Escaping the “Inquiry vs. Direct Instruction” Debate

If you’d like to stir up a feisty argument at your next faculty meeting, lob out a casual observation about direct instruction.

Almost certainly, you’ll hear impassioned champions (“only direct instruction leads to comprehension”) and detractors (“students must construct their own understandings”) launch into battle.

For Example…

Back in September, I reviewed two studies contrasting these approaches.

One study, looking at science instruction with 4th graders, found that direct instruction led to more learning. The second study argued for a constructivist approach — yet lacked a remotely plausible control group.

So, in that post at least, it made sense to tell students what experts had already concluded.

One Study, Two Perspectives

I’ve found another study that helpfully reopens this debate.

Daniel Schwartz and colleagues helped 8th grade science students understand concepts like density, speed, and surface pressure.

Crucially, all these concepts share an underlying “deep structure”: ratio.

That is: “speed” is distance divided by time. “Density” is mass divided by volume.

Schwartz wanted to see if students learned each concept (density, spring constant) AND the underlying deep structure (ratio).

Half of the 8th graders in this study heard a brief lecture about each concept — and about the underlying structure they shared. They had a chance to practice the formulas they learn.

That is: this “tell and practice” paradigm is one kind of direct instruction.

The rest of the 8th graders were given several related problems to solve, and asked to figure out how best to do so.

This “invent with contrasting cases” paradigm enacts constructivist principles.

Findings, and Conclusions

Schwartz and Co. found that both groups learned to solve word problems equally well.

However — crucially — the contrasting cases method led to deeper conceptual understanding.

When this group of students were given a new kind of ratio to figure out, they recognized the pattern more quickly and solved problems more accurately.

So, the obvious conclusion: constructivist teaching is better. Right?

Not so fast. Schwartz’s study includes this remarkable pair of sentences:

“There are different types of learning that range from skill acquisition to identity formation, and it seems unlikely that a single pedagogy or psychological mechanism will prove optimal for all types of learning.

Inventing with contrasting cases is one among many possible ways to support students in learning deep structure.”

That is: in this very particular set of circumstances, a constructivist approach helped these students learn this concept — at least, in the way it was tested.

What Next?

If the purists have it wrong — if both direct instruction and constructivist pedagogies might have appropriate uses — what’s a teacher to do?

Schwartz himself suggests that different approaches make sense for different kinds of learning.

For instance, he wonders if direct instruction helps learn complex procedures, whereas constructivist methods help with deep structures (like ratio).

Perhaps, instead, the essential question is the level of difficulty. We have lots of research that says the appropriate level of cognitive challenge enhances learning.

So: perhaps the “tell and practice” method of this study was just too easy; only a more open-ended investigation required enough mental effort.

However, perhaps the study with the 4th graders (mentioned above) included a higher base level of conceptual difficulty. In that case, hypothetically, direct instruction allowed for enough mental work, whereas the inquiry method demanded too much.

Two Conclusions

First: the right pedagogical approach depends on many variables — including the content to be learned. 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.

Second: purists who insist that we must always follow one (and ONLY one) pedagogy are almost certainly wrong.

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