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Inquiry-Based Learning (IBL), is an idea that is both highly celebrated and highly criticized. It is both one of the most popular modern teaching concepts and most debated modern teaching concepts. That being said, IBL is often misunderstood both by its critics and its advocates. As popular as IBL is, it is often conflated together with a whole host of other ideas. IBL is also sometimes viewed more as a philosophical branch of teaching, rather than a specific concept. However, that being said, IBL does have a specific meaning and before we move further into the article we should both define what IBL is and its many associated teaching factors, for the sake of complete clarity. 

Inquiry-Based Learning is a pedagogy focused on the idea of students learning independently, not directly from a teacher. This can be contrasted to Direct Instruction, which at its core is the most fundamental and basic pedagogy. Direct instruction occurs when a teacher directly explains something to a student. For example, if you asked a student to go research Pythagorean Theorem, that would be IBL based instruction, whereas if you explicitly explained to a student the Pythagorean Theorem, that would be Direct Instruction. 

Now IBL is often actually linked to several other concepts; that are, however, separate factors and ideas that should not be wholly linked. For example, Problem Based Learning (PBL) is often linked to inquiry-based learning, as if the two ideas were synonymous; however, PBL is actually a specific type of IBL. To put it more simply, PBL is inherently a form of IBL, but IBL is not inherently a form of PBL. Problem Based Learning is an idea that actually originated from medical schools and it is the pedagogy wherein the teacher gives the students a large complicated problem to solve, with the hopes of the students learning. Typically in medical schools, this is done by giving students hypothetical medical problems to work through as a team. Whereas, in elementary schools, PBL is usually done through situational math problems. 

IBL is also often linked to the concept of Discover Based Learning (DBL). Discovery-Based Learning often has two different connotations. The first and likely more popular version of the idea is that teachers should teach by creating situations, in which students might accidentally learn something without realizing it. This idea is very popular in lower primary education. An example of DBL, within this first contextual understanding, would be to give students a water station in a Kindergarten class, with the hope that the students learn something about the basic fundamental physics of water. A secondary understanding of DBL comes from the free school movement, which sees teacher-centered learning as inherently stifling, and authoritarian. The Free School movement or “Unschooling” movement thinks all learning should be primarily self-directed and independently discovery-based. To put these two concepts in contrasting terms, traditional DBL advocates would argue that DBL should be a carefully orchestrated event, whereas Free School Movement DBL advocates would argue that all learning should be DBL.

In many ways, we can see all of these terms on a spectrum, of being more or Less Teacher Driven (LTD. As illustrated below. 

Inquiry Based Learning IMG001.png

Well, some of these ideas are connected, they do have very different practical definitions and they all have different results, according to their efficacy, within the scientific literature. While IBL, PBL, and DBL are often conflated as being the same pedagogical methods, there are other less teacher-driven pedagogies that also get conflated with IBL. Teaching to learning styles, play-based learning, increasing student choice, and Conceptualists math pedagogies are often described as being indistinguishable from IBL, despite being wholly separate pedagogies. In many ways, IBL and other LTD pedagogies have been a response to traditional teaching methods. Many modern teachers have viewed more teacher-driven, traditional methods as oppressive. This has led to some advocates perhaps being slightly zealous in their promotion of LTD pedagogies. In many ways, I think LTD advocates have seen their pedagogies as being representative of an education system that reflects more democratic values. 

Advocates of IBL often will try to claim that IBL is a superior form of teaching and should be used to replace direct instruction. However, this claim does not hold up to scrutiny within the literature. While Hattie shows that studies on average put IBL as having an ES of .4 better than a control group (or as having a moderate impact size), he also puts direct instruction as having an ES of .6 better than a control group (or as having a large impact size). This in itself, seems contrary to logic as the two ideas are the polar opposites to each other. In my personal opinion IBL should be the control group for direct instruction studies and direct instruction should be the control group for IBL. However, when we consider that education studies are usually done comparing a specific pedagogical focus to no pedagogical focus this makes more sense. In fact, according to John Hattie, the ES of most education studies is .4, placing IBL as having a completely average response. When you also consider what Dylan William calls the file drawer problem, wherein researchers don’t publish studies with insignificant results, this strange paradox of direct instruction having an ES of .6 and IBL as having an ES of .4 begins to make more sense. 

