural differences, which I would argue are large and significant. Whether PISA tests are the best way to measure understanding of science is another contentious point.
Problem 3: It’s not a case of either/or.
At the heart of the issue is a false dichotomy. As teachers, we don’t have a choice between either inquiry-based learning or direct instruction. I think most would agree that both direct instruction and inquiry-based learning have their place in our teaching toolkit.
Interestingly, the article’s companion piece, ‘The case for inquiry-based learning’ was written by the same author and published a few days later in the same blog (Seely, 2015b). This second article is much more measured. It is worth remembering that both articles are opinion pieces rather than peer-reviewed journal articles.
There has been lots written about the benefits of inquiry learning. For example, the IBO have produced a very interesting literature review on approaches to learning (International Baccalaureate, 2012). It is well worth a read as it doesn’t shy away from some of the difficult issues. To present the (rather uncommon and rarely cited) opposing position, a couple of peer-reviewed articles that question the orthodoxy surrounding inquiry learning, which draw the sensible conclusion that not all inquiries are created equal are also worth looking at (Cairns & Areepattamannil, 2019; McConney, Oliver, Woods-McConney, Schibeci, & Maor, 2014). The worst picture the research paints is that although the pupils might not be able to recall scientific knowledge as well after inquiry compared to direct instruction, they are far more motivated and positive about what they have learned and how they view the subject.
The conclusion I draw is that we need to make sure our inquiries are as good as they possibly can be. As teachers, we need to understand inquiry better, and think very carefully about how to support pupils during it. In other words, more FOSIL please.
For me, this is the power of the FOSIL forum. We are not ignorant of the challenges of implementing a constructivist and student-centred approach to learning and teaching – we are not peddling snake oil – rather, we are openly encouraging like-minded colleagues to thoughtfully and critically collaborate to overcome these challenges.
Cairns, D., & Areepattamannil, S. (2019). Exploring the Relations of Inquiry-Based Teaching to Science Achievement and Dispositions in 54 Countries. Research in Science Education, 49(1), 1-23.
International Baccalaureate. (2012). Approaches to learning: Literature review . International Baccalaureate Organisation.
McConney, A., Oliver, M., Woods-McConney, A., Schibeci, R., & Maor, D. (2014). Inquiry, Engagement, and Literacy in Science: A Retrospective, Cross-National Analysis Using PISA 2006. Science Education, 49(1), 964-980.