“Inquiry-based learning” is a hot topic in education these days, both in Canada and around the world.
In Canada, Ontario’s incoming premier Doug Ford recently declared his opposition to recent curriculum reforms including the inquiry-based “discovery math.”
“Kids used to learn math by doing things like memorizing a multiplication table, and it worked,” Ford said during the recent provincial election. “Instead, our kids are left with experimental discovery math. That hardly teaches math at all. Instead, everyone gets a participation ribbon and our kids are left to fend for themselves.”
Ford is not the only Canadian critic of a vision for education organized around discovery, exploration and inquiry.
Promoted in the provinces of B.C. and Alberta, this vision has been criticized by media columnists such as David Staples and Margaret Wente — who have argued that “inquiry” has left parents and students confused, and is jeopardising Canada’s position as a global leader in education.
They have called for a return to traditional forms of education focused on, as Staples put it, “explicit instruction and diligent practice that leads to automatic recall of basic facts.”
Criticism like this has created significant uncertainty around the value and efficacy of inquiry, not just in Canada, but in other high performing jurisdictions of education including Singapore and Estonia.
Beyond ‘discovery learning’
In a recent study, together with colleagues at the University of Calgary including graduate student Cameron Smith, I examined the evidence for various arguments made against inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning.
Our research shows the critics do get one thing right: There is a lot of evidence that “discovery learning” — where students must uncover key principles or information on their own — has limited educational value.
The problem with using this research to dismiss inquiry altogether, however, is that it does not distinguish discovery learning from other approaches to inquiry that have been shown to possess significant educational value.
These include guided approaches to inquiry such as project-based and problem-based learning. They also include approaches to inquiry aligned with the authentic education movement involving authentic intellectual work and discipline-based inquiry.
Within these approaches to inquiry, students are given opportunities to engage in meaningful work worthy of their time and attention and connected to the world in which they live.
They also move beyond memorizing information and algorithms — towards demonstrating deep understanding of key insights, concepts and processes by applying them within unfamiliar contexts.
Success on standardised tests
Examples of this kind of inquiry include a Grade 5 investigation into how water could be desalinated and purified after contamination by a tsunami.
In contrast to what the critics of inquiry claim, these investigations all required direct instruction and the need to recall basic facts. However, they also extended these traditional approaches to education in ways “that might support deeper understandings and more engaged learning.”
To promote deeper learning, teachers introduced ongoing feedback loops and had students explain and justify their reasoning.
Multiple large scale studies in the United States and in Canada have demonstrated that students who engage in this kind of inquiry perform better on standardised tests than students in more traditional learning environments.
The ‘Hattie effect’
So why have a number of studies found inquiry-based approaches to possess limited educational value? Education researcher John Hattie, for example, reviewed more than 800 research studies and found that inquiry-based teaching had a very small effect on student learning.
Hattie’s oft-referenced study is limited in a number of respects. “Piagetian” programs, which emphasize challenges that require learners to apply higher order thinking, were ranked as the second most impactful of all the approaches examined in Hattie’s study. But these approaches were presented as distinct from inquiry, despite shared affinities with both guided and authentic approaches. Further, the majority of studies used in Hattie’s analysis were conducted in the 1980s and early 1990s.
In contrast, a recent synthesis of contemporary research in The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences found that both guided approaches to inquiry and approaches growing out of the authentic education movement promote deeper understanding and more intellectually engaging learning experiences for students.
Inquiry is not unguided discovery
The research clearly shows that ministries of education — in Canada and globally — should maintain their commitment to curricular shifts towards inquiry.
However, there is a need to help the public better understand the research basis that has informed this change in direction.
As part of this work, we must engage more vigorously with politicians and popular commentators who have misrepresented inquiry as a process of unguided discovery devoid of instructional supports.