New insights on factors that play a critical role in student achievement, from McKinsey, reveal that students who receive a blend of teacher-directed and inquiry-based instruction have the best outcomes.
Which approach accelerates achievement best: teacher-led learning or the inquiry-based approach? This question has been a universal talking point for pedagogists and teaching professionals since the 1960s, when the ‘discovery learning’ school of thought was established in response to more traditional forms of instruction involving methods like ‘learning by rote’.
Summarising the two approaches
Shaped and supported by leading educational theorists and psychologists Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner and Seymour Papert, inquiry-based learning aims to give students more autonomy over their study by allowing them to form their own hypotheses or experiments individually or as part of a group. In his exploration of inquiry-based learning, Bruner argues:
“Practice in discovering for oneself teaches one to acquire information in a way that makes that information more readily viable in problem-solving"
- (Bruner, 1961, p.26)
While viewed by some as a more ‘archaic’ approach, teacher-directed learning (TDL) is an effective practice and continues to dominate lecture halls across the globe to this day. In her book Essentials of Educational Psychology: Big Ideas to Guide Effective Teaching, Jeanne Ormrod describes TDL as “an approach to instruction in which the teacher is largely in control of the content and course of the lesson” and a method that utilises expository instruction where the “information is presented in essentially the same form that students are expected to learn it” (Ormrod 284-291)
The pros and cons in a higher education context
There are huge benefits to both practices; however, they can have a negative impact on learning if used exclusively, not least of all because different people are more responsive to different teaching styles, and some approaches are more suited to certain topics or tasks than others.
Cultivates an orderly working environment and is conducive to independent study and focused work
Refines students’ ability to summarise and take notes effectively
As this approach tends to be content-led, gaps in knowledge can be filled quickly
Students develop stronger research skills and take responsibility for their own progress
Understanding of the topic is deepened and broadened through the practising of evidence-based reasoning
Builds resilience as students must use creative problem solving to overcome academic hurdles
The solution: combine both approaches
Global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company have published a report that identifies the key factors that play a critical role in student success by applying advanced analytics and machine learning to the data set. The data comes from the program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The findings account for over half a million students across 72 countries around the world.
Separate reports were published for the following regions: Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America, Middle East & North Africa and North America.
On the surface, it seems scores were highest in all five locations when teacher-directed learning was at the forefront of teaching practice, however, when delving deeper into the findings, it becomes clear that a blended approach is more effective:
“...what works best is when the two styles work together—specifically, with teacher-directed instruction in most or almost all classes, and inquiry-based learning in some. This ‘sweet spot’ is the same in all five regions, suggesting there is something akin to a universal learning style.”
- McKinsey & Company Report
This exhibit reveals that what changes across regions is the expected benefit from moving to the ‘sweet spot’ from an exclusively teacher-directed style. The report explains that, “in developed school systems with strong performance on PISA overall, there is substantial benefit (for example, an increase of 14 PISA points in the EU). In developing school systems with weaker performance, the benefit is much smaller, and these systems may be better off initially focusing on consistent quality teacher-directed instruction.”
The report also suggests that its only when students are exposed to enough content through teacher-led classes that they can reap the benefits of inquiry-based learning thereafter.
Excerpts from the report’s location summaries
The following excerpts outline which approach increases outcomes in each key area and in which context.
“Student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most or almost all classes, with inquiry-based learning in some classes. If all students experienced this blend, average PISA scores in Latin America would rise 19 PISA points, equivalent to over half a school year of learning.”
“Student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most or almost all classes, with inquiry-based learning in some. If all students experienced this blend, average PISA scores would rise by 3.8 percent in high-performing Asia, 3.4 percent in Oceania, and 1.2 percent in Developing Asia. For high-performing Asia and Oceania, this is equivalent to approximately half a year of schooling.”
“Student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most to all classes and inquiry-based teaching in some classes. If all students experienced this blend of instruction, average PISA scores in Europe would be 3.7 to 4.2 percent (or 19 PISA points) higher, equivalent to more than half a school year of learning. Currently over half of European students are receiving too little teacher-directed instruction.”
Middle East & North Africa
“Our research found that student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most or almost all classes, with inquiry-based teaching in some classes. If all students experienced this blend, average PISA scores in the six MENA countries would rise 14 PISA points, equivalent to half a school year of learning.”
“Student outcomes are highest with a combination of teacher-directed instruction in most-to-all classes and inquiry-based teaching in some classes (Exhibit 2). If all students experienced this rebalanced blend of instruction weighted in favor of teacher-led instruction, average PISA scores in North America would be 4.4 percent (or 22 PISA points) higher, equivalent to more than half a school year of learning. Currently almost half of North American students are receiving too little teacher-directed instruction.”
Are you a higher education professional who has experience of teacher-directed and inquiry-based learning? Or are you studying either as part of a pedagogical project? We’d love to hear your thoughts and approaches! Tell us on Twitter @fullfabric