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What Is Inquiry, Anyway?

By Gordon Eldridge, TIE Columnist

Does inquiry actually lead to better learning than other ways of approaching instruction? In order to know, we first would need to ask ourselves what we mean by inquiry. This question is one that participants in the “Inquiry-Based Learning in the International Classroom” course I teach for the Teacher Training Center (TTC) often bring with them.
Though naturally within the course we do offer a definition, like many commonly used terms in the world of education there is no widely accepted definition that can be pointed to as definitive. The situation is also complicated by the fact that teachers of science often use the term differently from teachers of other subjects, and even more by the number of related terms, like “hands-on learning,” “constructivist learning,” or “discovery learning” sometimes used almost interchangeably with inquiry.
Research into the effectiveness of inquiry as an approach is often further complicated by the fact that different studies use different definitions, and some studies leave it so loosely defined it is difficult to know how to interpret the results.
Researchers at City University of New York and Kingston University recently published a meta-analysis that addresses some of these difficulties. Their analysis not only compares 164 studies on the effectiveness of inquiry-based strategies, but also groups them according to the particular interpretations of inquiry used in each study.
Their conclusions help bring some clarity to the issues of both (a) what constitutes effective inquiry, and (b) how and when such methods can be productively employed. The inquiry approaches investigated were defined as follows:
- Unassisted discovery -
1. Learners were given materials and information, but were not provided with any scaffolding or explicit instruction. This category included conditions such as completely unassisted, working with a naive peer, simulations, practice problems etc.
- Enhanced discovery/inquiry -
2. Generation: learners were required to generate rules, strategies, images, or answers to experimenter’s questions.
3. Elicited explanation: learners were required to explain some aspect of the target task or material.
4. Guided discovery/inquiry: learners were either provided with some kind of scaffolding and/or with regular feedback at each stage of the learning task.
These inquiry-based approaches were compared with more explicit teaching approaches, such as direct instruction, providing explanations, and worked examples. The studies included in the meta-analysis covered areas as diverse as mathematics, computer skills, science, problem solving, physical/motor skills, and verbal/social skills.
What were the results of the meta-analysis?
• Explicit teaching approaches were found to lead to higher learning gains than unassisted discovery, based on a total of 580 comparisons.
• Enhanced inquiry approaches led to higher learning gains than explicit teaching approaches, based on a total of 360 comparisons.
• Elicited explanation and guided discovery/inquiry led to significantly higher learning gains than explicit teaching approaches.
• Generation was the only enhanced inquiry approach that did not lead to higher learning gains than explicit teaching approaches.
• Worked examples benefitted learners more than other methods of explicit teaching, and were close to being on a par with elicited explanation and guided discovery/inquiry in terms of learning gains.
• Adults benefitted more from enhanced inquiry approaches than children, but these conditions still led to better outcomes for learners of all age groups.
What does this mean for our classrooms?
The researchers suggest that their finding that unassisted discovery approaches are generally not effective highlights an important distinction between activity-based learning and constructivist learning: between requiring the learners to be active, and requiring them to be constructive. As Chi (2009) points out, true constructivist learning is designed in ways that require the learner to move beyond the presented information and construct ideas to surpass it.
This echoes Bruner’s (1961) notion that learning through inquiry does not involve the acquisition of new information so much as it involves the learners’ gaining insights that transform their knowledge, through new ways of organizing the knowledge they possess.
The overwhelming message from this meta-analysis is that we should strive to develop enhanced inquiry approaches as Chi and Bruner suggest, and require students to construct ideas that move beyond the information presented. Specifically, the study indicates that we should support this kind of learning through (a) scaffolding tasks for learners towards reaching some objective; (b) requiring learners to explain their ideas at different stages of the learning process; (c) providing learners with descriptive feedback at different stages of the learning process; and (d) making use of worked examples of how to succeed in the task, where appropriate.
The finding that adults benefitted more from enhanced inquiry approaches than younger learners accords with common sense, and suggests that we need to provide even greater amounts of scaffolding, feedback etc. to younger learners.
One final consideration relates to the explicit teaching of the skills of inquiry. The researchers who conducted this meta-analysis hypothesized that one of the reasons for the inferior outcomes achieved through unassisted discovery methods may be the cognitive demands of navigating an ambiguous task while simultaneously attempting to deal with the target concepts.
They consider that, as Bruner (1961) suggests, the skills and processes of inquiry are not innate, and therefore need to be explicitly taught. It therefore seems essential that we identify developmentally appropriate ways of supporting students in the development of these skills so that, over time, they can become more independent learners.
Learn more about Mr. Eldridge’s Teacher Training Center course at
Alferi, L., Brooks, P., Aldrich, N., and Tenenbaum, H. (2011) “Does discovery-based instruction enhance learning?” Journal of Educational Psychology 103 1, pp. 1-18.
Bruner, J. (1961) “The act of discovery.” Harvard Educational Review 31 pp. 21-32.
Chi , T. (2009) “Active-constructive-interactive: A conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities.” Topics in Cognitive Science 1, pp. 73-105.

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