Direct instruction and inquiry…thoughts on starting at a new school

Starting teaching at a new school (inevitably) has its challenges. New systems, new colleagues, new parents and a different context all combine to produce an intense and challenging first couple of weeks.
My previous role was teaching mathematics in a state school in inner-city Manchester- a world away from my new position at a prestigious fee-paying international school in Kuala Lumpur. One particular challenge that I have encountered during the first few weeks is in adjusting my classroom ‘style’.
The students I taught in Manchester were, by and large, incredibly positive, motivated and hardworking. However, due to a range of factors, I found that the students responded best to a fairly traditional and heavily disciplinarian style of teaching. I have always been keen to embrace best practice from colleagues both in my school and across social media in terms of pedagogy and assessment, but this has until now been coupled with a fairly ‘old-school’ approach to behaviour and discipline. Students would line up in silence before entering the class, would wait silently behind their chair before being allowed to sit down and would be expected to work for periods of time each lesson completely individually in silence.
A range of strategies to encourage collaboration and communication between students were of course used (the latter being particularly important due to the exceptionally high number of EAL students at the school). In particular cooperative approaches were used in problem-solving activities which I increasingly used with Key Stage 3 classes in order to best prepare students for the new style GCSEs. Students were also never spoonfed and were encouraged to persevere on difficult problems, find their own solutions and make their own mistakes. However, the metaphorical leash was firmly kept on students at all times. In order to maximise mathematical learning gains, I created and sustained an environment in which me as the teacher exercised considerable influence and control over all aspects of the class at all times and students had relatively limited control over the macro-direction of their learning.

John Hattie’s oft-quoted work Visible Learning appears at first glance to vindicate this approach. High quality ‘direct instruction’ (NB this is distinct from didacticism) in which the teacher specifies the learning outcomes, engages students, models, checks for understanding and provides opportunities for both guided and independent practice has an effect size of 0.59. This was very much the aim back in Manchester and was predicated on my complete control of the classroom environment at all times. Inquiry-based teaching, in which students pose their own problems, ask their own questions, observe phenomena, form and test hypotheses and and have far more influence over the direction of their learning than under direct instruction has a much lower effect size- 0.31. Without going into the nuts and bolts of Hattie’s meta-analysis it is worth noting anything above 0.4 is considered effective whilst a negative effect size has a regressive impact upon a student’s learning.

My initial impressions of my new workplace is that ‘inquiry’ within the classroom plays more of a role than I have yet encountered in my (fairly short) career. That is not to say that in each and every lesson students are completely independent inquiriers, exercising ultimate control over the direction that their learning takes. Far from it. Rather, it is just the case that there is more inquiry-based learning taking place and more discussion of inquiry than I have been exposed to until now.
Two questions about this have been occupying my reflections on this. Firstly, what are the merits of an inquiry-based approach to learning given that Hattie’s meta-analysis suggests its impact is limited? Secondly, how can I adapt my current practice to allow students to benefit from the positive aspects of inquiry-based learning?

A few initial thoughts about Hattie’s findings regarding inquiry (a full critique of inquiry-based teaching is far too broad a topic for a Friday afternoon):

  • Most teacher training courses that I am aware of tend to develop a ‘direct-instruction’ approach to teaching. Coupled with the fact that it is reasonable to assume that there exists a pedagogy specific to inquiry-based teaching, direct instruction is likely to have a greater impact than inquiry-based approaches simply because more teachers are better at it, rather than it being an inherently better approach.
  • Some topics and subjects are better taught in different ways. Indeed Hattie suggested that pre-teaching core content in order that inquiry can be focused more on process will enhance the effectiveness of any inquiry. Learning times-tables through an inquiry-based approach for instance would not perhaps be the best way for students to learn.
  • Inquiry may or may not lead to subject-based learning taking place at as quick a rate but it is reasonable to assume that the transferrable skills developed are greater than those developed through an approach focused primarily on developing mathematical learning.

So to what extent will my classroom practice be influenced by a more inquiry-based (and some would say progressive) approach to teaching?

Firstly, it will be a useful personal reminder for me to avoid one of my own flaws as a teacher: the tendency to talk too much. ‘Chalk and talk’ isn’t what Hattie meant by direct instruction. Knowing the premium that many around me place upon inquiry-based education and that the students I am teaching are used to this approach will help remind me to reduce this aspect of my teaching.

Secondly, it will encourage me to leave my comfort zone, something which can only be a good thing. I frequently remind my students that they should find the work ‘slightly too difficult’ as that means that they are learning. I see no reason as to why this shouldn’t apply to my teaching. Having been trained and indeed immersed in a system in which ‘direct instruction’ is at a premium, any initial foray into inquiry based approaches will likely be met with limited success. By persevering and developing this part of my teaching, at worst I will have another ‘string to my bow’, whilst at best I will have found a new and exciting way of engaging students in Mathematics and encouraging them to excel.

Thirdly, it will encourage me to think about what I want the students that I teach to be good at (examinations aside). I want students who are being taught by me to develop into good mathematicians and good people. The inquiry approach can certainly play a role in the latter through the development of excellent social and interpersonal skills and it seems reasonable to suggest that there is more scope for doing this through inquiry than direct instruction. But what about the former?

I tentatively (and perhaps rather boringly) contend that a combination of both approaches is likely to result in the best mathematicians. A good grasp of mathematical methods is vital for a mathematician and instinctively I feel that amongst most students that I teach, this is best achieved by direct instruction. However, effective mathematicians look for their own patterns, ask their own questions, and pursue their own routes of learning. This is something that is not just developed by inquiry, this is inquiry.

I currently believe that the more able students that I teach will be more able to benefit from a greater number of inquiry-based lessons than the less able ones. Maybe this is because of I have less confidence in my ability to provide scaffolding and support for inquiry-based approaches at the lower end or perhaps because some of the students that I teach lack the requisite skills to gain as much from an inquiry lesson as from direct instruction.

One thing is for certain- I won’t be stopping old fashioned regular ‘rolling numbers’ style practise of multiplication tables anytime soon!

Any comments, thoughts or criticisms welcome either below or on Twitter @NWMaths


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