Friday, August 20, 2021

Instruction or inquiry-based learning - it's not a choice

Photo by Brendan Church on Unsplash

Why do we keep believing in simple solutions to complex problems or that there is one best way to do something? This is sadly true in education where we should really know better by now. What is the best method/platform/tool for learning? Is online better or worse than classroom? Is group work better than self study? The answer is nearly always "it depends" but the comparisons and competition go on anyway. 

One of these debates is about the value of collaborative learning compared to the more traditional individual approach. Genuine collaboration, where a group works together to solve a problem by sharing knowledge, peer reviewing and discussing issues, is a powerful learning experience. But at the same time there are many pitfalls with many groups failing to reach the required level of mutual trust and respect to collaborate effectively. Groups who lack the critical level of knowledge and experience will often fumble, argue and fail or arrive at completely false conclusions. Learning to collaborate effectively is a lengthy process and needs to be guided and scaffolded by examples and feedback. Far too much group work in education can be seen as ineffective "busy work" that may look creative and engaging but does not really foster learning. 

There's an interesting critique of collaborative learning in a post by Zach GroshellDo We Learn Best Collaboratively or Individually? He examines in particular a study from 2017, Can collaborative learning improve the effectiveness of worked examples in learning mathematics?, comparing students' performance in maths using traditional worked examples with individual study to collaborative problem-solving. Here the traditional approach was found to be more effective though collaborative work was sometimes effective for low complexity problems. 

Once again it's not a competition between two approaches; it's about when and how to use them. Collaboration requires experience and knowledge and is probably not going to work in an introductory course unless very clearly guided. Once the students have learned the basics and know how and where to search for more information as well as how to critically assess the quality of the search results, then collaborative learning can work very well. However they also need to be guided through the skills of team building and group dynamics so that they can establish the trust and common purpose that is necessary to collaborate.

Providing students with examples is effective, withholding examples from students when they could benefit from them is bizarre and irresponsible, and if teachers want students to have a shot at making sense of the examples they’re provided, it’s probably best that they study them individually, away from the attentional competition and extraneous noise that is the group dynamic.

Another problem with criticism of collaborative or inquiry-based learning is the idea that the students are simply left to their own devices and the teacher takes a more or less passive role (guide on the side). Collaborative work is described several times as unguided and this is surprising since most research into collaborative learning emphasizes the need for careful management, scaffolding and feedback from the teacher. Collaboration is a skill to be learned, not a spontaneous activity and this means careful guidance.

There's a good summary of the advantages and the pitfalls of inquiry-based learning in a couple of posts by Kath MurdochInquiry learning: Pitfalls and perspectives part 1 and part 2. She recognizes the arguments in favour of a traditional approach but also demonstrates the strengths of inquiry when it is well-supported and scaffolded by the teacher. 

When understood well, inquiry learning actually demands careful design of authentic learning experiences, attention to existing schema, deft questioning, ongoing assessment, the cultivation of curiosity and the ability to plan and teach through concepts. The teacher’s role is critical.
The key once again is that learning is a complex process with so many variables and there is never only one "best" method no matter how much we wish for one. Teaching involves being able to choose the right mix of methods and tools for each learning situation, often offering alternative paths. Traditional instruction might work very well in certain situations and with some students, but will certainly not work for everyone, neither will any other method. This is well expressed in an article by Alan Reid (University of South Australia) in The Conversation, Teachers use many teaching approaches to impart knowledge. Pitting one against another harms education.

There’s a variety of useful teaching models — and this includes explicit instruction — which have been designed for different purposes. It is the educator’s task to select the most appropriate given the context.

Creating simplistic binaries in a field as complex and nuanced as education impoverishes the debate.

We need more discussion about the art of designing courses using a broad template of methods and tools and less needless comparisons between A and B.


  1. Indeed! Learning and teaching are not competitive sports but often we seem to regard them as such. Thank you for another thoughtful post 😃

  2. Teaching and learning are not competitive sports so why do we argue? Thanks for an interesting blogpost

  3. Thanks for the comment. We agree :-)