When it comes to the best approach for student learning, there seems to be two very divided camps: those who promote direct instruction and those who favor inquiry. I have been thinking a lot about this issue for several years now and decided to finally write my reflections down, based on 6 years of experience as a science teacher. I consider myself to still be a newbie teacher with lots to learn, but I have been teaching long enough I think my “feet are wet”. My purpose in writing this article is not to claim alliance or to promote either of the two camps, but to hopefully engage in professional discussion with fellow educators that leads to better understanding and improved lessons in classrooms. I embrace the methods that produce the best results in my classes and I’m always willing to experiment to find those methods.
Direct instruction is usually viewed as the traditional approach, the way most of us were taught science. With the widespread adoption of NGSS, there has been a big push for inquiry-style learning in science classes. NGSS is often viewed as a new movement attempting to help us move beyond the traditional approach by championing new methods that will provide better student learning results. The truth is, the inquiry movement isn’t new. Proponents of inquiry teaching have been around for many decades, and over the years it has gone by many names: problem-based learning, discovery learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, etc.
This divide is confusing because both camps are trying to accomplish the same thing, student learning, and both camps claim to be supported by a substantial amount of research. I think the two sides have more in common than it sometimes seems. For example, I think most supporters of inquiry will agree that students must have some basic background before they can engage in an inquiry task and I doubt that most advocates of direct instruction think it is never good to give students opportunities to figure things out independently. In addition, I think it is fairly safe to assume that most teachers deliver direct instruction at times and inquiry instruction at other times in their classes. In other words, I don’t think very many teachers teach using exclusively direct instruction or exclusively inquiry methods. So, why does this debate go on? In my opinion, semantics is a source of unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding as there are no universal definitions for the terms “direct instruction” and “inquiry”. I think you could ask 100 different teachers what inquiry and direct instruction are, and get nearly 100 different answers. I think almost any task we ask students to complete can be considered inquiry on some level and direct instruction itself can sometimes look like inquiry. Here is how I choose to think about these terms:
Inquiry happens anytime students are asked to figure something out on their own. In my opinion, almost anything a student does, other than basic recall, can be considered “inquiry” on some level. There is a whole spectrum of inquiry and one way to determine the level of inquiry is to consider the number of NGSS Science and Engineering Practices a task requires students to use. The more Science and Engineering practices the task requires, the higher the level of inquiry.
Students are provided with information they need to successfully complete a task. I think anytime a teacher is interacting and communicating with students, direct instruction is happening. Direct instruction isn’t just lectures and note-taking sessions. I think it can also be done through class discussions, working out sample problems, whiteboard sessions, videos, demonstrations, mentoring through projects. Some of these are also often considered to be “inquiry” methods, hence the confusion!
What is the right balance between Direct Instruction and Inquiry at the K-12 Level?
What is the right balance between Direct Instruction and Inquiry at the K-12 Level? Overall, I think the adoption of NGSS has positively impacted my teaching practice. I appreciate the emphasis on practices and concepts that apply across all disciplines of science b- the Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices. To me, the biggest strength of NGSS is the focus on using phenomena and their explanations in our curricula as a way to make learning more interesting and relevant to students. Despite these positives, implementation of the inquiry aspects of NGSS hasn’t been without bumps.
Inquiry instruction is often promoted as a way to make students more engaged in their learning, to make learning more interesting for students, and to increase student learning. I think these things can be true as long as the inquiry activity is well facilitated and students are well prepared for it. Leading students in an inquiry activity before they are ready for it can easily backfire and be counterproductive. Confusion, frustration, and the development of misconceptions are all real outcomes of an inquiry activity. Based on my experience, I am not convinced that asking novice learners to complete tasks at high or even intermediate levels of inquiry is beneficial to them, especially since many students have limited perseverance. I am cautious that I don’t withhold too much information from students and ask them to complete tasks they are not prepared for. Therefore, the inquiry activities I facilitate with my novice learners tend to be highly guided and I have become okay with this. Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller have made an argument against inquiry instruction being delivered to novice learners. They wrote an article in American Educator that I think is well worth a read and some reflection time. I think it is important to note that Clark et al. are not anti-inquiry instruction altogether. They argue there is a place for inquiry instruction and it is with advanced learners who already have strong knowledge in the content area.
