Teaching Opinion

Inquiry-Based Instruction and PISA

By Robert Rothman — December 08, 2016 4 min read
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Do the newly released results from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) throw cold water on project-based learning?

The results, issued this week, examined instructional practices in science and their correlations with student performance in the subject. The report used student questionnaires to determine how frequently the following techniques were used in science classrooms: teacher-directed instruction, perceived feedback, adaptive instruction, and inquiry-based instruction. The report then analyzed the relationship between these approaches and student scores on the assessment.

To gauge the extent of teacher-directed instruction, students were asked how often the teacher explains scientific ideas, whole-class discussions take place, the teacher discusses student questions, and the teacher demonstrates an idea. To gauge the extent of inquiry-based instruction, students were asked nine questions, including how often they spend time in a laboratory doing experiments, how often they are asked to draw conclusions from an experiment they conducted, how often they are allowed to design their own experiments, and how often they are asked to do an investigation to test ideas.

The results were striking. Students in classrooms using teacher-directed instruction performed far better than those in classrooms using inquiry-based approaches. As the report states:

In all but three education systems--Indonesia, Korea and Peru--using teacher-directed instruction more frequently is associated with higher science achievement, after accounting for the socio-economic status of students and schools; and students in all countries also hold stronger epistemic beliefs, such as believing that scientific ideas change in light of new evidence, when their teachers used these strategies more frequently. A positive association is also observed between these teaching practices and students’ expectations of pursuing science-related careers. In no education system are these instructional practices associated with students being less likely to expect to work in science-related occupations.

By contrast, inquiry-based instruction was associated with lower achievement in science:

After accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile, greater exposure to enquiry-based instruction is negatively associated with science performance in 56 countries and economies. Perhaps surprisingly, in no education system do students who reported that they are frequently exposed to enquiry-based instruction score higher in science.

How can this be? Isn’t inquiry-based instruction a way to engage students in projects that enable them to use their knowledge to think critically and solve problems and produce their own conclusions? Isn’t that approach intended to move away from passive learning, in which students hear a teacher’s explanation and quickly forget it?

While the PISA results are stark, there are some reasons to be cautious and to look more deeply at the relationship between instruction and learning. First, as is always the case with assessments like PISA, correlation does not mean causation. This was not an experiment in which two randomly selected groups of students were taught in different ways. Perhaps the results reflect a factor other than the method of instruction.

The report suggests that this might be the case. It notes that teacher-directed instruction is used more frequently in more-advantaged schools, and that inquiry-based instruction is more common in schools serving disadvantaged students. “Teachers,” the report notes, “may be using hands-on activities to make science more attractive to disengaged students.” That is, the students who most often experienced project-based learning were low-performing to begin with.

Second, the analysis says nothing about the quality of instruction. Teacher-directed instruction can be done well or poorly. Consider this reflection, from Tom Corcoran, associate vice president of international affairs at Teachers College, Columbia University.

I was sitting in a Shanghai science classroom once with Milbrey McLaughlin, Carlo Parravano, and a bilingual Chinese supervisor. Forty students were sitting in rows in a theater style classroom as a teacher took them through the analysis of a problem he had posed. They were designing an investigation and the teacher was questioning them about what steps they would take. Milbrey leaned over and said she would have to rethink what constructivist teaching looked like. Most people think it means activities in the classroom, hands on science. But here they were sitting in rows and the teacher was merely asking questions. What Milbrey meant was the kids weren’t conducting an investigation in a lab. They were not even active in the American sense of that word, but they were deeply engaged intellectually, thinking hard with the teacher about how to conduct an investigation of the problem. “This is minds-on, not hands-on,” she said.

Likewise, inquiry-based instruction can be shallow if students merely follow directions in conducting an experiment, rather than think deeply and critically about what they are observing. That’s why the Buck Institute for Education, which supports project-based learning, emphasizes that such instruction needs to be high quality.

The PISA results are compelling, and educators need to study them carefully. But they do not tell the whole story. As researchers say, more research is needed.

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