The Explicit / Inquiry Binary

Ultimately, it is about values

We all oppose binaries, right? Silly people like to set up simplistic binaries. But you and I, dear reader, are urbane and sophisticated. We know about context and nuance and nuance and context. We know that the truth must inevitably lie somewhere in the middle.

Take, for instance, those needlessly divisive people arguing that the adult population should all go out and get vaccinated against COVID-19. Of course vaccines have a role. Nobody is against vaccines. But those arguing that vaccines are more deadly than COVID and that they contain microchips, personally designed by Bill Gates, that will hook you up to the 5G network, also have a point. And anyway, there’s no need to choose between these positions because we can all exist in a Schrödinger’s-cat-like state of being both unvaccinated and vaccinated at the same time. It all depends on context. Right?


Clearly, some binaries are meaningful. Yes, the real world is messy, complex and imperfect, but science involves seeing the patterns and relationships that emerge out of the fog of details rather than just complaining about how foggy it is. Leadership involves making a call, even if that call is sometimes unpopular.

And I often can’t help feeling we’re being played.

Take ‘balanced literacy’ for example. At the end of the 1990s, following the growth of the ‘whole language’ approach to early reading instruction, evidence began accumulating for the value of systematic phonics teaching, something that was, using the most charitable interpretation possible, strongly de-emphasised in whole language. The U.S. commissioned a National Reading Panel that reviewed this evidence and its report became highly influential.

Balanced literacy formed a major strand of the response from publishers, consultants, researchers and other interested parties, both to the National Reading Panel and to similar reports in the UK and Australia. Balanced literacy’s proponents argued that contrary to perceptions, teachers had been teaching phonics all along, but they had also been balancing it up with a range of other, less effective word decoding strategies. This makes sense because the truth has to lie somewhere in the middle. Rhetorically, it was genius. The alternative to balanced literacy must be unbalanced, and that doesn’t sound appealing. It led to the often repeated untruth that reading programmes that incorporate systematic phonics teach ‘phonics only’ and nothing else.

The evidence from Australia suggests many teachers do not have the knowledge required to teach phonics. This fact should have made us at least sceptical of the claim that they had been doing so all along. However, I don’t think this claim was a conscious deception. Perhaps teachers who asked students, “What sound does the first letter make?” before suggesting they guess the rest of the word thought they were teaching phonics. We’ll come back to this point.

And the criteria teachers were supposed to use when deciding to do a little bit of this rather than a little bit of that were never revealed. Instead, teachers were flattered by suggestions that they possessed some kind of mystical power to divine optimal individual learning strategies based upon their students’ specific and varying needs and the ever present context.

In recent years, even stalwarts of balanced literacy such as Lucy Calkins, have started to bend under the weight of scientific evidence and revise their programmes. So, we have seen progress.

Which is all a preamble to a recent piece in The Conversation by Alan Reid, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of South Australia, in which Reid pushes back against a recent report by John Sweller about the perils of inquiry learning and against the endorsement of this report by Noel Pearson.

The debate about early reading represents in microcosm the wider debate about explicit teaching versus inquiry learning.

Reid’s overarching theme is that he is unhappy about setting up binaries:

“There’s a variety of useful teaching models — and this includes explicit instruction — which have been designed for different purposes. It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate given the context.

Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as education impoverishes the debate.”

As with balanced literacy, it is not entirely clear why the truth must lie somewhere in the middle. It may well be the case that teachers are using a range of strategies, just like balanced literacy teachers did, but this does not prove that using this range of strategies is optimal. That is a question of evidence.

Reid focuses on one source of evidence used to support the case for explicit teaching. In his newspaper article, Pearson refers to a report drawing on evidence from PISA surveys by McKinsey, a management consultancy company. To be fair to Reid, I am not fully convinced by the McKinsey report either. I do not particularly object to the main claim that there is a ‘sweet spot’ that combines explicit teaching in most-to-all classes with inquiry-based learning in some classes. Proponents of explicit teaching view it as a whole process that moves from ‘I do’ through ‘We do’ to ‘You do’ and so there is a point at which students will be engaged in open-ended problem solving which look very similar to inquiry-style tasks. My problem with the report is that I am reasonably familiar with the PISA data and I cannot quite work out how McKinsey produced their figures.

Fortunately for proponents of explicit teaching, the case does not hinge entirely on this one report. Sweller, for instance, refers to evidence from PISA but instead of the McKinsey report, he references two peer-reviewed journal articles. But PISA evidence is specific to 15-year-olds answering survey questions about their science and maths lessons. How do we know if this finding transfers to other contexts?

Well, there is the evidence from process-product studies in the 1960s that found that students achieve more in classes where teachers engage in ‘active teaching’ . This involves the teacher leading the lesson, presenting concepts in short bursts, asking lots of questions, running through practice examples and so on. This is a relatively old finding based largely upon primary school students learning literacy and numeracy and it is a finding that was replicated in the largest education experiment ever conducted. And then there is the large body of evidence from experimental trials, not least those conducted under the framework of cognitive load theory, that repeatedly demonstrate the effectiveness of explicit methods.

Reid mentions cognitive load theory, but he describes it oddly. He summarises it as, “the idea we need to finesse a new concept until it enters our long-term memory and becomes almost second nature.” As a researcher in the field, I do not recognise this description. The central idea of cognitive load theory is that we need to manage cognitive load because working memory is extremely limited. This is why inquiry approaches fail - they overwhelm the working memories of novice learners.

This brings me back to the point I made earlier. When people state they are already using some explicit teaching or when they reference cognitive load theory, I am not convinced that they always view these concepts in the same way as me or in a way that is consistent with the research evidence.

The final point of Reid’s that I want to address is the idea that inquiry learning has evolved and that criticisms of Jerome Bruner’s approach to discovery learning do not necessarily apply to other forms of inquiry learning such as problem-based learning.

This is perhaps a valid point. Kirschner, Sweller and Clark made an heroic attempt to include all the various names for inquiry-style monkey-business in their key 2006 critique, or at least the names that were around at that time, but the thing mutates and we now have any number of new variants such as ‘phenomenon-based learning’. My PhD research has revolved around testing the competing predictions of cognitive load theory and something termed ‘productive failure’. The latter is a modest form of inquiry learning in which it is suggested that students will learn more if they have a brief period of attempting to solve a problem before having the problem and its solution explained to them. I found that explicit teaching from the outset was superior to productive failure in the context of my experiment.

But perhaps this is the wrong way around. For instance, there is very little evidence for homeopathy and so when faced with a choice between conventional medicine and homeopathy we should probably choose the former (unless it would be beneficial to offer no treatment at all). If I invent a new variant of homeopathy, I suppose I could claim that this new variant has not been tested against conventional medicine and so the evidence suggesting it will not work does not apply. However, it is not the job of other people to prove me wrong, it is my job to provide evidence that my new approach works. Shifting the burden of proof on to others is a well known logical fallacy.

The wider point is that advocates of inquiry learning rarely feel the need to provide evidence of its effectiveness. They simply assert it. Or they justify it through appeals to student agency. Or they dismiss the evidence for explicit teaching by saying that although explicit teaching may provide advantages on standardised tests, they are interested in other, more abstract types of qualities and skills, without ever demonstrating that inquiry is actually more effective at developing these more abstract types of qualities and skills. With no evidence put forward to analyse, opponents are left trying to prove a negative.

So yes, there is a binary and it’s unfortunate if you don’t like it. It is a binary that reflects a fundamental difference in values. There are those who value evidence, in all its messiness and complexity, and who seek to be guided by it. And there are those who do not.