Inquiry vs Direct Instruction - The Great Debate and How it Went Wrong

There is a debate taking place in the world of education. It is not a new debate but recently it has gathered new energy and the boundary between polite discussion of opposing views and hostility has been stretched. The debate is that between those who are advocates of inquiry based learning and those who believe direct instruction produces the best outcomes.
Like most conversations which occur within the public sphere of the online social media world, the debate has quickly devolved into a dichotomous debate where each side seeks to win points at the expense of the other. Humans have a natural tendency towards tribes, as biologist Edward Wilson writes "The tendency to form groups, and then to favor in-group members, has the earmarks of instinct.” It is a characteristic that may have once served us well but in modern times it focuses our attention on what makes us different rather than helping us to find a common ground. In debating topics like direct instruction vs inquiry based learning our tendency to form tribes causes us to drift from a rational position to a more extreme and one sided view.
There is in this debate a middle ground. Claxton and Lucas deal with this debate and the reality that most educators fall somewhere between the two extremes in their book Educating Ruby. They place Trads (traditionalists focused on knowledge transfer) and Roms (romantics who feel children learn by osmosis) at the extremes of the educational spectrum and Mods (Moderates) in the middle. "Almost everyone who works in education is a Mod. But because Mods prefer to tinker quietly than to bang big drums, it is easy to underestimate how many there are” (Claxton & Lucas, 2015)

The middle ground between Inquiry and Direct Instruction is that place where we take a little from option A and a little from option B. Sometimes we go with direct instruction and at others we go with an inquiry approach. This leads to models where children are taught the supposed fundamentals of a discipline or topic and then allowed to engage in some inquiry. Sometimes this model works, sometimes it misses the point. Often the inquiry component is redundant by the time students get to it, sometimes the direct instruction is an opportunity to lecture at students, sometimes the students are told what they need to know but are not taught how to make effective use of it.
Mixed models like this and indeed the debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems to largely miss the point. Somewhere in the posturing and flag waving we lose sight of what we are indeed arguing for. Maybe we were never quite sure what our argument was. Simon Sinek (2011) claims very few people understand their “why”. The debate between Inquiry and Direct Instruction seems like a good example of this.
Contemporary advocates of Inquiry are for the most part all hung up about what children need to learn to succeed in a changing post knowledge world. The process of learning to learn and conduct meaningful inquiry, to find and solve problems is seen as central to the modern curriculum. While the origins of inquiry models might lie with a methodology of allowing students to uncover the knowledge base of the curriculum this is less the case in modern times. When we shift inquiry away from being a pedagogical method for teaching content, to a valuing of particular skills we see that Inquiry Skills and Dispositions are curriculum elements; the what students need to learn rather than the how they learn it.
But advocates of inquiry get caught up in a debate with advocates of direct instruction about the methods of teaching; the pedagogy. Advocating for the importance of Inquiry does not mean that one abandons direct instruction but that the curriculum is a skills based curriculum that teaches inquiry skills through and alongside other content. What a valuing of Inquiry, Problem Solving, Problem Finding, Project Management etc. does not require is an abandonment of direct instruction, only a rethinking of some of the skills we focus on. If we value, the development of inquiry we spend less time on methods that facilitate memorisation of content.
Direct Instruction is about the pedagogy but it gets caught up in a debate about the curriculum. Advocates of direct instruction claim it is the best method for scaffolding the development of student skills and knowledge, but then focus their energy debating the sort of content that should be directly taught. Advocating for direct instruction should not mean that one is committed to teaching basic skills and knowledge. Direct instruction does not preclude teaching students how to find problems, solve problems, act in creative ways, collaborate with others, and take charge of their own learning.
Advocates of Direct Instruction should be able to teach methods, skills and dispositions required for inquiry and advocates of inquiry should value scaffolding students as they learn the skills of inquiry. Indeed, as Claxton and Lucas state most teachers do exactly these things.
Where the debate goes very wrong is seen if you consider it from the perspective of questions like ‘what is the intended outcome of learning?’ and ‘what do our students most need from their time in school?’. They need to learn how to conduct inquiry, to be problem solvers and finders. They need to be able to communicate their learning and learn with and from others. They need to be able to critically evaluate information and ideas. They need to be taught how to do these things. They need to be guided through the process. They need to see how experts approach these processes. They need opportunities to practise these skills with appropriate levels of support and scaffolding. They need to be given tools to use and be shown how and when to use them.
The debate about inquiry and direct instruction does not serve our students well. It is a distraction from conversations which are more important and the sooner we move past this and focus our attention on how we best prepare our students to thrive in a world that values life-long learning the better.

By Nigel Coutts

Claxton, G. & Lucas, B. (2015) Educating Ruby: What our children really need to learn. Wales; Crown House Publishing

Sinek, S. (2011) Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. Portfolio Penguin: London

Why humans, like ants, need a tribe. by E. O. Wilson -

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