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Why Inquiry-based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning

John Sweller
11 August 2021 | AP24
Why Inquiry-based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning

Australia’s rankings on international tests such as PISA have been falling for many years in most curriculum areas. Those falls have been concurrent with an increased emphasis on inquiry learning over explicit instruction. Inquiry learning involves students discovering new information for themselves rather than having the information explicitly presented to them. This paper suggests a causal relation between the emphasis on inquiry learning and reduced academic performance.

Cognitive load theory explains why. Based on our knowledge of evolutionary psychology and human cognition, including short- and long-term memory, the theory holds that most children will acquire ‘natural’ skills – such as learning to speak a native language – without schools or instruction. Humans have specifically evolved to acquire such knowledge automatically. But there is another category of domain-specific knowledge that we have not evolved to acquire. It consists of almost every subject taught in schools from reading and writing to maths and science.

Both theory and empirical evidence support explicit instruction as a more effective and efficient method for teaching this new knowledge than inquiry-based learning approaches. There is therefore little justification for the current emphasis on inquiry learning. The cognitive science on learning is settled.

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