Inquiry- and Problem-Based Pedagogy: Dramatic Results in South America (?)

A recent study, published by the Center for Effective Global Action, sees big benefits from teaching build around student collaboration, inquiry, and problem-solving.

Working with in four countries (!), in ten different schools, (!!), with over 17,000 students (!!!), researchers find that K-4 students made more progress in math and science when they explored questions, compared with students who listened to lectures.

They report these results in stats-y language that doesn’t translate well: after 7 months, students averaged 0.18 standard deviations higher in math, and 0.14 in science. After four years, those differences bloomed to 0.39 and 0.23.

That not as sexy sounding as, say, they scored X% higher on a standardized test. But, however you look at it, those are eye-catching numbers.

Inquiry Learning vs. What?

Despite these dramatic numbers and claims, I don’t think the study supports the strong claims made by these researchers.

Here’s why.

First, the research purports to study the difference between “inquiry and problem based pedagogy” with “traditional instruction.”

If you look over the description of the classes, however, I think you’ll quickly see that it studies the difference between “good” teaching and “bad” teaching.

So, for instance, in a “traditional” unit on the skeletal system in Argentina:

[S]tudents copy facts about bone tissues and the names of 206 bones of the human skeleton that teachers have written on the blackboard into notebooks.

That’s not traditional. That’s absurd. They copy the names of two hundred and six bones? The mind boggles.

And, by the way, the “inquiry and problem based pedagogy” [IPP] is full of good, old-fashioned direct instruction:

When done well, IPP includes elements of explicit instruction and scaffolding.

Teachers facilitate learning by guiding students through a series of steps and explicitly relating learning to students’ prior knowledge and experiences.

Teachers guide learners through complex tasks with explicit instructions that are relevant to the problems at hand.

They provide structure and scaffolding that help students not only carry out specific activities, but also comprehend why they are doing those activities and how they are related to the set of core concepts they are exploring.

So, yes, these students are inquiring and problem solving. And, they’re getting lots of explicit teacherly guidance.

So, again, the labels used in this study don’t fully align with the concepts we typically use them to mean.

Compared to Whom?

A second questions jumps out here as well.

The teachers who used IPP methods got impressive training and support. For instance:

They got 20 hours of professional training in these methods. (When was the last time your school provided twenty hours of training on one topic?)

They got lesson plans. They got teaching materials.

They got “continuous in-school teacher support.”

What did the teachers in the control-group schools get? The study doesn’t say.

That silence leads to the possibility that they got…nothin’.

Which is to say: the study compares teachers who got lots and lots (and lots) of support, with teachers who didn’t get any support.

So, the difference might have come from the specifics of the teaching method: in this case, “IPP.”

Or, it might have come from the energizing effects of working at a school getting so much researcher support and attention.

We simply don’t know. And, if I’m right that this was a “business as usual” control group, then the study design doesn’t let us know.

Strong Conclusions

Based on this study, I think we can conclude that…

4th graders should not have to copy 206 vocabulary words into their notebooks. (I’ll go out on a limb and say NO ONE should have to do that.)

Some level of explicit teacherly support and guidance is essential.

Once foundational knowledge has been established, an appropriate level of independent questing can solidify and extend knowledge.

Most of us, I suspect, would have agreed with all of those statements before we read the study.

I don’t think, however, we can conclude from this study that “Inquiry and Problem Based Pedagogy” (as we typically use those words in the US) is the best approach. Because: that’s not what this study tested and measured.

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