John Hattie has spent many years studying factors that impact student learning, and he has assigned a numerical effect size on each. Hattie has found both direct instruction and inquiry-based teaching to improve student learning, but according to Hattie, direct instruction (0.59 impact factor) has a bigger positive effect than inquiry-based teaching (0.46 impact factor) and discovery-based teaching (0.21 impact factor). I think one of the biggest impact-limiting challenges of inquiry instruction is how difficult it can be for a teacher to effectively facilitate. It takes a lot of training and experience that many teachers simply don’t have. Learning to effectively lead an inquiry activity is a skill that is developed over time. It requires a deep content knowledge, flexibility, and a certain confidence to respond on-the-spot to student comments. Realistically, it’s a higher level teaching technique that is not something most teachers are naturally good at. Like most things that are hard to do, it is a skill that must be learned and refined over time. The biggest weakness I see with NGSS is that the strong push for inquiry may influence teachers to facilitate tasks that their students aren’t ready for and/or they themselves are not adequately prepared to effectively facilitate.
I think good teaching practice probably always has and probably always will be a fusion of direct instruction and inquiry instruction. The art and the challenging part of good teaching is providing our students with the information they need to complete a task (i.e. direct instruction), without telling them too much so they can still figure some things out on their own (i.e. inquiry). Instead of labeling instruction as direct or inquiry or even guided inquiry, I have started to prefer thinking about good teaching practice as simply “engaging instruction”. Whether I’m delivering direct instruction or inquiry instruction my goal is the same: for my instruction to be delivered in a way that engages students, leading them to be interested in the topic, to think about it, and communicate their thoughts about it. I think direct instruction and inquiry can be engaging on their own (they can also both be dis-engaging), but more often than not I think “engaging instruction” ends up being a mix of direct and inquiry methods. The mix of direct instruction and inquiry that makes a lesson engaging will be different for different students. For example, an open-ended inquiry activity will probably not be “engaging” for novice learners because they will likely be lost and confused. “Engaging instruction” for novice learners will likely include more aspects of direct instruction than inquiry while “engaging instruction” for advanced students already possessing background knowledge, “engaging instruction” will probably be toward the higher levels of inquiry with less direct instruction.
I think the spirit of NGSS is making topics relevant and interesting to students, but I don’t think this necessarily means inquiry all the time. I want to say something I think isn’t said enough in the age of NGSS: I think direct instruction is perfectly acceptable, required, and teachers shouldn’t be hesitant to provide it. This being said, I do think there is also a place for lower-level inquiry in introductory classes. I think direct instruction and inquiry methods should co-exist. When given, direct instruction should be phenomenon-based as much as possible and delivered in a way that provides students with opportunities to think and make connections. Or, in other words, direct instruction should incorporate elements of inquiry. This may be through a series of prompts students must respond to during a lecture, providing data sets and figuring out patterns together with students, constructing explanations of phenomenon together, providing a reading and then discussing together, etc. I believe there is an optimal balance between direct instruction and inquiry methods that must be struck to make instruction of any type engaging to students. I don’t think it is very helpful to debate direct instruction versus inquiry instruction because I think these two forms of instruction are really dependent on each other for successful and “engaging instruction” to happen. In conclusion, I think direct instruction/heavily guided inquiry is necessary in introductory courses and we need to be cautious about advancing to higher levels of inquiry too quickly, before we are adequately prepared to facilitate it or before our students are adequately prepared with content knowledge and perseverance.
- Clark, R. E.; Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J. American Educator, Spring 2012. Found at https://www.aft.org/sites/default/files/periodicals/Clark.pdf (accessed 7/30/19)
- Hattie, J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, 2009. See also https://www.visiblelearningplus.com/content/research-john-hattie. (accessed 7/30/19)