The Wrong Fit

Russell Cailey
5 min readAug 8, 2022

Why Schools Need to be Careful Shoehorning Inquiry-Based Learning Models with Terminal Exam Based Education.

In 2021, the Centre of Independent Studies in Sydney published an article suggesting that inquiry-based learning reduces academic performance. The executive summary primarily focused on “rankings on international tests” such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the general findings were that there was a “causal relationship between the emphasis on inquiry learning and reduced academic performance”.

There was substantial emphasis across the study on “working memory” and that students acquire information more rapidly and easily via explicit instruction from other people, such as teachers.

Thankfully there is more to the story.

In many Montessori classrooms across the US and the globe, students remain at the centre of the action; teachers act as facilitators. Learners engage in individual work cycles, independently reading and researching on their tablets and laptops, and others progress diligently on group work tasks. Learners’ experiences can be guided by explicit instruction and guidance, but the educators act more as facilitators than as oracles of knowledge.

Schools like the Whitby School in CT were one of the first schools to combine the Montessori approach to the International Baccalaureate (IB), classrooms of multi-age learners, personalised learning and a theory of “following the child”.

For Whitby, inquiry-based learning attached itself to a learners’ natural inclination to help them make sense of the world and to be curious about their surroundings and environment.

Kori (2021) supports the Whitby approach and considers active learning beneficial for developing students’ inquiry skills and improving academic performance. At the same time, inquiry-based learning helps learners develop the ability to work in complex and unpredictable environments enabling them to become more critical and active learners (Suarez et al., 2018).

(Learners) need to try things, not just absorb theory, to discover what they love and what they want to be. (Tweet — The Rebel Educator 8/8/2022)

One issue with the work of the Centre of Independent Studies research is that it places a team of skilled rugby players on a soccer field. Of course, students who are prepared and schooled in project, inquiry or Montesorri-based education will not be programmed to excel in strict test score rankings (although many do); that is not its intention, nor should it ever be. Inquiry-based learning models, in addition to developing curriculum mapping and design, must also be developed and give time to evolved assessment models. Otherwise, repeats of the Independent Studies Research will become ever too familiar.

Through project implementation inquiry-based learning can occur; this can enhance scientific thinking (Pedaste et al., 2015) and aid a move away from acquiring new knowledge from explicit teaching from a teacher’s lecture process (Jermin et al., 2020). Some of the missed beauty of inquiry and project-based learning is that it can be associated with many different learning and teaching strategies, including many teaching methods that can be linked back to modern teaching practices, such as a semester-long course (a model used by THINK Global School) and the completion of research projects (AP Capstone).

However, the Centre of Independent Studies does serve as a timely reminder that learners need a clear structure and curriculum to orient their learning methods and tasks and should not be left alone(Mieg, 2019). Fair consideration should also be given to a person’s self-confidence that they can succeed in a particular task (Perry, 2011).

To break some of the bottlenecks in moving from terminal exam-based education to a more inquiry-based model, Fan and Ye (2022) found that:

  1. Instructors should adopt various strategies to enhance learners’ ability to deconstruct the problem.
  2. Research targets can be extended downwards and expanded to different education levels.
  3. Education leaders must address teachers’ reluctance to use inquiry-based methods as many feel it’s “fraught with difficulties”.

Circling back to assessment, it seems clear that project-based and inquiry-based learning models will potentially open themselves to severe criticism if they fail to reform their assessment models.

Curriculums based around student voice and choice face an uncertain future if they continue to shoehorn in terminal exams.

Some options to combat this pending issue would be further development by education think tanks and leading educational institutions.

  1. Student-designed rubrics.
  2. Tables of excellence (student/21st-century development skills).
  3. Self-assessed grading models.
  4. Portfolio-based education.
  5. More focused professional development on inquiry and project-based assessment for teachers expected to deliver this curriculum style.

Thankfully we know that the Centre of Independent Studies research is not the final word; research by the likes of Xenofontos (202) has highlighted appropriate instruction provided by the teacher during inquiry-based learning improved student learning outcomes more than uninstructed. Thus it’s not that inquiry needs removal (as suggested by the study); the level of mindful instruction to guide learners should be comprehensive.

Fan, J. Y., and Ye, J. H. (2022). A study on teaching and learning model of project design course in a vocational and technological college and university. Second. Educ. 72, 73–92. doi: 10.6249/SE.202112_72(4).0030

Jerrim, J., Oliver, M., and Sims, S. (2020). The relationship between inquiry-based teaching and students’ achievement. New evidence from a longitudinal PISA study in England. Learn. Instr. doi: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2020.101310

Kori, K. (2021). “Inquiry-based learning in higher education,” in Technology supported active learning, eds C. Vaz de Carvalho and M. Bauters (Berlin: Springer), 59–74. doi: 10.1007/978–981–16–2082–9_4

Pedaste, M., Mäeots, M., Siiman, L. A., De Jong, T., Van Riesen, S. A., and Kamp, E. T. (2015). Phases of inquiry-based learning: definitions and the inquiry cycle. Educ. Res. Rev. 14, 47–61. doi: 10.1016/j.edurev.2015.02.003

Perry, P. (2011). Concept analysis: confidence/self-confidence. Nurs. Forum 46, 218–230. doi: 10.1111/j.1744–6198.2011.00230.x

Suarez, A., Specht, M., Prinsen, F., Kalz, M., and Ternier, S. (2018). A review of the types of mobile activities in mobile inquiry-based learning. Comput. Educ. 118, 38–55. doi: 10.1016/j.compedu.2017.11.004

Sweller, J., (2021) Why Inquiry-Based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning, Centre for Independent Studies.

Teig, N., Scherer, R., and Nilsen, T. (2018). More isn’t always better: the curvilinear relationship between inquiry-based teaching and student achievement in science. Learn. Instr. 56, 20–29. doi: 10.1016/j.learninstruc.2018.02.006

Xenofontos, N. A., Hovardas, T., Zacharia, Z. C., and de Jong, T. (2020). Inquiry-based learning and retrospective action: problematizing student work in a computer-supported learning environment. J. Comput. Assist. Learn. 36, 12–28.

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Russell Cailey

Managing Director of THINK Learning Studio | Curiosity Anywhere, Learning Everywhere.