Teaching Strategies

Direct Instruction or Inquiry-Based Learning? 

It’s not either/or: Rather than choosing direct instruction or inquiry-based learning, educators strategically use both methods.

February 7, 2023
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Can we settle the debate over direct instruction versus inquiry-based learning? 

If you follow educators on Twitter, you might have noticed an ongoing debate around direct instruction versus inquiry learning. Educators cannot even agree on what to name this debate: Direct Instruction (DI) versus direct instruction (di), explicit versus constructivist, sage on the stage versus guide on the side, teacher-led versus student-led, lecture versus discovery, and passive versus active learning. 

The National Institute for Direct Instruction defines Direct Instruction as “a model for teaching that emphasizes well-developed and carefully planned lessons designed around small learning increments and clearly defined and prescribed teaching tasks. It is based on the theory that clear instruction eliminating misinterpretations can greatly improve and accelerate learning.”

Author Heather Wolpert-Gawron defines inquiry learning as “more than asking a student what he or she wants to know. It’s about triggering curiosity. And activating a student’s curiosity is, I would argue, a far more important and complex goal than mere information delivery.” 

Spoiler alert, there is no absolute right answer on which method is better. Academic studies on the issue only further complicate the debate.

What the Research Says

There is some research regarding direct instruction vs. inquiry-based learning: 

  • Fordham Institute author Robert Pondiscio leans toward the Direct Instruction model with the comparison “Like Rodney Dangerfield, DI ‘gets no respect.’” (For readers unfamiliar with comedian Rodney Dangerfield’s work, be aware that his comedy is NSFW.) The federal government conducted a long-term study of more than 20 educational interventions in low-income communities called Project Follow Through. Pondiscio writes, “The final results indicated that DI was the only intervention that had significantly positive impacts on all of the outcome measures.” 
  • In the 2012 study “Putting Students on the Path to Learning: The Case for Fully Guided Instruction,” the authors are firm in their stance: “Teachers should provide their students with clear, explicit instruction rather than merely assisting students in attempting to discover knowledge themselves.”
  • Jo Boaler describes traditional teaching methods as passive learning in her book  What’s Math Got to Do With It? Boaler cites research that indicates that the “lecture-demonstrate-practice” cycle is ineffective for student learning. Math coach Donna Boucher references Boaler’s work with the statement, “Students taught through passive approaches follow and memorize methods instead of learning to inquire, ask questions, and solve problems.” 
  • An analysis by The Hechinger Report found that direct instruction and guided play produced the same results in literacy for learners ages 3 to 8. The research cited by Hechinger also showed that guided play increased learning in numeracy and behavioral skills. “These findings, which were published in the journal Child Development, add to a growing body of research that has found play is not simply a carefree tangent to learning, but rather an effective way to teach important early skills.”
  • To make the debate even more complicated, a 2019 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) found that students felt they had learned more in a passive-learning environment but actually learned more material in an active-learning environment. Teachers and administrators might want to keep this research in their back pocket when a parent complains that the teacher is making the students teach themselves. 

Choosing Between Direct Instruction and Inquiry-Based Learning

Author, teacher, and consultant Liesl McConchie tweeted, “When we pit two instructional theories against each other (ie. direct instruction vs. inquiry) the biggest loser is student learning. They both have merit. Stop taking sides. Instead, grapple with thoughtful Qs: when is it best, under what conditions, for whom, etc.?”

But how does the aforementioned conflicting research help a teacher decide when, where, and to whom to employ which method? Author and education consultant Andrew Watson concludes in a Learning & the Brain post, “We teachers should learn about the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches, but only we can decide what will work best for these students and this material on this day.” 

As an example, a teacher might start class with a small-group exploration of matching cards displaying linear graphs and written scenarios. This activity might be followed up by an engaging mini-lesson on positive and negative slopes. While the students work in groups on a thinking task, the teacher can rotate to deliver on-the-fly lessons for students needing clarification. Planning a lesson with this much variety is not easy because the teacher’s actions are shaped by student feedback. 

Think of content-delivery methods as being like the options at a salad bar. You want to fill your plate with greens, a serving of protein, and a drizzle of dressing. A plate of just one of these might leave you unsatisfied. Furthermore, the same salad every day would get quite boring, too. Can we as educators all decide to end the debate and spend our energy creating lessons with a healthy variety of methods that serve the learning needs of our students? 

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