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Is inquiry-based learning more effective than direct instruction? The debate has raged for years, and still draws a lot of heat.
According to a 2023 study, inquiry-based instruction is more effective at helping students acquire conceptual knowledge, and can induce “deep learning processes such as elaboration, self-explanation, and metacognitive strategies.” Nevertheless, detractors often claim that it’s akin to sending kids into the wilderness without survival tools: “Throwing students in the deep end and hoping they’ll discover what’s taken scientific communities years to develop doesn’t work very well,” says the learning scientist Manu Kapur.
Perhaps it’s much ado about nothing. In reality, inquiry-based learning is usually supplemented with direct instruction, the researchers conclude. Teachers may start a self-directed lesson by providing information students need—like the chemical formula for water—or review outcomes and clarify concepts at the end of inquiry-based study.
Kids should struggle as they engage in self-directed work, Kapur insists, but get plenty of direct instruction, too. The real goal is not to exclude either strategy, but to “marry the best of both approaches in a very curated and constrained way.”