Challenges to inquiry-based teaching

Knowledge necessary for participation in democratic society. Inquiry-based learning emphasizes having the learner to pursue investigations based on the immediate situation and personal experience. What is the guarantee that essential knowledge will be developed during the inquiry? This is especially the case for knowledge necessary to participate fully in a democratic society (Hirsch, 2006).

Workplace skills. A related point: What assurance do we have that inquiry-based learning will lead to the development of necessary workplace skills? Do we really want to rely on a doctor who investigated phenomena based on his/her own interests of the moment?

Cultural mismatch. Inquiry-based learning may work for some learners, but others, especially those from marginalized groups need access to the societal codes for knowledge in a more direct fashion (Delpit, 2006).

Excessive individualization. Doesn’t inquiry-based learning rely too much on the individual learner? In so doing, doesn’t it magnify the already overly individual and selfish tendencies of modern life? Doesn’t that mitigate against the development of social responsibility?

Lack of experiences to draw upon. If learning has to draw on, build on, and be relevant to a learner’s previous experiences, what happens when those experiences are limited? Does everything have to be based on what you already know? If so, how is new learning even possible?

The importance of experiences implies that we find ways to incorporate richer experiences into learning. Dewey argues for making learning social-centered, rather than just child-centered. A related approach is to ask learners to critically engage with books, websites, and ideas that extend their world. Yet another is to expand direct experiences through field trips, service learning, nature study, or challenging problems.

The inquiry-based learning claim is not that it’s a guaranteed method to ensure learning, but that learning based on restricted experiences will be limited, no matter what you do. Yet each of the means just suggested for enlarging experiences has its own problems and none are guaranteed to work.

Effectiveness for learning specific skills and knowledge. Inquiry-based learning, and other minimally guided instruction, is less effective and less efficient than instructional approaches emphasizing guidance. “The advantage of guidance begins to recede only when learners have sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide ‘internal’ guidance” (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

Cazden (1992) has made the case for  “whole language plus,” where the “whole language” refers to a more holistic, childe-centered, open-ended kind of learning, and the “plus” says that it’s wrapped around some more basic aspects of learning. For example, phonics instruction might be effective, but have even greater long-term benefits when embedded within more meaningful contexts. This “balanced” approach has been discussed in depth within the discourse on literacy instruction (Weaver, 1992), but the basic argument applies to any area of the curriculum.

Certification of skills. Learning independently as with inquiry-based learning, may work in some ways, but success in modern societies depends upon certification of skills taught through an organized procedure. It’s difficult to certify learning when it is individualized, extended, and embedded in life beyond the classroom. This is related to the argument in Cole, McDermott, &  Hood (1978), that cognitive psychology actually requires ecological invalidity in order to develop precise and replicable findings.


Cazden, C. (1992). Whole language plus: Essays on literacy in the United States and New Zealand. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cole, Michael; McDermott, Ray P.; &  Hood, Lois (1978). Ecological niche-picking: Ecological invalidity as an axiom of experimental cognitive psychology. New York: Rockefeller University, Laboratory of Comparative Cognition.

Delpit, Lisa (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom, updated edition. New Press.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (2006). Critical literacy: What every American needs to know (Series in Critical Narrative). Paradigm.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 46(2), 75-86.

Weaver, Constance (Ed.) (1998). Reconsidering a balanced approach to reading. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

3 thoughts on “Challenges to inquiry-based teaching

  1. Pingback: Inquiry | cdamero1

  2. We agree about inquiry based teaching and learning. The point of this particular page was to list the major challenges that people have raised for inquiry in education and to present each challenge in a forceful way. In other writing I’ve tried to address each of the challenges. I’m sorry if that wasn’t clear.


  3. Sadly, I feel your view of inquiry based teaching is misguided. Inquiry is at the heart of how the real world works. Outside the walls of the classroom, discoveries are made through the impetus of open ended exploration, not via prescribed modes of learning or societal norms. That said, great inquiry based teachers orchestrate lessons in which vital academic knowledge is passed on to learners, but this is done in a way in which the information is discovered by students, not dictated by the educator. In inquiry based learning, certification of knowledge is achieved through the individual accomplishment of a task. This goes beyond just knowing information to the application of the knowledge in various contexts. Inquiry has many modes, of which only one is minimally guided. I agree that inquiry must be balanced with other modes of learning to create a well rounded learner. That said, the benefits of mastering both learning and teaching using an inquiry approach can not help but enhance future outcomes because students are practicing self imposed learning routines. This, in the long run, endows the student with more than just learning skills. Through the mastery of inquiry techniques learners become in time independent of their teachers, free to pursue knowledge on their own.


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