Pupils who engage in enquiry-based learning in science perform at a lower level in international PISA science tests than those who had ‘teacher-directed instruction and adaptive instruction’. That was the message from Ofsted’s chief inspector, Amanda Speilman, in her speech at the Association for Science Education Annual Conference 2018.
She was right – up to a point.
The OECD, which administers the three-yearly international PISA tests, did find that enquiry-based learning had a negative association with scores in science. But the OECD commentary didn’t end there.
‘Enquiry-based teaching practices are particularly important in teaching physical and life science’, the OECD report said (p69 PISA 2015 Results Volume II*).
Top-performing pupils in particular were expected to ‘understand, explain and debate scientific ideas; design and carry out experiments and communicate findings, and connect their scientific ideas and investigations to real-life problems’.
Previous studies had shown enquiry-based instruction could ‘improve students’ learning, their attitudes towards science and their transferable skills such as critical thinking,’ the OECD said.
The analysis also found:
‘More frequent enquiry-based teaching is positively related to students holding stronger epistemic beliefs and being more likely to expect to work in a science-related occupation when they are 30…’
Where enquiry-based teaching fell down was when it was badly designed, when the laboratory material was poor, when preparation was lacking and when it didn’t ‘promote deep knowledge’. Enquiry alone isn’t enough – it has to be expressed.
Spielman was anxious to point out that the OECD evidence – ‘just one piece of evidence’ – did not mean inspectors would begin ‘looking for a certain kind of teaching’ (although the implication is there). The OECD finding about enquiry-based learning was ‘important’, she said, because it reminded inspectors and teachers about the necessity of ‘testing our own assumptions about what is “good” or what is “best practice”’.
But in testing assumptions, it’s important to read the whole evidence and not just part of it.