Enquiry Learning is a Hot Issue

Since the summer, I have been in a friendly argument with colleagues from the world of primary science – especially those colleagues committed to enquiry learning. The prevailing (but not universal) view is that primary science is best taught with a strong element of enquiry learning. My own view has moderated – I initially thought we’d be best off binning enquiry totally – but now I think enquiry has a minor, but important role. Actually, I have come round to Denoël et al’s view:

“the more teacher-directed instruction there is, the better it supports inquiry-based teaching.”

Denoël et al (2017) Drivers of student performance: Insights from Europe

So, yes, I think the ability to learn from enquiry should be one of our outcome aims from science education (alongside problem solving and disciplinary literacy) – but enquiry learning is not the best route to enquiry learning. In fact, it is a pretty inefficient route which leaves many pupils behind.

But I don’t think I’m convincing anyone. You can’t cause conceptual change by simply presenting data. Back in 1982, Posner and colleagues identified four conditions necessary for conceptual change:

  • There must be dissatisfaction with existing conceptions;
  • A new conceptions must be intelligible;
  • A new conception must appear initially plausible and
  • A new concept should suggest the possibility of a fruitful research programme.

(Kenneth A. Strike & George J. Posner (1982) Conceptual change and science teaching, European Journal of Science Education, 4:3, 231-240, DOI: 10.1080/0140528820040302)

None of these conditions should pose obstacles to conceptual change. It is all too rational. In 1993, Pintrick, Marx and Boyle discussed the limitations of this “cold” conceptual change model, because it doesn’t address individual beliefs or the role of the individual within the community. The authors described their model as “hot conceptual change” (link to paper here).

Enquiry Learning is a ‘Hot’ Issue

I find the language of enquiry learning relevant here – especially when compared to the language of instruction.

Enquiry Learning Teacher Instruction
Child centredTeacher centred
ExploreTeacher directed
Rich authentic tasksGuided practice
CreativeIndependent practice
The language of enquiry compared to the language of instruction.

Am I asking colleagues who see themselves as child-centred and who value creativity and authenticity to abandon this in favour of a mechanical-sounding, teacher-centred Gradgrindian approach? That is a hard sell!

The community of primary science is centred around a core belief in enquiry learning. Do I want to convince colleagues who are successful and well established to challenge their community’s core beliefs? Yes I do!

I think this argument is worth continuing (and worth winning) because of the data in the table below. Primary science in this country is not working. Something needs to change.

The State of Primary Science in England

Characteristic% receiving expected standard (Reading, Writing and Maths) 2018% receiving expected standard in science (estimated) 2018
All Pupils6521
2018 KS2 outcomes for RWM and for Science (from the STA sampling exercise).

Key stage 2 science sampling 2018: methodology note and outcomes



After posting this yesterday, I’d like to clarify that the primary community has engaged with me in a very generous and open way. I’ve been invited to share my views on various forums and have been listened to. If anything, I’m concerned that I have not listened well in return. I intend to put this right over the next couple of months.


I am not directly implying that enquiry is the cause of the worrying KS2 performance found by the STA. My intended point is that this data suggests something is seriously wrong. Perhaps the STA assessments are asking the wrong questions; perhaps there is something wrong with the primary science curriculum or perhaps it’s the way we are teaching science at primary. I think understanding these results should be much high on the primary science agenda.

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