Where Does Enquiry Belong?

Short answer: in science lessons, use enquiry once pupils already know the content. 

You might ask: Why use a pedagogical approach after the content has already been learnt? 

My answer: Enquiry makes that learning richer. By applying the knowledge and testing their understanding, pupils are deepening their knowledge. 

You might ask: if enquiry can do that, why not use it earlier on in the learning? 

My answer: Enquiry is a complex task. You are asking pupils to manage a process involving abstract ideas in novel contexts. It is too much for most pupils. Guiding pupils through the steps of the enquiry can help: pupils feel safe and lesson outcomes look good…. but they retain less than if they were taught the same content explicitly. 

You might ask: Is there any evidence to back this up?

My answer: There is a body of research which explores how novices (your pupils) manage new knowledge in complex situations: cognitive load theory (CLT). The power of this theory is that it can make testable predictions. We can have confidence that the model tells us something important and true about novice learners. CLT has taught us the following:

  • Our working memories can only manage two or three novel ideas at once. More than that and new learning does not take place.
  • Reducing the complexity of the task (while maintaining the complexity of the learning) improves learning of novel content.

And importantly:

  • As learners become experts, the complexity of the task can be increased.

In other words: use enquiry once pupils already know the content. 

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