A New Perspective…Inquiry Based Learning

There are numerous studies that point to the need for instruction to be inquiry based.  Personally I cannot disagree.  What a student can figure out on their own versus being told will stick with them for years to come.  However I cannot help but think it is not just the inquiry process that enables the learning.  In fact, it may not have anything to do with it.  It is the changes in instruction forced by that process that matter the most.  In John Hattie’s research about educational practices anything with an effect size greater than 0.7 is foolish not to incorporate into teaching and learning.  Anything above a 0.5 is a medium effect size and still should be implemented.  Looking at Hattie’s research things such as reciprocal teaching, self-verbalization/questioning, problem solving techniques, and cooperative learning all have effect sizes of 0.59 or greater.  These strategies are the same strategies that would be implemented with inquiry based learning.  Today we call this high quality discourse.

As we delve further into an inquiry based model of instruction we find that there are limitations that need to be addressed.  Teaching students to think deeply is essential.  However, so is preparing them conceptually to proceed to the next grade level.  In writing this blog I don’t want to debate the K-12 industrial system we call education.  The reality is almost every school in this great nation uses a grade level advancement system where one grade level has certain expectations or standards that need to be addressed.  The Common Core is built off this understanding.  Therefore, I’ll put a non-negotiable out there that the Common Core State Standards need to be instructed and understood by all students at the appropriate grade level.  Inquiry instruction takes time.  A lot of it.  The great mathematicians of the past didn’t discover this stuff we call mathematics in a 42 minute period.

My question is how much time should we devote to discovering things that have already been discovered versus applying those things in a context that could be used today?

The reality is we don’t have the time to discover every topic.  We have to decide which topics just need to be directly instructed and which can be found through an inquiry process.  By the way, direct instruction has an effect size of 0.59 according to Hattie which is the same as cooperative learning.  Once we admit that not everything can be discovered, or needs to be, it begs the question of what gets learned through an inquiry model?  What are the most important concepts for students to dig into as deeply as possible?  Once we have determined that, then determine what is the most engaging way I can instruct these topics enabling students to not only be able to complete the concept but more importantly, understand and apply it in a timely manner.

Inquiry is a form of instruction but the methodologies are what make it strong.  Using those same methods in a non-inquiry form of instruction will speed things up but also should enable students to continue to retain the knowledge.  The most important thing, until the industrialized version of education changes, is that students have an opportunity to engage, inquire, and retain the information necessary to move forward.  Where ever forward is.



  1. Tony said:

    Please share some examples of what you meant when you said,

    “Inquiry is a form of instruction but the methodologies are what make it strong. Using those same methods in a non-inquiry form of instruction will speed things up but also should enable students to continue to retain the knowledge.”

    I ask, because I am unclear about what you mean by using inquiry methodologies/methods in a non-inquiry form of instruction. Thank you!

  2. Mark Schommer said:

    Essentially it’s discourse. Inquiry is directed by strong setups and letting students dig. This takes a lot of time and is completely worthwhile but doing this over the course of a year means that there is no way you will cover the necessary curriculum to meet the CCSS nor prepare students for the next year (assuming you have a curriculum that requires certain coverage). Using some form of a modified direct instruction with partner sharing and other ways to get students to talk and share with each other. When students inquire they share with each other. How can we promote some of the same types of thinking in a more modified form of direct instruction?

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