Enquiry Teaching in Primary Science

There is a evidence showing that encouraging pupils to design, carry out, analyse and evaluate their own investigations leads to worse learning outcomes than when a teacher breaks down learning into a series of small chunks, teaches, models, checks for understanding and provides practice opportunities to pupils (e.g. here). Yet, enquiry teaching remains popular in many primary classrooms. 

Willingham’s model of learning (here) helps us see why unguided learning is confusing for pupils. An enquiry is always a complex learning environment. Pupils have to do some or all of the following:

  • Choose or come up with an enquiry question.
  • Design a practical method for testing the question. 
  • Work with peers to carry out the investigation.
  • Analyse data.
  • Develop a conclusion.
  • Evaluate the investigation.

All of this often with inadequate understanding of the phenomena under investigation as well as an inadequate understanding of the scientific method. 

Any three of these is sufficient to overwhelm working memory and hinder learning. 

A representation of unguided enquiry

Compare this situation to a teacher led sequence of instruction. 

A representation of guided instruction

The teacher carefully manages the amount of novel information the pupil needs in working memory to maximise learning. 

This is why I favour direct teacher instruction over unguided enquiry. However, I think a case can be made for guided enquiry. 

A representation of guided enquiry

In guided enquiry, the teacher carefully manages each step to guide pupils to carry out an investigation, checking for understanding and reflecting on the intended learning outcomes. I still think this method is likely less efficient for learning, but it does model the scientific process. We use it at Paradigm at planned points within the curriculum. We make sure that teachers are well prepared – they need to understand both the science underpinning the phenomenon as well as the scientific method underpinning the investigation. Teachers also practise the practical techniques required. We make sure teachers are aware of the likely misconceptions pupils may develop as a result of the investigation and how to start addressing them. Guided enquiry is probably the most challenging method of teaching. 

Ben

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