A problem I’ve faced when debating the advantages/disadvantages of direct instruction and inquiry-based learning is that educators tend to define them in different ways. The confusion stems from how both inquiry-based learning and direct instruction can be seen as either 1) discrete instructional events or 2) whole systems/approaches to teaching.

It’s common to hear teachers and instructional coaches using “direct instruction” in the general sense to refer to a brief moment of demonstration or explaining. But direct instruction, explicit instruction, and similar terms, are also used to describe the repertoire of daily review, modeling, guided practice, checking for understanding, and independent practice (among other things) that characterize effective teaching. The first meaning is a single instructional event that all teachers do from time to time, and the second is a whole system describing all of the events that make up the gradual release of control from teacher to student.

I think we see the same thing with inquiry-based learning. While all “inquiry” teachers explain things to students (and thus, could legitimately say, “I use both inquiry and direct instruction”), the whole system meaning of inquiry-based learning, where students must determine the focus of an investigation (often based on a passion or an interest) and direct their own learning through various phases until a product or an action emerges, is completely at odds with the whole system meaning of direct instruction. While “direct instruction” teachers might end instructional sequences by having students apply their new understandings in increasingly less structured ways – a phase that I recently heard a teacher calling “inquiry time” – it is only after material has been fully explained, rehearsed, and practiced to mastery, and never before.

When I’ve argued that inquiry-based learning unfairly advantages students with higher levels of prior knowledge, leads to issues with student behavior, and is incompatible with how humans acquire and construct knowledge, I’m referring to the “whole system” definition of inquiry-based learning; The one in which novices are expected to learn by cycling through self-guided inquiry phases – much like a scientist or a dissertating PhD student – to generate a product of their choosing. But if we operationalize “inquiry” as an event in which students are compelled to think hard about or do something with the material, it’s clear that inquiry plays an important role in learning. A high-quality education should include plenty of opportunities for students to inquire into things, if inquiring means focused processing (Renkl, 2015) and generating questions about the material. I’m even okay when teachers assign hands-on activities – even ones that are *gasp* a little open-ended – and having students working in groups and completing projects, but only after students have acquired the enabling knowledge that will allow them to be productive and produce something of value. This isn’t a compromise position, but an approach that is consistent with the expertise reversal and guidance fading effects of cognitive load theory.

In short, I’m fine with inquiry during the unit. I just don’t think it’s good for our students when inquiry becomes the unit.


Renkl, A. (2015). Different roads lead to Rome: the case of principle-based cognitive skills. Learning: Research and Practice, 1(1), 79–90. https://doi.org/10.1080/23735082.2015.994255

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