Apr 11 - Inquiry-Based Learning vs. Direct Instruction: 7 Important Differences  (SCHEDULED)

As instructional methods evolve along with the needs and expectations of our students, we always seem to come back to tried-and-true practices like inquiry-based learning. There's a simple reason for this: it's a surefire pathway to students owning their learning, and thus developing a lifelong passion for learning.

However, in order to extol the advantages inquiry-based instruction has over more traditional teacher-centred approaches, we must compare the two side by side. That's what we aim to do here.

The Differences Between Inquiry-Based Learning & Teacher-Centred Learning

I believe inquiry-based learning is an actual pedagogy, whereas traditional instruction, or chalk-and-talk is only an element of a pedagogy. It is a step in a sequence of activities of which your pedogogy is comprised, and though it’s widely used and frequently exclusively used, I don’t believe it is a pedagogy. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value or shouldn’t be used. On the contrary; it can be highly effective and, when appropriately applied, is invaluable.

There will always be a place for direct instruction, but one of the ulimate goals of education is to create fully capable and independent learners. This can only happen when we gradually move responsibility for the learning from the teacher, where it traditionally has been, to the learner, where it should be, a hallmark of inquiry-based learning. In fact, one of the most intriguing things about inquiry-based learning is the direction it takes students in terms of relevance and connection. In essence, it moves things from learners asking "why are we learning this" to the adoption of more exploratory mindsets like "tell me more about this" and "this is important for me to know more about."

What follows contrasts the differences between inquiry-based learning and teacher-centred instruction, and it is a continuum. Again, it is not to say that one is bad and the other good. Doing either exclusively, though, may be problematic. As a result your practice will move back and forth in response to the needs of the learners and what is relevant to them.

1. Prescribed Learning vs. Agency of Learning

In inquiry-based learning, the students are highly active participants in their own learning. They make personal decisions about what and how they will learn, and have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. As a result, they are encouraged to engage in regular self- and peer-assessment. Instructors in such a setting are supportive of this in that they listen to and respect the learner’s point of view, and are active in both encouraging and facilitating in the sharing of decisions being made.

  • Inquiry-based learning allow learners to learn how to learn from more experienced learners, the teachers.

This is not to say that it’s about the learners doing whatever they want. A well crafted unit of inquiry will not only point the learners in the direction of the intended curriculum but through relevance and context will drive the learning deeper and further than would otherwise be possible.

One of the goals of education is to create fully capable, independent learners. Being college and career ready means being able to learn, unlearn and relearn in a dynamic and unpredictable  future. Inquiry-based learning allow learners to learn how to learn from more experienced learners, the teachers.

2. Low Relevance vs. High Relevance

One reason agency of learning is so important is that the learning is highly relevant to the learner. In a direction instruction model the content may be relevant to them, but they often don’t see it. This leads to questions like “Why are we learning this? When will I ever use this?” Even if they don’t openly ask these questions, they are often thinking them. Often the answer is simply that they need to know this if they want to pass the course or the test. For the learner then, that is the context. So when the course or test is completed, they can jettison the information from their brain. The result is we spend months at the beginning of the year re-teaching last year so we can begin teaching this year.

  • It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about

  • This is quite different to when the learners “own the learning.” If they learn it because it matters to them, they own it forever. In “To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions” (Lahey, 2016), Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (2015) discusses her use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which reveals brain function in real time: “When students are emotionally engaged, we see activations all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

Emotion is where learning begins or, as is often the case, where it ends. In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Immordino-Yang (2015) further states,  Her most striking statement for me, though it seems like common sense, is something educators often overlook in their rush to deliver content: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about” (Lahey, 2016).

3. Teachers Assess After Learning vs. Learners Assess as Learning

One of the most powerful shifts of practice that we wrote about in our book Future-Focused Learning is about the importance of encouraging our learners to self- and peer-assess as their learning moves forward. This goes hand in hand with the learner agency we discussed in the first point. 

Of course, it’s understandable that teachers are resistant to this, and this is so for a few different reasons. The notion of students assessing themselves is difficult for many educators to get around, but they're warming to the idea. The fact is if our students learn to ask the right self-assessment questions and keep themselves accountable, the results in learning improvement can be amazing. 

Self- and peer-assessment practices have a number of benefits for both students and teachers. Here are just a few of them:

  • It encourages students to take more responsibility for learning.
  • Students are usually frank and honest in their assessment of their own performance and that of their peers.
  • It reduces the assessment workload on the teacher.
  • It promotes deep understanding of content topics and learning styles.
  • Self-assessment lets students consider their decisions, reflect on actions, and consider/plan future processes.

We needn’t make self- and peer-assessment a huge undertaking either. It can start with something as simple as a pair or group debrief when a project is over, and those experiences can then be developed into something more ongoing. Get your learners started with some quick, effective, and enjoyable assessment activities to start, and then encourage them to practice them more and more as learning progresses.

4. Teacher Talking vs. Teacher and Students Discussing