The problem with inquiry learning

It’s not what you think it is

There have been times when I have attempted to get students to learn specific concepts through inquiry learning. The ones that come to mind are from science. For a number of years, I asked students to discover the relationship between surface area and the rate of a chemical reaction. And then there were the experiments with ticker tape and trolleys in which students were supposed to discover Newton’s second law of motion. They would always tell me that the greater the force, the faster the trolley. Which was oddly both true and a misconception.

And yet I think science is unusual in this sense. Most of the time inquiry is used, clear and specific objectives seem to dissolve away. In maths, students make patterns with lollipop sticks or draw tessellated designs because the activity is thought to have intrinsic value. Or in the humanities they research a topic, again because the act of researching is thought to be of value. Hardly anyone articulates why, but the general sense is that students will develop some kind of generic skill as a result.

This form of activity-based planning is ubiquitous in schools. I once asked a maths teacher why he planned to conduct a particular activity in class and he replied that the other class had done it and so it would not be fair if his students missed out. In Jo Boaler’s Mathematical Mindsets, she advises a range of activities - such as solving 18 x 5 as many different ways as possible - without deeming it necessary to explain what students will learn as a result.

The late Grant Wiggins was not, as far as I could tell, an opponent of inquiry learning, but the issue of activity-based planning bothered him. With Jay McTighe, he wrote a series of books arguing that we should start planning from what we want students to learn and then work backwards to select activities. This may sound like common sense, but these books would have had no market if it were common practice.

In teaching, we like to think of ends and means - curriculum and teaching methods - as distinct and independent. And yet the very ineffectiveness of inquiry learning at delivering well-defined objectives draws us into this kind of activity-based planning which, if pushed to justify, leads to an appeal to vague generic skills.

Are cycles of inquiry a ubiquitous and established component of most lessons in most schools? No, I don’t think they are in secondary schools where teachers start to work towards well-established outcomes*. Do most lessons consist of teachers setting 15-year-olds independent projects that last more than a week, as one PISA survey question asks? I don’t think so. Inquiry may be a little more prevalent in primary schools - I’m not sure - but even then, I doubt it takes up most of the time. I come to this view from trying to make inquiry learning work myself - I always resorted to explaining reaction rates and Newton’s second law because there is a point when pragmatism is in the ascendant. And I am also mindful of all those academic papers about trying to make teachers use more inquiry-style strategies. They wouldn’t be necessary if inquiry predominated.

So what is all the concern about? What is the harm caused by a teaching method that is used perhaps sparingly?

Unfortunately, with a few notable and worthy exceptions, the vast majority of education faculties and bureaucracies believe in the inquiry learning model. It fits their ideology and romantic views of the child. On my first day of teacher training, I was told that students are not empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge and I get a sense that little has changed.

This crowds out the space to critically examine alternatives. If explicit teaching and knowledge building are axiomatically wrong, then why explore the most effective ways to enact them? When teachers resort to explicit teaching, as I did in that science classroom years ago, they have to build the plane themselves. They have no training to draw upon. And so they end up with a type of explicit teaching that is not optimal and not informed by the wealth of evidence that is out there.

And when teachers ask students to make a poster or play a game or complete some other activity just because, they do so because they imagine it is worthwhile**. It must be worthwhile, right? The kids are doing something, they’re busy and they’re engaged. They must be developing some skills of some sort, right?

When in reality, all they are engaged in is killing time.

*This is why there is a large overlap between those who favour inquiry learning and those who want to abolish exams. Exams tend to clearly define the learning objective.

**There is an argument for variety - that school could become dull without a range of different activities. I accept this, but we just need to be clear-eyed about when and why we are making these choices.