PISA 2016 and 'enquiry-based teaching' in science
There is good reason why this blog has never before discussed inquiry in science education. The inquiry processes in science and maths are completely different: science develops and adapts hypotheses based on experimental results; mathematical inquiry involves generalisation (based on pattern spotting or structural analysis) and proof by deductive reasoning.
However, the PISA 2016 volume dedicated to science teaching, published this week, has been received as confirmation of the superiority of ‘teacher-directed’ over ‘enquiry-based’ lessons. Traditional teaching practices, it is claimed, produce better test performance. The evidence seems compelling. As the report says, “In all but three education systems ... using teacher-directed instruction more frequently is associated with higher science achievement” (p. 65).
However, the report also says that teacher-directed instruction is used much more frequently than enquiry. Might it be the higher frequency, rather than the superiority of the practice itself, which accounts for the association with test performance?
Let’s look at teacher-directed practices first. PISA identified four characteristics of traditional teaching and asked students to report how often they featured in their lessons. I have grouped the four possible responses into two, combining ‘many lessons’ with ‘every lesson or almost every lesson’ and ‘some lessons’ with ‘never or almost never’.
As Figure II.2.14 (below) shows, the frequencies with which the four practices occur are mirrored exactly by their position in the ranking of 'score-point difference'. For example, 'the teacher explains scientific ideas' occurs most frequently and is associated with the highest positive score-point difference; 'a whole class discussion' occurs least frequently and is associated with the only negative score-point difference.
see Figure II.2.20 below).
The PISA report gives answers to the first question: teacher-directed techniques are less time-consuming and easier to implement. In answer to the second question, a survey of European science and maths teachers showed a negative correlation between ‘systems restrictions’ and ‘routine use’ of inquiry-based learning (IBL) – that is, the more restrictions, the lower the use. The restrictions included:
The message to be taken from PISA 2016 is that the teaching practices used most frequently in classes are associated with higher test results and those methods are used because of restrictions imposed by curricula and assessments. The PISA review of science teaching says very little about the relative merits of teaching practices and far more about how authorities define and measure learning.
December 11, 2016
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