Explicit instruction v Inquiry-based teaching: A case study in narrowing the education debate
The binary of explicit instruction and inquiry-based teaching
For some time now the education debate in Australia has been marred by the presence of a simple binary: explicit teaching or direct instruction versus inquiry-based teaching.
Simply put, explicit teaching is a structured sequence of learning led by the teacher, who demonstrates and explains a new concept or technique to students who then practise it. It is sometimes described as a process that moves from ‘I do’ through to ‘we do’ and ‘you do’.
Inquiry-based teaching is used as a catch-all term for models of teaching that are student-centred and involve the students, guided by the teacher, creating essential questions, exploring and investigating these, and sharing ideas to arrive at new understandings.
A recent article in the Weekend Australian by Noel Pearson (August 14-15, 2021)[i] has breathed new life into the explicit teaching/inquiry-based teaching dichotomy.
It lays the blame for Australia’s declining Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores on the fact that the vast majority of teachers are using inquiry-based approaches, although the evidence for this is not presented. And it says that explicit teaching is the answer.
Noel Pearson’s argument leans on a recent Centre for Independent Studies paper by Emeritus Professor John Sweller[ii]. In that paper, Sweller recites his research on ‘cognitive load’ theory to demonstrate that explicit teaching produces better learning outcomes than inquiry-based teaching.
So convinced is Noel Pearson by the argument that he maintains that debates about teaching approaches are over! Explicit teaching has won the day, and he urges teachers, politicians, and policy-makers to adopt John Sweller’s model as their educational guiding star. In my view they should be very wary of doing so because the case is based on a number of serious flaws.
Good teaching involves more than one teaching approach
The argument assumes, without producing evidence, that teachers use only one approach to teaching – either explicit or inquiry-based - and that most teachers in Australia use the latter. This assertion could be confirmed on empirical grounds but I don’t think such research has been conducted across Australia, and certainly Pearson has no evidence to support his claim. From my experience of teaching and working with teachers in schools, most educators do not stay with one approach but use a range of teaching approaches.
However, that is not the crucial issue. Pearson and the explicit teaching lobby argue that teachers should use only one approach, and that of course is explicit teaching. They draw on research such as ‘cognitive load theory’ to prove their case. Such a rigid stance ignores the huge body of research that focuses on how people learn, and that has been used by educators to devise models of teaching that are located at different places on a teacher-centred/student-centred continuum. A famous book that proposes models of teaching using research on learning is that of Joyce and Weill[iii], but there are many other examples.
The idea is that teachers select, from a toolkit of teaching approaches and models, one that best suits the purposes of the topic or program, the context of the study, and their students’ interest, readiness and needs. Sometimes teachers will use a student-centred teaching model; at other times they may be more teacher-directed and use explicit teaching. And sometimes they might draw on explicit teaching at a specific moment during a guided inquiry. To make their selections, teachers use their pedagogical expertise and knowledge of their students and their contexts.
Pearson opposes such a view of teaching. He claims that the superiority of explicit teaching is demonstrated by research showing that inquiry-based teaching is detrimental to student learning. The flaws in this claim are laid bare when closely analysed. First, it distorts what constitutes inquiry learning; and second it compares explicit teaching and inquiry learning using highly dubious research. I will take each in turn.
There is no homogenous model of inquiry-based learning
The argument that explicit teaching produces better learning outcomes than inquiry teaching is based on a misguided view about what constitutes inquiry-based teaching. John Sweller and Noel Pearson maintain that inquiry learning began six decades ago with the work of the famous American cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and his concept of ‘discovery learning’[iv].
In broad terms, with discovery learning, instead of students being given the information to learn, they are given (or choose themselves) questions or problems, and use their prior knowledge and experiences to test new understandings. Bruner argued that, as well as gaining new knowledge, students would develop crucial skills such as questioning and critical thinking, along with curiosity and a love for learning.
Apart from omitting to mention that Bruner’s approach was also based on teaching the structure of the disciplines – I mention this only because it is ironic that many who expound the virtues of explicit teaching also decry the decline of the disciplines and lack of intellectual rigour in Australian schools - Noel Pearson suggests that the development of inquiry-based teaching stopped in the 1960s. It didn’t.
When Bruner’s work first gained prominence it was adapted to the teaching of science, and then slowly spread to other areas of the curriculum. Over the next fifty years through practice and research, a number of different models of inquiry learning have developed – each with different emphases - such as inductive and deductive inquiry, and problem-based and project-based inquiry.
More than this, inquiry-based approaches vary in such matters as purpose, method and sequence of steps; and in terms of the extent to which teachers are in control of topic choice and process (eg structured inquiry; controlled inquiry), or students have greater agency (eg., guided inquiry, free inquiry).
Take the matter of purpose. Well-known books on teaching and learning (eg Joyce et al., 2017[v]) describe many different models of teaching that are student-centred but each has a very different purpose. For example, the concept attainment model is specifically structured so that students learn the process of understanding and applying key concepts, while the controversial issues model is designed to assist students to learn how to understand and develop a stance on an important social or political issue.
