Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

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.

4 things I learned last week

Robert Forsyth

01 February 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

I learned four important — but somewhat dispiriting — things while taking part in the ABC Radio National’s God Forbid discussion of religious freedom last week. (I was joined by two fine academic lawyers – an atheist from Melbourne and an Anglican from West Australia.)

  1. Everybody agrees that religious freedom is a good thing but disagrees about whether there is any danger to it in Australia. The truth is that there is a relatively high level of religious freedom here in this county’s robust common law tradition — not through government legislation. But this is vulnerable as the country undergoes massive social change.
  2. While some religious communities will, to various degrees, accommodate the sexual revolution, there will always remain a substantial ‘recalcitrant’ minority who will not do so, and yet still want to have a place in the public life of this nation. It is still not clear if and how this will be achieved.
  3. Antidiscrimination law is as much the problem as the solution. Antidiscrimination law protects individuals, but unless very carefully crafted can prevent religious communities and institutions from maintaining the religious character which constitutes them in the first place. The overuse use of the word ‘discrimination’ itself doesn’t help as it too often begs the question by implying any act of selection is bad. This is what is called a ‘persuasive definition’ where the word used prejudges a conclusion without argument.
  4. Any successful attempt to remove the funding of religious schools that ‘discriminate’ would amount to removing government funding from religious schools altogether. Admittedly it has been done before. In the late nineteenth century all the colonies removed previous state funding to religious schools completely. It was restored by the Menzies federal government in 1964. Maybe that is a question that could be reopened, but not as an accidental outcome of an antidiscrimination debate.

My conclusion is that this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. And given the poor quality of the debate on the release of the Ruddock Report in parliament late last year, and now with so little time before the federal election I am pessimistic about much being achieved for quite a while, if ever.

The new normal

Peter Kurti

01 February 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre

Within the first six months of the year, voters in NSW are likely to go to the polls twice: first, to elect a new state government in March; and then, probably in May, to elect a new federal government.

It sounds like business as normal as the two main political parties prepare to vie for our votes and preferences. But of course what passes for normal in politics has long been changing.

For instance, the old distinctions between Left and Right have given way to new distinctions such as Progressive and Reactionary, or Globalist and Nationalist.

The politics of Trump and Brexit are often held up as examples of what we are told to consider as the new normal in politics. Appeals are no longer made to ideology but rather to common sense.

And while that may seem obvious, what passes for common sense is also changing. Common sense no longer describes a stable, shared level of practical knowledge and judgement we all use to get along.

In the hands of the political Left — and under the heavy influence of the Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci — common sense is a political construct forged to change and influence culture.

Once political views become normalised through appeals to a politically-charged notion of common sense, they become that much harder to defeat; because ‘common sense’ is seldom open to question.

So ‘common sense’ is regularly invoked in debates about what is normal in issues ranging from gender identity to national identity, from to marriage to euthanasia, and from energy to climate change.

But the contest over what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘common sense’ is making political discourse and debate much harder — not least because the collapse of old alignments has weakened old party loyalties.

All this is set to complicate political campaigns about the allocation of resources to schools, hospitals, and transport — to say nothing of those concerning the development of renewable forms of energy.

The new normal in 2019 is likely to be anything but normal. And if you think appeals to common sense can settle anything … well, that simply no longer makes sense!