This report will stir some discussion, I guess: Why Inquiry-based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning

John Sweller just published a new report, but his message will be recognized by everybody who read the article by Kirschner, Sweller & Clark from 2006:

Australia’s rankings on international tests such as PISA have been falling for many years in most curriculum areas. Those falls have been concurrent with an increased emphasis on inquiry learning over explicit instruction. Inquiry learning involves students discovering new information for themselves rather than having the information explicitly presented to them. This paper suggests a causal relation between the emphasis on inquiry learning and reduced academic performance.

Cognitive load theory explains why. Based on our knowledge of evolutionary psychology and human cognition, including short- and long-term memory, the theory holds that most children will acquire ‘natural’ skills – such as learning to speak a native language – without schools or instruction. Humans have specifically evolved to acquire such knowledge automatically. But there is another category of domain-specific knowledge that we have not evolved to acquire. It consists of almost every subject taught in schools from reading and writing to maths and science.

Both theory and empirical evidence support explicit instruction as a more effective and efficient method for teaching this new knowledge than inquiry-based learning approaches. There is therefore little justification for the current emphasis on inquiry learning. The cognitive science on learning is settled.

I can guess some of the reactions already. There will be a lot of people who support this message. Others will, e.g., take issue with the distinction between Biologically primary and secondary information. Also many will probably state that nowadays a lot of discovery- and inquiry-based learning is actually guided and that the ‘pure’ approaches are not that present in everyday school life, thus, in fact, a bit agreeing with the point being made.

This prediction isn’t difficult to make as the original 2006 article lead to the book edited by Tobias and Duffy with reactions pro and con. Do note that in the conclusion of this book the point is made that there is still little evidence that constructivism is actually ‘working’.  On the other hand, it’s also worth noting that e.g. group and collaborative work – often associated with constructivism, but not necessarily – can really have a positive learning impact.

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