Michael Seery takes a critical look at inquiry-based learning

Students in a chemistry lab

Source: Getty Images

Writing recently in The Irish Times, William Reville, emeritus professor of biochemistry at University College Cork, stated that newer teaching methods employed in the UK and Ireland are ‘sharply inferior to the older teaching methods they supplanted’. His article highlighted a 30% difference between educational scores in China, where whole-class teaching is employed, and those locally, where child-centred methods are used. 

Going with the flow

Reville referred to the 2006 article (pdf) by Paul Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard Clark. From the title alone – Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: an analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching – it’s clear that this article isn’t going to pull any punches. The authors characterise minimal guidance approaches such as inquiry-based learning with two key features:

  1. The assumption that students constructing solutions to authentic problems in information-rich settings results in an effective learning experience.
  2. The assumption that knowledge is best acquired in adopting the methods employed by that discipline. For example, in chemistry, this would mean that scientists experiment to approach and solve problems, therefore the process of learning chemistry should adopt that approach. 

These features are grounded in constructivism, which holds that learning occurs by integrating experiences with current knowledge, and in the process of sense-making, new knowledge and understanding develops. This is appealing to educators as it is characterised by active and engaged students. Crippen and Brooks summarised this neatly (emphasis mine):

‘People often become fully engaged in a task or activity. That is, people often work under conditions where all available working memory energy is applied to the task at hand. This condition has been studied and is called flow ... Athletes refer to this as being ‘in the zone’ … People report flow as a very positive experience; put simply, flow feels good.’

But what is it good for?

While flow may feel good, it contrasts with what is known from over four decades of research on human cognition. We now know that prior knowledge is the supreme factor in how we learn and utilise new information. Without prior knowledge, novice learners will be overwhelmed with new information. It is impossible and unfair to ask novice learners both to process new information and simultaneously apply it to a particular problem. Learning as characterised by the two assumptions stated cannot occur. Crippen and Brooks state:

‘Well-designed, open-ended projects bring about flow and flow feels good. Experiencing flow, however, may not be the best way to learn. In fact, without working memory energy set aside for self-regulation and input from a teacher, learning is not likely to occur.’

Flow also sounds good. The European Union’s FP7 programme has funded several inquiry-based learning projects for science education. These include PROFILES, PATHWAY, PRIMAS, SAILS, and MASCIL. These projects are uniform in their acceptance of inquiry-based learning as a pedagogic approach. The opening report for MASCIL, for example, states that ‘inquiry based education is identified as the method of choice to increase students’ interest and achievement in science’. SALIS also highlights the appeal of inquiry-based learning in engaging students in science education.  

As yet there appears to be little evidence emerging that these pilot studies are demonstrating any improvement in standardised assessment scores.  Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark argue:

‘The major fallacy of [the inquiry-based] rationale is that it makes no distinction between the behaviours and methods of a researcher who is an expert practicing a profession and those students who are new to the discipline and who are, thus, essentially novices.’

This raises the question, why do we continue to experiment with this approach if there is a substantial body of evidence backing teacher-centred direct instruction?

Michael Seery is a lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland