Despite little evidence of impact, Inquiry Learning is at the heart of New Zealand’s curriculum.

One of seven values it encourages in students, inquiry also crops up in the titles of six of the 25 ‘Effective Pedagogy’ videos on the New Zealand Curriculum website. Inquiry Learning is promoted as a pedagogy. And Teaching as Inquiry is the endorsed organising framework for teachers looking to “learn from their practice and build greater knowledge”.

Broadly, Inquiry Learning is an active, student-centered pedagogy that enables children to experience the process of knowledge creation. Part of its appeal is its capacity to engage. After all, classrooms of engrossed children are far more appealing than the alternative.

Commensurate with that, under its pages of guidance on Teaching as Inquiry, the New Zealand Curriculum website includes a whole page on Student Engagement. From here links are provided to inspirational stories and commercial tools schools can use to assess their students’ engagement.

So what, mindful of all this, is the evidence on Inquiry Learning?

In his 2009 meta-analysis of meta-analyses Visible Learning, John Hattie found that the effect size from inquiry-based methods of teaching was a very disappointing 0.31 standard deviations – far below his established cut-off of 0.4.

Because he recognised the significant gap between the perception and reality of Inquiry Learning, Hattie even made a useful two-minute minute video exploring why this might be.

Ultimately, as Hattie explains, this gap exists because engagement is a very poor proxy for learning.

While engagement or lack thereof may be easy to observe in a lesson, just because children are engaged in something does not necessarily mean they are learning. And even when they are learning something, they may not be learning what we wanted them to learn.

An example of the pitfalls of using engagement as a proxy for learning comes from my own experience of school Religious Education (RE). During one ‘memorable’ lesson, we learned to make plaited bread. Although I enjoyed the activity very much, and was probably highly engaged throughout, to this day I’m ashamed to say that I have no recollection of the symbolism of the bread, or anything of its relevance to Jews. Of course I learned something – that it was plaited, and of relevance to Jews – but how much more might I have retained if the two hours devoted to kneading, proving, plaiting, baking and eating had been used instead for activities that engaged me in recalling and retelling the meaning.

Accord to cognitive psychologist Dan Willingham, memory is the residue of thought. This means that students remember what they spend a lot of time thinking about. Had I been asked to write an essay about the bread’s symbolism and relevance to Jews, and then been quizzed on it at regular, optimally spaced occasions after that, then cognitive science tells us I would have stood a better chance of remembering it.

At this point, I suspect that some readers will be feeling disappointed at my failure to recognise that this lesson in bread-plaiting was in fact a wonderful example of my teachers’ ingenious cross-curricula thinking; enabling my peers and me to learn about religion, and home baking at the same time.

But evidence that this is the best way to ensure children learn, let alone to sequence content, simply does not exist. In fact, it flies in the face of a founding insight from cognitive science, which is that we have limited working memories, quickly overwhelmed by new information.

The fact is that throughout that bread-making episode, I was not thinking about the relevance or symbolism of plaited bread. Instead I was thinking about how wonky my plait was compared with my partner’s, how vexing it was to have to share one sink with seven others, and the likelihood of the teacher making us do any more RE before granting permission to eat.

How much more might I now know about Judaism, the Judeo-Christian story and the history of civilisation if my RE teacher had stuck to her brief? What if she had believed in the value of her subject, in mine and my peers’ capacity to control ourselves long enough to connect with emancipatory knowledge, and in her capacity to teach so that we did?

The problem with prioritising engagement is that it leads teachers to select content and pedagogies because they think children will find them interesting, rather than because they are the mentally challenging activities that will ensure children learn powerful knowledge.

And sadly, once teachers are seduced by the proxy of engagement, they implicitly introduce children to a spiral of low expectations. Students are temporarily won over with content and activities selected to engage them. This then teaches them to expect school to be engaging, rather than their being expected to engage with demanding content and strenuous mental activities in school. After this the task of finding content and activities that engage students becomes progressively harder. And whether a teacher is fun and engaging begins to matter more than their knowledge, or commitment to passing it on.

Added to this, and most devastating of all, selecting content based on how it might engage rather than emancipate ensures that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the least likely to encounter the knowledge and teaching that will help them catch up with their peers.

And finally, in case you are still convinced that cross-curricular activities are better than focused subject teaching, in what school should bread-making skills trump essay writing as an objective of RE?

Pitching student engagement against the teaching of powerful knowledge sets up a zero-sum game. First and foremost, school should be about teaching children the best that has been thought and said, not skills learned at home or in work. As adults, we must be confident in our capacity to engage children in that which is most important, and not shirk this responsibility behind the proxy of student engagement.

As Hattie explains in his video “Sometimes, work is just hard”.


  1. From the title, I was expecting an opinion piece on inquiry learning. The episode you described was just a fun engaging activity, but where is the connection to inquiry based learning methodology other than a ‘fun and engaging’ hands-on experience?

    Hattie’s findings are a very old debate. I was hoping for some new ideas to add to the corpus of understanding of when and how inquiry based learning can, or cannot, be of benefit. There have been many discussions on why Hattie’s findings may have yielded such a low 0.31 standard deviation (e.g. The studies used were very old. This detailed piece has more details on the counter argument:

    You describe ‘fun’ engagement as the foundation of inquiry-based learning like some sprinkle of magic pixie dust. I would argue that what we aim for through inquiry-based learning is engagement through critical understanding: being able to engage with the many parts of a whole (content knowledge) and then apply this knowledge in a purposeful and critical way. Yes, deep learning is hard, but rote learning is also hard. I’ve also found making bread pretty hard.

    Designing learning with appropriate cognitive load is the challenge for any learning situation, and robust inquiry learning is not an easy thing to design. Sometimes students need to know the content. Sometimes they need to develop Key Competencies. Sometimes they need to be able to understand where the content fits by making connections in a different context, which is where your bread making experience did not take you to and where a robust inquiry would have done. Sometimes they can even use all of that learning to apply it, creating a deeper understanding and critically justifying it.

    Undoubtedly, we can use the latest research on cognitive load theory to better improve learning design, whether through a direct teaching or inquiry based approach (I do, including spaced or interleaving practice). There are always new ways to improve any teaching practice with current cognitive research, so perhaps we could grow the discussion of how we can continue to improve and refine inquiry-based or PBL approaches instead of dismissing them out of hand.

  2. Thank you for your comments. My piece is written to create conversation so I welcome your thoughtful feedback and challenge. I don’t however agree that because something is old it does not have value or relevance today.
    Hattie explains that the gap between rhetoric and reality around inquiry learning exists because engagement is such a poor proxy for learning. As such I selected the bread-making episode to bring to life the problem with prioritising engagement.
    I agree that we want to generate engagement through critical understanding. The idea that some teachers might simply want to fill a child with rote-learned facts, without improving their understanding, is a straw man.
    But there is a reason that most university lecture halls, PD sessions, village hall meetings and classrooms throughout the world have an expert at the front talking to the students. This is because it’s the best method we humans have come up with to pass on knowledge and understanding.
    We would not buy an Education technology innovation from a company unless they had demonstrated robustly that it generates greater learning outcomes for pupils than the present alternative. In the same way, why would we replace more traditional approaches with Inquiry Learning, without this same requirement for evidence? Surely the burden of evidence for any deviation from what we know works, should lie with its proponents?

  3. I agree we shouldn’t replace traditional approaches with Inquiry Learning if we want to produce university lecturers. But why would we want that? More bricks in the wall? Why should generation after generation of non-academic students have to fit into the social experiment that is compulsory centralised education. The university lecturer (wannabe secondary school lecturers) outcome focussed model is broken. People are waking up.

  4. Many of us spend our adult lives working hard, and many of those at tasks they do not engage with just to survive. Enforced hard work is not a virtue, but rather for many an imposition. In fact I’d go further and say that for many hard work is slavery ie many working hard so that a few do not have to do the same! You seem to imply as does Hattie that the teacher or the system knows best what we should be learning however, beyond making sure we are developing good literacy and numeracy skills to enhance access to learning and life, learning is entirely about engagement. Engaged learners don’t languish, and further more the notion of life long learners is hugely important. Certainly in my own path through live the ability to learn new and challenging skills has been critical and facilitated by engagement alone, and yes some hard work, but in context was inquiry learning absolutely.


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