Inquiry Vs. Explicit: Who Wins?

There seems to be a nonstop debate about how to teach. Inquiry or Explicit. The inquiry based instruction groups argue that inquiry instruction is preferable because it enhances creativity, is more natural, creates deeper memories, helps students become lifelong learners and more. The explicit based instruction groups argue that explicit instruction helps students learn to read more efficiently, is in line with scientific research, gives students the tools to become lifelong learners, and more.

I think that this debate has become slightly misplaced. With many in the inquiry camp claiming that explicit instruction means lecture and many in the explicit camp claiming that inquiry instruction means discovery learning. In my lived experience, and even in my twitter experience, both are wrong. This is part 3 in a 3 part series.

  1. Inquiry Instruction 2. Explicit Instruction 3. Inquiry Vs Explicit: Who Wins?

I’ve given brief summaries of Inquiry Instruction and Explicit Instruction in previous blog posts. You can click on the links above to read them if you like.

Before I declare my winner. Let’s push back on the derision that can accompany Inquiry and Explicit instruction based teaching.

A well planned Inquiry based lesson will look slightly chaotic to an outsider, but that does not mean learning is not taking place. The teacher is intentionally crafting the lesson to guide students toward the correct answer, to guide students towards knowledge. The hope is that this leads to a deeper understanding because the student needs to construct this knowledge for themselves, it isn’t given to them by the teacher. Throughout this process the teacher is giving feedback to students in order to guide their learning and assisting them in seeing their errors. The hope is that this helps students to become critical thinkers who are able to spot their own mistakes and fix them.

Explicit instruction is not a dry lecture. There is back and forth between the teacher and students and between students over the course of a lesson. The teacher takes time to carefully plan the lesson and introduce vocabulary and concepts in bitesize chunks that are digestible for students. Then, after students are introduced to the necessary background knowledge (includes vocab, concepts, skills) the teacher demonstrates solving a problem. Then students work together to solve a problem. And, finally, the students can solve the problem on their own. Throughout this process, the teacher is giving students informal feedback (corrective, and affirmative). The constant feedback helps students to learn more quickly and move towards accurate application of their new knowledge.

Now for the winner.

Explicit Instruction!

I believe that explicit instruction wins because it is more structured. I do not mean more planned because a good inquiry lesson is very carefully planned. But the structure matters. I believe that this structure helps students to learn more efficiently than the looser structure provided by inquiry learning. And, as always, the proof is in the pudding (student outcomes for us). What follows is an incredibly brief summary of the research into explicit instruction.

Explicit instruction has been proven to be an effective teaching strategy for “normal students” however, it is especially beneficial for students with various learning challenges (Archer, 2011). Explicit instruction is effective for all students precisely because of its structure.

The structure of and benefits explicit instruction from Hall & Vue, 2004. If you are interesting in more details about the structure and meta-analysis, click on the Hall and Vue link above.

Structure of Explicit Instruction

  • Big Ideas
  • Conspicuous strategies
  • Mediated scaffolding
  • Strategic integration
  • Primed background knowledge

Delivery of Explicit Instruction

  • Frequent Student Responses
  • Appropriate Pacing
  • Adequate Processing Time
  • Monitor Responses

A meta-analysis by Adams, 1996 found that the mean effect size for explicit instruction is .75. This is a very large, positive impact on student learning. Project Follow Through found that students taught with explicit instruction in math, reading, language, and spelling had good levels of achievement, while also having a higher self-esteem than students taught with other methods. This may be because competence in school can lead to higher self-esteem. It was also found that disadvantaged students with diverse needs benefited greatly from explicit reading instruction.

The following quote is from the National Center for Accessible Educational Materials by Hall and Vue.

One of the most visible implementations of direct instruction in public schools is Wesley Elementary in Houston, TX. When the school began implementation of instruction using direct instruction, fifth grade students were almost two years below grade level. After four years of implementation, the third, fourth, and fifth grade students were performing 1 to 1.5 years above grade level. All students scored above the 80th percentile in both reading and mathematics on the district evaluation. Wesley School continues these effective practices school-wide and continues to have exemplary scores on district, state, and national assessments.

For clarity, direct instruction (di) is a form of explicit instruction. I feel the results are clear based on research. We can use explicit instruction in our classrooms to improve the outcomes of all our students, high and low achieving while improving their self-esteem and not damaging their creativity. The evidence is explicit.