PISA 2016 and 'enquiry-based teaching' in science
There is good reason why this blog has never before discussed inquiry in science education. The inquiry processes in science and maths are completely different: science develops and adapts hypotheses based on experimental results; mathematical inquiry involves generalisation (based on pattern spotting or structural analysis) and proof by deductive reasoning.
However, the PISA 
2016 volume dedicated to science teaching, published this week, has been received as confirmation of the superiority of ‘teacher-directed’ over ‘enquiry-based’ lessons. Traditional teaching practices, it is claimed, produce better test performance. The evidence seems compelling. As the report says, “In all but three education systems ... using teacher-directed instruction more frequently is associated with higher science achievement” (p. 65).
However, the report also says that teacher-directed instruction is used much more frequently than enquiry. Might it be the higher frequency, rather than the superiority of the practice itself, which accounts for the association with test performance?
Let’s look at teacher-directed practices first. PISA identified four characteristics of traditional teaching and asked students to report how often they featured in their lessons. I have grouped the four possible responses into two, combining ‘many lessons’ with ‘every lesson or almost every lesson’ and ‘some lessons’ with ‘never or almost never’.

As Figure II.2.14 (below) shows, the frequencies with which the four practices occur are mirrored exactly by their position in the ranking of 'score-point difference'. For example, 'the teacher explains scientific ideas' occurs most frequently and is associated with the highest positive score-point difference; 'a whole class discussion' occurs least frequently and is associated with the only negative score-point difference.
We turn now to PISA’s curious characterisation of ‘enquiry-based instruction’. While the most frequent feature ('students explain ideas') is perhaps more applicable to enquiry than teacher-directed lessons, the next two ('teacher explains') might just as easily occur in teacher-directed lessons. Confusingly, PISA offered students four different responses this time. Again I have grouped them into two, combining ‘all’ with ‘most’ lessons and ‘some’ lessons with ‘never or hardly ever’.
The features that might be described exclusively as enquiry (that is, those linked to experimentation and investigation) occur, in the main, far less frequently than the other categories. Once again, however, there is a very close correspondence between frequency and score-point difference (see Figure II.2.20 below).
What conclusion should we draw from this? The dominant narrative this week is that teacher-directed practices are superior to enquiry because they lead to higher test performance. However, we could just as easily say that the most frequently used teaching practices (regardless of the specific type) lead to higher test scores. Two questions follow from this: Why do science teachers employ traditional techniques more frequently? And why do they use enquiry-based techniques much less frequently?

The PISA report gives answers to the first question: teacher-directed techniques are less time-consuming and easier to implement. In answer to the second question, a survey of European science and maths teachers showed a negative correlation between ‘systems restrictions’ and ‘routine use’ of inquiry-based learning (IBL) – that is, the more restrictions, the lower the use. The restrictions included:
  • The curriculum does not encourage IBL
  • There is not enough time in the curriculum
  • My students have to take assessments that don’t reward IBL.
Thus, on the one hand, teachers are under pressure to get through a curriculum that discourages inquiry processes and, on the other hand, students face assessments (such as PISA tests) that do not reward IBL. That teachers use inquiry less frequently means they, as a professional body, are less experienced in its use. Similarly, students are less skilled in inquiry processes to take full advantage of the potential for learning they offer. We could surmise that traditional practices get results (measured by test performance) because both teachers and students are more accustomed to them.
The message to be taken from PISA 2016 is that the teaching practices used most frequently in classes are associated with higher test results and those methods are used because of restrictions imposed by curricula and assessments. The PISA review of science teaching says very little about the relative merits of teaching practices and far more about how authorities define and measure learning.

Andrew Blair
December 11, 2016