Enquiry-based learning isn’t evidence-based

Blaise Joseph

01 February 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

You have to wonder how many times something has to be tried before people stop calling it ‘innovative’ and ‘new’. Especially when it has fallen short of expectations as often as enquiry-based learning.

Decades of research has shown the student-centred approach — where there is a focus on students discovering new information for themselves with minimal structure and without teacher guidance — to be less effective than teacher-directed instruction.

In New South Wales, some alternative (but not new) models of schools are opening up. In some cases, schools like this may have been successful (especially in more socially-advantaged areas), and it’s possible that new schools opening up under this model will be great schools — we all wish them the best and want them to succeed. But it’s important to question if this educational approach would be beneficial or practical for all students or across the entire school system, particularly when the evidence suggests that it won’t be.

We may hear success stories about how revolutionary new schools have done away with the ‘industrial model of schooling’ in favour of a ‘whole-child’ approach, but often when you dig deeper the story is far less clear.

A 2018 OECD report found enquiry-based learning in Australia is associated with significantly lower science scores in schools with a poor disciplinary climate, and not associated with significantly higher science scores even in schools with good disciplinary climates. In contrast, the report concluded that teacher-directed instruction is positively associated with student science results, across almost all countries — and this is regardless of school funding, classroom disciplinary climate, and student proficiency and socio-economic background.

And a recent meta-analysis — which considered the findings of over 300 studies across 50 years — showed that direct instruction has significant positive effects on student achievement across all subjects and non-academic indicators, including for disadvantaged students. The implication is that direct instruction is practically always a beneficial teaching practice.

Generally favouring teacher-led direct instruction over student-centred enquiry-based learning isn’t a ‘back to basics’ approach or defending the ‘old’ against the ‘new’. It’s simply following the evidence where it leads.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email