Schools paper ends teaching debate once and for always

Opinion Article

2021 August, 14

One of the most important papers on the subject of student learning was published this week, accessible to a lay audience, explaining a complex subject as clear as a bell.

University of NSW Emeritus Professor John Sweller wrote a paper for the Centre for Independent Studies entitled Why Inquiry-based Approaches Harm Students’ Learning.

If you are a parent with questions about the progress of your child at school, I urge you to read this paper. Then take it to your child’s teacher and principal and ask them whether they are using inquiry-based learning with your child, and show it to them.

If you are a teacher using inquiry-based learning, you should definitely read this paper. If you have concerns about the progress of your students, this paper will be a revelation if you are prepared to consider it. If you are satisfied with their progress, the implication of Sweller’s research is that they could be making much more progress when you consider the evidence that favours explicit instruction above inquiry learning. 

If you are a premier, prime minister or minister of education – or any kind of politician concerned about the education of young Australians – you too should read Sweller. Better still, make an appointment with the professor and talk to him about what his research means for school education policy. 

Paul Kelly mentioned him in this newspaper in his schools piece on July 24, writing: “Sweller’s research, which is recognised worldwide, as he admits, ‘is not so well known in Australia’. Asked whether any education minister had ever spoken with him, Sweller said: ‘No’.”

Sweller is the world’s expert in his field, responsible for illuminating cognitive load theory in learning and long published and cited as a leading theoretician in education psychology. It is embarrassing, to say the least, that a country with two decades of declining schools performance in comparison to the rest of the world won’t consult a resident expert. One whose research is so germane to one of the country’s central public policy challenges.

The debate between teacher-directed explicit instruction and inquiry learning – variously called discovery learning, problem-based learning and critical thinking – has now been running for twice as long as the War of the Roses. It lies at the heart of our schooling problem in Australia.

Sweller traces the history of the origins of inquiry learning six decades ago to a predecessor in cognitive psychology, Jerome Bruner, who called it “discovery learning”. It was based on the extant knowledge of the time, which turned out to be misconceived. But it became the all-pervasive theory upon which education approaches throughout the Anglosphere – Britain, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Australia – has been based for half a century. And it is still going strong today.

The approach rejected teacher-led instruction, often called explicit or direct instruction. The great majority of Australian schools follow Bruner, even today, with only a minority of teachers and schools delivering teacher-led instruction.

This predominance of inquiry learning is despite, and indeed in spite of, three developments.

Firstly, the clear evidence base for effective teaching that has emerged over the past 20 years. The late Ken Rowe’s 2005 report on the National Reading Inquiry was a landmark endorsement of explicit instruction in teaching reading, echoing similar inquiries in the US and the UK.

John Hattie’s 2009 publication Visible Learning collated worldwide evidence of the efficacy of teacher-led instruction, and the paucity of evidence in favour of discovery learning and whole - language approaches to reading instruction.

Secondly, the breakthroughs in cognitive psychology led by Sweller, which explain why inquiry-based approaches do not work, and indeed are detrimental to learning. Sweller’s conclusions are borne out in a vast and rigorous evidence base. It is a mature field today compared to Bruner’s time.

Thirdly, the student achievement data showing the positive effects of explicit instruction, and the detrimental effects of inquiry learning. McKinsey & Company analysed the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results for 15-year-olds from 2015, setting out their findings in a 2017 report, showing the superior effect of explicit teaching. This is a crucial report which, again, parents, teachers and politicians concerned with schools should read.

The successful school systems in the Oceania region, of which Australia and New Zealand are part, are those Asian systems that deliver teacher-led instruction in “most to all lessons” and inquiry-based lessons in “some to many lessons”. 

This conflict is about effective pedagogy: how best to teach our school students.

With the Gonski funding wars over, we are left with no resolution of this more important conflict. The two Gonski inquiries studiously avoided teaching, but money was never going to solve the Australian schools crisis by itself. Avoiding teaching and maintaining an agnostic approach was never going to be a satisfactory basis for national policy. Not if you want Australian schooling to get out of its decline.

Effective teaching is still the standoff. It’s the thing that is mistaught or is failed to be taught in initial teacher education. 

Of the 450 teaching degrees in Australia (Singapore, which far outperforms Australia, has three degrees), few of them teach explicit instruction. 

