NOW READING: Inquiry-Based Learning vs. Direct Instruction: 7 Important Differences

Inquiry-Based Learning vs. Direct Instruction: 7 Important Differences

As instructional methods evolve along with the needs and expectations of our students, we always seem to come back to tried-and-true practices like inquiry-based learning. There's a simple reason for this: it's a surefire pathway to students owning their learning, and thus developing a lifelong passion for learning.

However, in order to extol the advantages inquiry-based instruction has over more traditional teacher-centred approaches, we must compare the two side by side. That's what we aim to do here.

The Differences Between Inquiry-Based Learning & Teacher-Centered Instruction

I believe inquiry-based learning is an actual pedagogy, whereas traditional instruction, or chalk-and-talk, is only an element of a pedagogy. It is a step in a sequence of activities of which your pedagogy is comprised and though it’s widely used and frequently exclusively used, I don’t believe it is a pedagogy. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value or shouldn’t be used. On the contrary, it can be highly effective and, when appropriately applied, is invaluable.

There will always be a place for direct instruction, but one of the ultimate goals of education is to create fully capable and independent learners. This can only happen when we gradually move responsibility for the learning from the teacher, where it traditionally has been, to the learner, where it should be.

What follows contrasts the differences between inquiry-based learning and teacher-centered instruction, and it is a continuum. Again, it is not to say that one is bad and the other good. Doing either exclusively though may be problematic. As a result, your practice will move back and forth in response to the needs of the learners and what is relevant to them.

In fact, one of the most intriguing things about inquiry-based learning is the direction it takes students in terms of relevance and connection. In essence, it moves things from learners asking"why are we learning this" to the adoption of more exploratory mindsets like "tell me more about this" and "this is important for me to know more about."

1. Prescribed Learning vs. Agency of Learning

In inquiry-based learning, the students are highly active participants in their own learning. They make personal decisions about what and how they will learn and have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. As a result, they are encouraged to engage in regular self- and peer-assessment. Instructors in such a setting are supportive of this in that they listen to and respect the learner’s point of view, and are active in both encouraging and facilitating in the sharing of decisions being made.

This is not to say that it’s about the learners doing whatever they want. A well-crafted unit of inquiry will not only point the learners in the direction of the intended curriculum but, through relevance and context, will drive the learning deeper and further than would otherwise be possible.

One of the goals of education is to create fully capable, independent learners. Being college and career ready means being able to learn, unlearn and relearn in a dynamic and unpredictable future. Inquiry-based learning allows learners to learn how to learn from more experienced learners, the teachers.

Inquiry-based learning allows learners to learn how to learn from more experienced learners, the teachers.

2. Low Relevance vs. High Relevance

One reason agency of learning is so important is that the learning is highly relevant to the learner. In a direction instruction model, the content may be relevant to them, but they often don’t see it. This leads to questions like, “Why are we learning this? When will I ever use this?”

Even if they don’t openly ask these questions, they are probably thinking them. Often, the answer is simply that they need to know this if they want to pass the course or the test.

For the learner then, that is the context. So when the course or test is completed, they can jettison the information from their brain. The result is we spend months at the beginning of the year re-teaching last year so we can begin teaching this year.

This is quite different from when the learners “own the learning.” If they learn it because it matters to them, they own it forever.

In “To Help Students Learn, Engage the Emotions” (Lahey,2016), Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (2015) discusses her use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which reveals brain function in real time: “When students are emotionally engaged, we see activation all around the cortex, in regions involved in cognition, memory and meaning-making, and even all the way down into the brain stem.”

It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about

Emotion is where learning begins or, as is often the case, where it ends. In Emotions, Learning, and the Brain: Exploring the Educational Implications of Affective Neuroscience, Immordino-Yang further states, “Even in academic subjects that are traditionally considered unemotional, such as physics, engineering or math, deep understanding depends on making emotional connections between concepts”  

Her most striking statement for me, though it seems like common sense, is something educators often overlook in their rush to deliver content: “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to think deeply about things that you don’t care about” (Lahey,2016).

3. Teachers Assess After Learning vs. Learners Assess as Learning

One of the most powerful shifts of practice that we wrote about in our book Future-Focused Learning is about the importance of encouraging our learners to self- and peer-assess as their learning moves forward. This goes hand in hand with the learner agency we discussed in the first point. 

Of course, it’s understandable that teachers are resistant to this, and this is so for a few different reasons. The notion of students assessing themselves is difficult for many educators to get around, but they're warming to the idea. The fact is if our students learn to ask the right self-assessment questions and keep themselves accountable, the results in learning improvement can be amazing.