In other words, there is no homogenous model of inquiry-based learning. If people like Pearson and Sweller want to criticise inquiry-based approaches they need to be explicit about which model they are critiquing.
The use of suspect research to support claims
The other flaw is that much of the ‘research’ used to show that explicit teaching produces better learning outcomes is based on data that is contaminated by the confusion about what constitutes inquiry-based teaching.
Let’s take a prominent example that is frequently used by the explicit teaching lobby to make their case. Accompanying the 2015 PISA tests, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) conducted student interviews to find out about the extent to which some students experienced inquiry teaching in their science classes. The questions were based on a very limited, even distorted, view about inquiry-based teaching. Thus, the researchers supposed that involving students in practical experiments and class debates, and giving them the time to explain ideas and use the scientific method, covered all the possibilities for inquiry-based teaching. They appeared not to notice the irony that in fact the teacher-led examples provided could just as easily have been used to describe explicit teaching!
Notwithstanding these limitations, and the inherent difficulties involved in comparing the responses of students from 72 countries - not to mention the serious questions being asked about the validity of the PISA scores - the OECD aggregated the answers and correlated them with the PISA scores in Science to arrive at an ‘index of inquiry-based instruction’[vi]. This purported to show that, for many countries, there is a negative correlation between inquiry-based teaching and success in the science tests.
Despite the warped view of inquiry and the inadequate methodology upon which the OECD report was based, once the report hit the public domain its findings were further distorted. Indeed, the next part of the story is a case study in how inaccurate and unreliable information gets passed on by commentators and consultants.
For example, government consultancy firm McKinsey and Co. simply accepted the ‘research’ findings at face value and then turned the results – remember they were based on interviews about science teaching with fifteen-year olds – into generalisations about teaching in all subjects across all year levels! Thus:
There are two dominant types of teaching practices. The first is ‘teacher- directed instruction’……
(the) second is ‘inquiry-based teaching’. We analysed the PISA results to understand the relative impact of each of these practices. In all five regions, when teachers took the lead, scores were generally higher and the more inquiry-based learning, the lower the scores[vii].
In this case study example, the McKinsey report was then picked up by Noel Pearson and used to extol the virtues of one teaching approach over another. He asserts that:
…the student achievement data (shows) the positive effects of explicit instruction, and the detrimental effects of inquiry learning… showing the superior effect of explicit teaching. (The McKinsey and Company analysis) is a crucial report which ... parents, teachers and politicians concerned with schools should read[viii].
The point is that reporting the results of research into ‘cognitive load theory’ and explicit teaching is one thing. But using flawed research to compare explicit teaching with inquiry-based teaching in order to claim the superiority of the former over the latter is quite another matter. If there are problems with the research used to make comparisons, then at the very least there are some serious questions about the efficacy and value of the claims about explicit teaching that spring from it.
There are many models of teaching that have been designed for different purposes, all of which are based on research and have been adapted for practice in various educational settings.
It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate approach given the context of her/his students’ learning needs at any point in time.
John Sweller’s ‘cognitive load theory’ could be an important addition to our knowledge about when, where and how to use explicit teaching. But to use his research to elevate explicit teaching to being the best and only approach to teaching and learning, as Noel Pearson has done, can only diminish its possibilities. Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as teaching and learning impoverishes the educational debate.
This paper is a modified version of an article published in the Conversation on August 17, 2021: Reid, A (2021) ‘Teachers may use many teaching approaches to impart knowledge. Pitting one against the other harms education’.
[i] Noel Pearson ‘Schools paper ends teaching debate once and for always’ in The Weekend Australian, August 14-15, 2021, Inquirer, p. 20.
[ii] John Sweller ‘Why inquiry based-approaches harm student learning’, Analysis Paper 24, Centre for Independent Studies, August 2021.
[iii] Joyce, B., Weil,M. & Calhoun, E., Models of Teaching, London: Pearson, 2017
[iv] Bruner, J. (1960). The process of education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Bruner, J. S. (1961). The act of discovery. Harvard educational review; Bruner, J. (1966). Toward a theory of instruction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
[v] Joyce, B., Weil,M. & Calhoun, E., op.cit.
[vi] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA 2015 Results (Vol 2): Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, Paris, 2016.
[vii] Mourshed, M., Krawitz, M. & Dorn, E., How to improve student educational outcomes. New insights from data analytics, McKinsey and Co, New York, 2017.
[viii] Noel Pearson, op.cit.
Alan Reid is Emeritus Professor of Education at the Centre for Research in Educational and Social Inclusion at the University of South Australia. His recent book: Changing Australian Education: How policy is taking us backwards and what can be done about it, was published by Routledge in 2020.
This article appears in Professional Voice 14.2 Re-evaluations: Climate education, pedagogy, wellbeing and professional autonomy