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.

Me:

12 thoughts on “Dead Ends from the Explicit Teaching vs. Inquiry-Based Learning Debate

  1. Sounds like the defenses of IBL are the “No True Scotsman” fallacy; i.e., that isn’t IBL that’s pure discovery. That’s bad IBL. Such arguments also end up as “I think we’re both saying the same things.”

    Me: Oh really? Then you agree that teacher at the front of the room, whole-class explicit instruction, desks in row, and independent learning and practice is an effective way to teach mathematics?

    IBL Proponent: What you describe is not IBL.
    Me: Then we’re not saying the same things, are we?

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  2. Isn’t it just the pedagogical intent of being with the learner or a group of learners that bring out the approach that is most fitting for that moment and context? Isn’t it them so that every system will have its boundaries which means that instead of weighing systems it would be a good strategy to master them both?

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    1. The goal of teaching isn’t to find the approach that works best for moments and contexts, but to increase learning. In my opinion, the two systems are largely incompatible. Sure, over the course of one’s education inquiry projects will be assigned. But by and large teachers should teach explicitly. It’s like you took your students to a museum. You could either use the time giving everyone the grand tour as a tour guide, or you could give them a clip board and allow them to do a scavenger hunt that they’ll reflect on at the end. You can’t really do both approaches unless you have more time, and if you did, it’d be best to spend most of the time doing the tour first and then maybe use the final minutes to do the scavenger hunt.

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  3. Cognitive science explains why inquiry does not work to introduce a topic. Too much information is needed, or is supplied by “scaffolding,” at once. Because of working memory limits, new fundamental information on a new topic, such as vocab definitions, must be introduced as small components, incrementally, and mastered by retrieval practice over several days.
    Rosenshine says inquiry may be useful “after the basics are learned.” The brain adds additional information to an existing, even if basic, conceptual framework.
    For more on the cog sci from Dr. Kirschner and others, see https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10698-022-09427-w

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  4. A lot of the ambiguity in these discussions is that we usually have little data on what goes on in the classroom. Teachers likely aren’t doing what they say they’re doing. If IBL people are doing all the things they claim in your dialog above, they’re primarily engaged in explicit instruction.

    What really needs to happen for clarity is to monitor classrooms and then analyze teacher activity minute-by-minute in terms of what sort of techniques are being used. Without that, we only have noise.

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