As much as possible, the students should be responsible for the development, implementation and reporting of assessment. The role of the teacher then becomes the moderator of assessment.

Self- and peer-assessment practices have a number of benefits for both students and teachers. Here are just a few of them:

  • It encourages students to take more responsibility for learning.
  • Self-assessment is a highly effective critical thinking exercise.
  • Students are usually frank and honest in their assessment of their own performance and that of their peers.
  • It reduces the assessment workload on the teacher.
  • It promotes deep understanding of content topics and learning styles.
  • Self-assessment lets students consider their decisions, reflect on actions, and consider/plan future processes.

We needn’t make self- and peer-assessment a huge undertaking either. It can start with something as simple as a pair or group debrief when a project is over, and those experiences can then be developed into something more ongoing. Get your learners started with some quick, effective, and enjoyable assessment activities to start, and then encourage them to practice them more and more as learning progresses.

4. Teacher Talking vs. Teacher and Students Discussing

Traditional methods of instruction see students in a sit-and-listen environment where connection can be quickly lost.

In his brilliant book Brain Rules, Dr. John Medina demonstrates learners are only capable of listening to a speech or lecture on a single topic for approximately ten minutes. After that, our attention stores are pretty much depleted. Teacher-centred learning is largely based on this instructional model, and is both passive in nature and about consuming. As a result, it typically only activates lower-order thinking, or the bottom half of Bloom’s Taxonomy, remember, understand, and apply. 

When we move from passive learning (consumption), to active learning (participation), both engagement and thinking is at a much higher level. Part of what makes inquiry-based learning so great is that it nurtures open discussion between not only the students, but the students and their instructors. While working in collaboration with other learners and the teacher, learning becomes an active search for meaning by the learner. As ideas and experiences are shared across the table, this leads students to personal learning moments defined by the constructing of knowledge, rather than them just passively receiving it.

While working in collaboration with other learners and the teacher, learning becomes an active search for meaning by the learner.

5. Knowledge Delivery vs. Knowledge Creation

In many ways school was has been a marvelous and ambitious information delivery system. Universities cultivate experts in specific subjects who then move to distant communities and transmit that information to the next generation. Today we have a more efficient information delivery system, the internet, and the teacher's role has moved to the facilitator of knowledge who guides learners to create versatile and creative solutions to real-world challenges that matter.

In the modern inquiry-based learning classroom, students construct new knowledge and skills by building on current knowledge and skills. They face problems and issues in a classroom setting using unconscious methods like Solution Fluency and Information Fluency, and produce work that demonstrates authentic learning.

6. Single-Discipline vs. Trans-Disciplinary

Trans-disciplinary, also known as integrated learning, is just as the name implies. It is transcendent from a single linear discipline into the realm of many disciplines (curricular or otherwise), collaborative pursuits for awareness and answers, and a sharing of these things across culture and personal belief—all hallmarks of truly authentic modern learning.

Inquiry activates a learner’s thinking at a very high level as they make connections across classrooms and across the world.

The nature of direct instruction to teach one thing at a time, and then the next thing, built on the previous, which makes it a very useful tool in any pedagogy. Future-focused learning such as STEM, STEAM, PBL and Inquiry activates a learner’s thinking at a very high level as they make connections across classrooms and across the world. Life is an integrated subject. We fluidly use skills from all learning areas in our daily lives. Through inquiry-based learning, the lines between subject areas naturally dissolve, just like in life.

7. Teacher Control vs. Student Self-Regulation

Traditional instructional settings have seen the teacher keep domain over every facet of what and how learning took place. However, as the shift from teacher being a director to a facilitator of learning has happened over the last few years, some remarkable things have happened. For one thing, a huge amount of learning responsibility has shifted from them to the students, freeing teachers up to be increasingly creative with lesson planning. 

When we give our students the freedom of a certain level of control over their learning, everything changes. They begin to become more aware of the significance of what is being taught and how it relates the their world. Engagement soars and more personal learning moments take place as students create solutions and understandings necessary to address issue of real-world significance. Best of all, they have the satisfaction of knowing they took their own pathway to get there, and they developed something to apply to a problem that mattered.

Instructional methods will always be evolving and will always need refinement. To educate oneself or to become educated is in many ways about gaining answers to questions. Inquiry-based learning is the process of gaining a deeper understanding of meaningful questions. Think of the power of inquiry-based learning not as a replacement for your current practice, but as an enhancement of it—just another tool in an already awesome teacher’s toolbox. 

If you want even more tools, you've got them below. Explore our free ebook of inquiry-based learning activities—scenarios with real-world connections that your students will love exploring.

10 inquiry-based learning activities