George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Blending Direct Instruction and Inquiry-Based Learning

When teachers combine the best parts of these two strategies, they create a learning-centered model.

October 31, 2023
Eduard Figueres / iStock

Research has shown that both teacher-centered and student-centered instructional approaches have mixed impacts on student learning. For instance, exclusively lecturing, a teacher-centered approach, has a negative effect on the academic performance of students. However, direct instruction, a teacher-centered approach that combines the power of checking for understanding, engaging students with challenging questions, and spending significant time ensuring guided practice before students enter independent practice, has a substantially positive impact on learning.

Student-centered instructional approaches follow a similar pattern whereby discovery-based learning yields little net value, while problem-based learning is a highly impactful strategy. The main difference is the degree to which teachers interact with students with similar approaches to using questioning, providing specific guidance, and constantly checking for understanding.

The connection between these strategies appears to be the relationship between teachers and students in the learning. The source of impact on learning appears to be when both teachers and students are engaged in action together. Here are examples of teacher- and student-centered models that when combined form a learning-centered model for everyone:

  • A teacher who presents students with a number of worked math examples incorporates a number of questions to make sure students understand each example and then has students complete a number of math problems together with the teacher and peers in small groups. She does this by asking a number of probing questions (e.g., What is the most important factor? If this is true, then what about this? What’s the connection between this variable and this variable?). The teacher ensures that students have a high degree of success before students begin independent work.
  • Students begin working on a project to explore strategies that their communities could leverage to express more visual symbols of the diverse cultures around their school . The teacher uses questions to link students’ creative problem-solving with the core learning of English language arts standards. Based on student-background knowledge, the teacher switches between giving students direct, corrective feedback and more general feedback.
  • A teacher illustrates an approach to analyzing a historical problem that involves multiple perspectives (e.g., the Second Amendment) and asks and answers process questions to illustrate her meta-processing of how she approaches such a dynamic problem (i.e., What makes me think that? What was I assuming here? Can I think of a different way to approach this problem?). She then asks her students to work through the problem with her, using probing questions across each step in pairs.
  • Students are expected to sequence the acts of a story. Before the teacher begins presenting the sequence, they ask, to what extent could the sequence be changed? Then, the teacher provides an outline of the acts of a story with a sequence of questions to ensure that students understand the foundational knowledge. The teacher then asks students to ask ChatGPT if it can come up with samples of stories that do not follow the sequence. From there, she asks students to determine what feedback they would give or make a set of probing and prompting questions they would ask ChatGPT to create a more refined answer.

Finding the delicate balance where structured guidance and independent exploration coexist starts with five key practices that can be woven into class each day.

5 Key Ways to Sequence a Learning-Centered Approach

To create an effective learning environment, educators should blend direct instruction (DI) with inquiry-based learning (IBL). Direct instruction provides a solid foundation for learning. It offers clear explanations and structured guidance, dollops of checking for understanding, and adapting input to meet students needs, while providing corrective feedback to ensure that students grasp essential concepts.

However, students need to have opportunities to connect new ideas with real-world problems. IBL provides students with the opportunity to deepen their knowledge and apply their understanding to real-world problems with authentic audiences and present solutions to problems across contexts.

The combination of DI and IBL allows for a learning-centered space for students that combines explicit content knowledge with exploration. Here is how to sequence the learning experience:

  1. Start with thoughtful questions. Begin with thought-provoking questions that encourage students to encounter real-world problems that require core content knowledge and skills. These questions should be used to drive students to reflect on their prior knowledge. Student-generated questions can also help to build background knowledge, and student-generated suggestions can provide the next steps to answer these questions.
  2. Build a solid foundation. Use direct instruction to provide students with a strong understanding of fundamental concepts. Direct instruction is differentiated from lecture in that students are actively involved in elaborating on and summarizing ideas, checking their understanding, and working through problems with the teacher and peers. This step is essential to ensure that they have the necessary knowledge before delving any further into inquiry-based activities.
  3. Encourage exploration. As students are building new knowledge and skills, provide them with activities that require them to compare and contrast new contexts and consider various perspectives. Additionally, offer them opportunities to showcase their learning in different ways than those presented by you.
  4. Weave in corrective and approximate feedback. As students are building background knowledge and solving problems through inquiry, assess student understanding and provide varying types of feedback. When students are first learning something, consider providing direct feedback to students and reference learning intentions and success criteria along with models for students to reference. As students develop more competency, consider providing approximate feedback by giving them a set of questions to push them to monitor models, rubrics, and peers’ work to determine what next step they need to take.
  5. Create a culture of “we do” together. The gradual release of responsibility creates a power differential that leads to impaired learning and inhibits successful work environments. The more teachers and students work together across methodologies, the better students learn, and the more teachers can adapt to the needs of their students. One way to start this is to have students reflect on the level of shared work between teachers and students in the learning process.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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