It’s the thing that is not part of most professional development programs which school systems provide to teachers after they have graduated and are practising in schools. What is provided is usually the opposite of teacher-directed pedagogy. 

A vast network of education academics and administrators are committed to the approaches which John Sweller is saying don’t work. So what is to be done when schools follow a fallacious approach to student learning? 

Some readers will assume that my arguments for direct and explicit instruction arise from my concern for Indigenous learners. They are my starting point, as it is Indigenous and disadvantaged learners generally who have most suffered from the folly of inquiry learning in Australian education. 

The proponents of progressive pedagogy, which inquiry learning is assumed to represent, talk big about social justice, but their longstanding ideological commitment to schools policies that have no foundation in either student outcome data or in cognitive science is the very definition of social injustice. And it is the underclass who have suffered from their so-called social justice. 

But it goes beyond disadvantaged students and schools. As Sweller writes, his paper “suggests a causal relation between the emphasis on inquiry learning and reduced academic performance”. 

Sweller’s insights apply to all learners, the disadvantaged and the advantaged. 

Indeed, the second Gonski inquiry talked about the great number of so-called “coasting schools” that sit in the middle of the bell curve of Australian schools performance – the couple of thousand and more schools that are Fair but need to become Good, or are perennially Good but need to become Great. But they never make the performance shift. 

Too many of these schools are satisfied with where they are at. There is no urgency to transform outcomes for their students. Enough of them go on to succeed in high school and university. But about a quarter of them never become proficient in reading and will have different trajectories in later education and (un)employment. Too many of them have their potential unfulfilled. 

Many of these schools are trying hard to improve but can’t seem to shift the dial. It is the parents, teachers and political leaders concerned with these schools who need to read Sweller and have a good hard think. They are the ones who need to then face the question I raised earlier: what is to be done when schools follow a fallacious approach to student learning? 

Education Minister Alan Tudge has established an important goal for Australian schools for the next 10 years: to make a performance shift across the entire bell curve of Australian schools performance. To shift the entire distribution to the right, so that we eradicate all the Poor schools and get them to Fair. We shift our Fair schools to Good. We shift our Good schools to Great. And we shift our Great schools to Excellent. 

Tudge is investing in explicit instruction, particularly in Indigenous schools. The challenge that Sweller’s paper raises is the need for the turn from inquiry learning to teacher-led instruction to take place across the full spectrum of Australian schools. 

My day job involves me in working with educators in designing and producing curriculum resources to support teachers and students in schools that are committed to teaching explicit instruction. Let me share three observations from this work.

Firstly, the way in which subject requirements are spelt out in the Australian Curriculum strongly predisposes teaching to take the form of inquiry learning, rather than teacher-led instruction. Inquiry learning is the unwritten, default pedagogy. Although the curriculum is agnostic about pedagogy, the way in which the standards and requirements are set out strongly preferences inquiry learning. 

Secondly, in the teaching of science most science curricula assume that inquiry learning is the best way to teach science because it superficially mimics the way scientists carry out research and build knowledge through the scientific method. But scientific inquiry and inquiry learning are two entirely different things. To conflate the two things, as too many educators do (including scientists who are trying their hand at science education), is a bad mistake. Science learning too needs to be explicitly taught and not simply discovered by novice learners. 

Thirdly, there is a role for student direction in learning. The PISA report by McKinsey, referred to earlier, points to successful systems using inquiry in a minority of the lessons. John Hattie has pointed out that the timing and staging of different teaching strategies is the key. 

We should heed Sweller’s account of the strong efficacy of worked problems. Rather than leaving kids to figure it out for themselves, the teacher teaches students how to solve problems, then the teacher and students work problems together, and then the students can practice the problems themselves. Both Hattie and Sweller testify to the power of the worked problem. 

One of the salutary things I learned from Sweller’s paper is that there is no learning disadvantage when we learn how to solve problems from another human being as opposed to working out the solution for ourselves. Before this, I assumed that there may be some learning advantage attached to self-discovery, even if it was inefficient and risked mis-learning. Sweller disabuses my assumption. It is as productive to be taught by someone else how to solve a problem as it is to work it out for ourselves. And it’s way more efficient and less susceptible to mis-learning. That is why we have teachers, and why we have schools – to teach children, rather than setting up discovery adventures that lead nowhere.

Schools paper ends teaching debate once and for always