What Traditionalists Get Wrong About Inquiry Teaching

What Traditionalists Get Wrong About Inquiry Teaching

by Drew Perkins, Director of TeachThought Professional Development

In my work as a teacher of 15 years turned professional development consultant for 10 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of students and now adults around the world.

One thing I’ve become more certain of as my experiences widened and deepened is the need for more and better inquiry teaching and learning. The false dichotomies advanced by critics and apparent misunderstanding of the nature and power of inquiry-focused, constructivist education, are misleading and detrimental to the students and society that so desperately need it. Our students need the skill of asking the important questions to succeed in life and our democracies require it as a fundamental pillar on which they prosper.

One of the ongoing battles in the education space is between what can generally be labeled as traditional v. progressive or constructivist teaching. Those terms can carry multiple meanings depending on who you ask but perhaps it’s best reduced to direct or explicit teaching v. inquiry teaching.

As far as I can tell, explicit instruction is described as something like “a systematic method of teaching with emphasis on proceeding in small steps, checking for understanding, and achieving active and successful participation by all students.” A straw man version would be to call it ‘lecture,’ which can be used at times as a pejorative, but readers might be familiar with this as the teacher-directed instruction that many adults experienced as students. Sometimes this is referred to as the ‘Sage on the Stage.’

Inquiry or constructivist education can provide more space and opportunities for students, not the teacher, to make meaning of concepts, ideas, and knowledge. A straw man version of this would be some version of what I often jokingly call ‘free range chicken’, students wandering about cognitively, ‘following their passions’, and the teacher acting as the ‘Guide on the Side.’

I view this as a false dichotomy as the two are not mutually exclusive; to be fair I’ve seen poorly applied versions of both in our schools and we should strive for better. Some teachers lecture, talk at students and require tedious and uninteresting work in ways that bore them out of their minds, even if the teachers themselves are entertained. On the other hand, I’ve seen teachers use the veil of behavioral engagement as justification for doing what they call projects with students that lack meaningful cognitive engagement.

As a proponent of inquiry teaching, I find some criticisms of this approach to be valid and worth taking on. One of the criticisms is that inquiry or PBL (project-based learning) doesn’t effectively help students learn important knowledge. That can be the case with poor design and facilitation but here the problem isn’t the approach but the design and application.

When we work with teachers we ask them to identify what course content and/or concepts they want their students to think and learn about. From there we work to architect experiences, exercises, and phenomena that help pull that knowledge and learning from students in the form of questions, and then we teach it, often using direct or explicit instruction. The fact that quality inquiry teaching actually includes direct instruction often leaves me puzzled by the binary pushback from those who advocate for it.

Another facet of this criticism is the assertion that students can not ask great questions about things of which they have little knowledge. Or put another way, one can not think critically about something they don’t have knowledge of. This is generally true but shouldn’t disqualify inquiry teaching as an approach. Instead, effective inquiry teachers use techniques to activate curiosity and facilitate, sometimes manipulatively, to surface questions that lead to the learning of that prized and important knowledge.

The language I often use in this work is push v. pull teaching as we look to flip Bloom’s taxonomy. In our planning process, we want to start at the bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy by identifying the bottom two tiers (knowledge or content), but we want students to start at the top as we ask them to ‘create’ or some synonymous verb. We then ‘pull’ the knowledge as Need to Know and Learn questions with and from students that are essential, again all identified prior to engaging with students. With that content noted we move to the actual teaching of said content, and yes, often using direct or explicit instruction methods as learners apply, analyze, and evaluate in service of ‘creating’.

Michael Polanyi’s distinction between focal and tacit knowledge is important here, sometimes referred to as ‘know what’ v. ‘know how.’ In my 2019 discussion with Dr. Tim Simpson, The TeachThought Podcast Ep. 162 What Do We Really Mean By “Deeper Thinking And Learning”? about classical and constructivist education, we noted how both rely heavily on inquiry in order to get to that tacit knowledge. It seems the most vocal advocates of explicit or direct instruction are targeting focal knowledge. These things will be useful for a more immediate task, as they focus on learning knowledge for the sake of the knowledge itself. Sometimes, these teachers will ask students to do some of the middle levels of Bloom’s taxonomy and perhaps even the top level of “create.” In those cases, there is a missed opportunity to practice the skill of identifying important questions.

If we engage in the process of pull teaching as described above, students have the opportunity for deeper connections in various ways that build a more tacit understanding and knowledge. This kind of learning translates well to test scores but more importantly to other academic and non-academic settings while also building inquiry skills that are vital for life success.

In my interactions with critics of progressive education, I’m frequently perplexed by the cognitive dissonance as they tend to be advocates of principles of free speech and liberal science which relies heavily on inquiry. In fact, it’s my assertion that inquiry teaching and learning can play a major role in helping us through the dynamics at play in our polarization and division that those advocates decry.

At the heart of what makes the US democratic system, and democracy in general, work well is a process of inquiry called liberal science. Jonathan Rauch expertly outlines this in his 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, and builds upon that work in the 2021 book The Constitution of Knowledge. In essence, liberal science is the application of inquiry, in a variety of forms, that seeks to clarify a consensus of truth. In this pursuit, all ideas are subject to criticism with an important understanding that we separate the idea from the person.

A hypothesis I believe worth considering (and one I’ve floated several times on The TeachThought Podcast) is that the publication of the 1983 report A Nation At Risk (US) which recommended, among other things, that we adopt more ‘rigorous and measurable standards’ unintentionally set us on a course of educational reform that has contributed to our current state of affairs. This state of affairs is marked by different sets of ‘truth,’ a failure of too many to interrogate ideas in good faith, and resistance to criticism and questioning often results in placing inquirers as enemies.

The incentive structure that A Nation at Risk helped create is one where schools and teachers spend significant time and energy on raising test scores. As a result, it has been more challenging to engage students in the kinds of learning experiences where they engage with unpopular ideas and thorny questions in a Socratic method. I felt this friction in my own classroom and I’ve worked with schools where the rigidity and high-stakes accountability are oppressive.

While it is certainly important to correct for any deficiencies in ‘progressive’ teaching approaches and emphasize the importance of knowledge, the benefits of such inquiry or constructivist teaching and the lean into liberal science are not limited to individual students but extend to healthier democracies and more robust challenges to undemocratic actors. In addition, the opportunities for metacognition that often accompany inquiry teaching are connected to intellectual humility which helps foster more civil discourse.

I found myself practically gushing over the analogs to great teaching and learning when I talked with Mónica Guzmán about her new book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. The kinds of inquiry experiences she describes are essential tools in navigating life’s wicked problems. Why wouldn’t we want to engage our students in building similar skills while learning fundamental knowledge?

Explicit or direct instruction meanwhile is more frequently limited to the acquisition of knowledge, leaving out those opportunities to build better inquirers and perhaps leaving students without the opportunities to ask the kinds of beautiful questions that can help us through these divided times.

Inquiry teaching and learning when done well can yield tremendous results in preparing students for the modern world. That said, it is not easy and it is worth considering whether our teaching force and preparation institutions can meet that challenge. I believe, with a concerted and sustained effort, (something that can be a rarity in education), that our schools can pass that test.

The role of inquiry in improving our discourse and reducing polarization is essential and where will we learn to do this more effectively if not in our schools? If we don’t, we’re more likely to see a continued downward spiral away from healthy democracy, not to mention a limiting factor in the prosperity of our students as individuals.