We need an inquiry about inquiry

The default position of many who are charged with reviewing curricula at all levels of Irish education seems to be to suggest more discovery or inquiry-based approaches to teaching and learning.  Personally, I find the whole thing bizarre because I would have thought that academics, of all people, would have a real, almost innate, thirst for knowledge as opposed to process. And I can’t understand why teacher-led approaches are perceived as being passive or boring because kids love facts and love asking questions.

Anyway, whether it’s the new Junior Cycle Science Curriculum or the recent STEM report, the solution to our perceived woes (and it is not clear at all what our woes are) seems to be that if we get students to act like mini-scientists, they will learn better. They won’t because of the novice-expert divide. But education, as a discipline, is highly ideological and I can’t imagine that I’m going to convince anyone here of the problems with inquiry-based learning; so I won’t try.

However, the figure below from PISA 2015 should be setting off alarm bells throughout the Irish education establishment because inquiry-based methods do not come out well. In fact they come out very badly. The OECD was “surprised” by this, suggesting, perhaps, an ideological bias on their part.

Indeed, is worth noting that a few weeks back, it became clear that the PISA 2012 results demonstrated (although this seems to have been buried by the good people of OECD Education) that inquiry-based methods were equally ‘problematic’ in mathematics teaching.  But again, no one in the world of Irish education seemed concerned.


Of course, we can choose to ignore the PISA findings (as we probably will) but we would want to have a damn good reason to do so. We can’t pat ourselves on the pack because our PISA reading scores have gone up and then choose to ignore findings about how best to teach maths and science.

There is a lot at stake here. The PISA results have shown that even the best educational systems can go into decline and, in Canada at least, there is prima facie evidence that the use of inquiry methods has contributed to the decline in their maths scores.

Wouldn’t it be more sensible to at least have a conversation as to how much time we intend to devote to inquiry-based methods and what exactly we mean by inquiry methods? Inquiry methods have a shape-shifting quality about them and when they go bad it’s often claimed it’s because they weren’t real inquiry methods at all.

The PISA results have shown that within the ‘space’ defined by the PISA tests, our education system is performing extremely well despite the lack of resources. The biggest problems we have relate to issues around equity rather than academic quality.

So those who advocate for significant change in how we teach, especially at first and second level, need to be sure that their proposals are backed up by solid evidence. Plausibility or anecdotes from third level lecturers is not enough. And, crucially, everyone has to recognise that student engagement is not the same as student learning.

PISA 2018 will be interesting.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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5 Responses to We need an inquiry about inquiry

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