What is the evidence on Inquiry Learning?

Briar Lipson
Education Central
20 July, 2017

Despite little evidence of impact, Inquiry Learning is at the heart of New Zealand’s curriculum.

One of seven values it encourages in students, inquiry also crops up in the titles of 6 of the 25 ‘Effective Pedagogy’ videos on the New Zealand Curriculum website. Inquiry Learning is promoted as a pedagogy. And Teaching as Inquiry is the endorsed organising framework for teachers looking to “learn from their practice and build greater knowledge”.

Broadly Inquiry Learning is an active, student-centered pedagogy that enables children to experience the process of knowledge creation. Part of its appeal is its capacity to engage. After all, classrooms of engrossed children are far more appealing than the alternative.

Commensurate with that, under its pages of guidance on Teaching as Inquiry, the New Zealand Curriculum website includes a whole page on Student Engagement. From here links are provided to inspirational stories and commercial tools schools can use to assess their students’ engagement.

So what, mindful of all this, is the evidence on Inquiry Learning?

In his 2009 meta-analysis of meta-analyses Visible Learning, John Hattie found that the effect size from inquiry based methods of teaching was a very disappointing 0.31 standard deviations; far below his established cut-off of 0.4.

Because he recognised the significant gap between the perception and reality of Inquiry-Learning, Hattie even made a useful 2 minute video exploring why this might be.

Ultimately, as Hattie explains, this gap exists because engagement is a very poor proxy for learning.

While engagement or lack-there-of may be easy to observe in a lesson, just because children are engaged in something does not necessarily mean they are learning. And even when they are learning something, they may not be learning what we wanted them to learn.

An example of the pitfall of using engagement as a proxy for learning comes from my own experience of school Religious Education (RE). During one ‘memorable’ lessons we learned to make plaited bread. Although I enjoyed the activity very much, and was probably highly engaged throughout, to this day I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of the symbolism of the bread, or anything of its relevance to Jews. Of course I learned something – that it was plaited, and of relevance to Jews – but how much more might I have retained if the two hours devoted to kneading, proving, plaiting, baking and eating had been used instead for activities that engaged me in recalling and retelling the meaning.

According to cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, memory is the residue of thought. This means that students remember what they spend a lot of time thinking about. Had I been asked to write an essay about the bread’s symbolism and relevance to Jews, and then been quizzed on it at regular, optimally-spaced occasions after that, then cognitive science tells us I would have stood a better chance of remembering it.

At this point I suspect that some readers will be feeling disappointed at my failure to recognise that this lesson in bread-plaiting was in fact a wonderful example of my teachers’ ingenious cross-curricula thinking; enabling my peers and me to learn about religion, and home-baking at the same time.

But evidence that this is the best way to ensure children learn, let alone to sequence content, simply does not exist. In fact, it flies in the face of a founding insight from cognitive science, which is that we have limited working memories, quickly overwhelmed by new information.

The fact is that throughout that bread-making episode, I was not thinking about the relevance or symbolism of plaited bread. Instead I was thinking about how wonky my plait was compared to my partner’s, how vexing it was to have to share one sink with seven others, and the likelihood of the teacher making us do any more RE before granting permission to eat.

How much more might I now know about Judaism, the Judeo-Christian story and the history of civilisation if my RE teacher had stuck to her brief? What if she had believed in the value of her subject, in mine and my peers’ capacity to control ourselves long enough to connect with emancipatory knowledge, and in her capacity to teach so that we did?

The problem with prioritising engagement is that it leads teachers to select content and pedagogies because they think children will find them interesting, rather than because they are the mentally challenging activities that will ensure children learn powerful knowledge.

And sadly, once teachers are seduced by the proxy of engagement, they implicitly introduce children to a spiral of low expectations. Students are temporarily won over with content and activities selected to engage them. This then teaches them to expect school to be engaging, rather than their being expected to engage with demanding content and strenuous mental activities in school. After this the task of finding content and activities that engage students becomes progressively harder. And whether a teacher is fun and engaging begins to matter more than their knowledge, or commitment to passing it on.

Added to this, and most devastating of all, selecting content based on how it might engage rather than emancipate ensures that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to encounter the knowledge and teaching that will help them catch up with their peers.

And finally, in case you are still convinced that cross curricular activities are better than focused subject teaching, in what school should bread-making skills trump essay writing as an objective of RE?

Pitching student engagement against the teaching of powerful knowledge sets up a zero-sum game. First and foremost, school should be about teaching children the best that has been thought and said, not skills learned at home or in work. As adults, we must be confident in our capacity to engage children in that which is most important, and not shirk this responsibility behind the proxy of student engagement.

As Hattie explains in his video “Sometimes, work is just hard”.

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