I’ve learned a lot from engaging in the “teaching wars” that pit teacher-led explicit teaching approaches against student-led inquiry (IBL) and discovery (DL) approaches. I even created a podcast to explore these ideas with other teachers and researchers. Recently, however, I’ve noticed that the conversation tends to circle around the same territories, often leading to the same dead ends. Here are some of the dead ends I’ve reached.
Me: Inquiry-based learning involves an emphasis on diagnosing problems or generating questions, and having students searching for answers, rather than a teacher fully explaining the material from the onset.
IBL fans: Not necessarily. There’s lots of direct teaching in IBL!
Me: Inquiry-based learning is too reactive, as students are often asked to struggle with novel problems while they wait for just-in-time assistance. Explicit teaching is more proactive, because it involves teaching material right away instead of taking a “wait and see” approach.
IBL fans: Not really. IBL is super proactive!
Me: Inquiry-based learning involves withholding information for a time so that students can figure out material on their own.
IBL fans: Not at all! You seem to be conflating IBL with pure discovery learning.
Me: Inquiry-based learning often involves students working on investigations and projects, which, if not properly structured and assigned too early in the unit, can mean a lot of wasted time searching around the internet, and students focusing their attention on activity (e.g., how to cut, glue, sew) that is irrelevant to the goals of the unit.
IBL fans: That sounds like “bad IBL.” You shouldn’t confuse good IBL with bad IBL.
Me: And many teachers work at schools where managing student behavior during extended hands-on project time is not feasible, even for the most skilled behavior managers.
IBL fans: Once again, IBL is super structured. It’s not a free-for-all!
Me: Inquiry-based learning tends to deemphasize deliberate practice of knowledge and skills. In explicit teaching, the teacher spaces out and interleaves their practice, and embeds retrieval practice.
IBL fans: Nonsense! There is loads of practice in IBL, just like there is loads of direct teaching, guidance, feedback, and everything else you include in explicit teaching.
Me: Maybe all of the Rosenshine stuff appears somewhere in IBL at some point in time. But with explicit teaching, the teacher leads and controls the flow of information during learning. In IBL, the student is meant to lead the learning by selecting questions and topics of interest, and self-teaching to some extent. Otherwise, what are they inquiring into? My direct instruction lesson?
IBL fans: Tsk tsk. You just don’t get IBL.
Me: So what do you propose to be the difference between explicit teaching and this new and improved “enhanced” version of inquiry-based learning? And should I care, because it seems you’ve conceded all of my points.
IBL fans: Inquiry-based learning is everything. It is synonymous with good teaching. If you identify a feature of IBL that harms learning, then that’s not IBL. And anything good about explicit teaching, that too is in IBL somewhere.