When we compare direct instruction to IBL directly using Hattie’s work, we can see that direct instruction has a 30% bigger effect size than IBL. However, when we look at PBL and DBL we also see a similar trend. PBL has an ES of .26 and DBL has an ES of .21, in layman's terms, PBL has a low impact size and DBL has an even lower impact size. Ultimately, we see a very clear trend, where according to Hattie’s work the more teacher-driven a pedagogy is, the higher the ES is and inversely the less teacher-driven a pedagogy is the lower the ES is. Now, this is not to say that direct instruction is inherently better than IBL; however, in a generalized context, it clearly is. But teaching does not occur in a vacuum. Unfortunately, it has become a norm within the education industry to promote individual pedagogical interventions as catch-all cures to all educational woes. However, this is not actually a logical paradigm. When you go to your doctor, they do not prescribe the same pill to all patients, for all conditions nor should educators recommend the same intervention to all students, for all subjects. 

Research aside, if we even think about it logically for a minute, we can easily deduce different contexts where IBL and direct instruction might be better. For example, what method do you think would be better to teach students phonetic sounds, math formulas, or important facts? Inversely, what would you think would be better to teach students, independent working skills, critical thinking skills, or application skills? Personally, I like to think of some of the most specific and challenging processes; could you imagine trying to learn long division from discovery based learning, or play based learning? Obviously these types of skills are best taught through direct instruction. When we look at the literature on this topic as it breaks down according to individual subjects we start to see a clear trend where knowledge based skills are better taught through direct instruction and where other types of skills are better taught through IBL. 

Take a look at the paper labelled “The Effect of the Project-Based Learning Approach on the Academic Achievements of the Students in Science Classes in Turkey: A MetaAnalysis Study” by Mehmet Fatih Ayaz, Mikail Söylemez, written in 2015. This meta-study specifically looked at how PBL improved students' application skills in science and it had an ES of .89, making it not only a high yield strategy, but one with a higher ES than direct instruction, according to John Hattie. Or take a look at this “Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning” by Ard W. Lazonder and Ruth Harmsen done in 2016. While this study was specifically looking at the impact of guidance on IBL. It also showed a clear trend wherein application type skills had more favourable results than knowledge based ones. For example it showed an ES of .73 for inquiry skills compared to an ES of .39 for regulative skills or a high impact size for inquiry skills compared to a moderate one for regulative skills.

Interestingly, Lazonder’s meta-study also showed a slight increase of benefits for older students over younger, while they did not believe that these results were statistically significant enough to demonstrate a clear trend, the pattern held true for every age bracket. This is interesting because DAP advocates often claim that IBL should be the most used pedagogy for younger students and that direct instruction should be the most used pedagogy for older students. Personally Lazonder’s age related results make sense to me when I consider the learning skills most covered in the primary grades. There are a lot more knowledge and understanding curricular goals within the primary context, compared to higher level contexts.

This brings me to my final thoughts. Curriculum is actually naturally divided into learning goals that can be seen as best described as inquiry based and knowledge based. Indeed, the Ontario language curriculum has actually labelled a section of their curriculum as inquiry based. We tend to see foundational skills that appear in early grades are often very knowledge based, like spelling grammar, reading, and procedural math. However, as we look to later stages of the curriculum, we see more and more curriculum that is best taught through inquiry based learning methods, such as reading comprehension targets, research targets, and application targets.

When we look at individual subjects we can also see an inherent value to different pedagogical focuses. Math tends to have many complicated procedures, which require direct instruction, whereas higher levels of Language curriculum tend to have very little knowledge based curriculum targets. In my opinion high level language classes should be taught primarily through inquiry based methods. Whereas lower level math classes should be taught primarily through direct instruction. Ultimately, it is not my intention to get teachers to use more or less IBL, but rather to draw attention to the fact that there is probably no one best pedagogical method for all contexts. It is my opinion that teachers should aim to use teaching pedagogies that make sense for their specific contextual situations. 

Interested in learning more about this topic, check out our podcast on the topic:

J, Hattie. (2017).  Hattie Ranking: 252 Influences And Effect Sizes Related To Student Achievement. Visible Learning. Corwin. Retrieved from <>. 

M, Ayaz and M, Söylemez. (2015). The Effect of the Project-Based Learning Approach on the Academic Achievements of the Students in Science Classes in Turkey: A MetaAnalysis Study. Education and Science. Vol 40: Issue 178. 

A, Lazonder and R,Harmsen. (2016). Meta-Analysis of Inquiry-Based Learning: Effects of Guidance. Review of Educational Research. Vol. 86, No. 3. 

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