Inquiry-based teaching in science (IBSE) has for some time been widely advocated by major international bodies due to its potential, not only to raise levels of students’ scientific knowledge and understanding, but also to help them develop skills and attitudes needed for life in the 21st century. Despite well-argued support and adoption in many countries, however, there is a lack of convincing research evidence of the positive impact of IBSE. Indeed, its effectiveness has been challenged by widely publicised findings of the Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA) 2015 survey of 15-year-olds (OECD, 2016).

The purposes of this paper are to bring together currently available research evidence and reasoned arguments for adopting inquiry-based pedagogy in science education and to identify factors that may support or inhibit the implementation of IBSE. It considers the benefits to students as individuals and to the community of which they are members – particularly to societies in need of more scientists, engineers and technologists – and draws together implications for science education policy and practice.


Section 1 concerns the meaning of inquiry, conveyed in national and international documents, where there is an abundance of titles used for different inquiry-based programmes (‘learning by doing’, ‘discovery learning’, ‘hands-on learning’ etc). The combination of knowledge and skills, that is a defining feature of the process of learning through inquiry, is illustrated using a model of inquiry-based learning. This represents visually how the use of scientific inquiry skills (predicting, hypothesising, collecting and interpreting data, drawing conclusions) leads to development of scientific knowledge and understanding.

Section 2 is also concerned with clarifying the concept of IBSE but goes beyond the formal language used in definitions of inquiry as a generic pedagogic strategy. Examples of inquiry, one from a secondary school class and one from a primary school class, are used to describe what is going on in classrooms, in terms of what students and teachers are doing and what students are learning, when IBSE is in action. It should go without saying that these examples should be seen only as an indication of how some aspects of IBSE might be put into practice. They certainly do not represent the complexity of IBSE, which will always be manifested in different ways and with different inputs from the teacher, summarised in the list of teachers’ and students’ activities in sections 2.2 and 2.4.

The first two parts of Section 3 discuss the case for inquiry-based pedagogy having a key role in science education. The aims of learning science are expressed in terms of the development of scientific literacy – a general ability to engage confidently with scientific aspects of the world, for instance in making decisions about food, exercise, use of energy and care for the environment. The scientific knowledge that this involves goes beyond familiarity with scientific facts and principles. Scientific understanding also encompasses knowledge of the skills and procedures through which content knowledge is built from evidence (procedural knowledge) and knowledge of the nature and development of scientific knowledge, including understanding that ideas and explanations may need to be revised in the light of new evidence (epistemic knowledge). Whilst content knowledge can be learned through direct transmission, what is needed for developing knowledge of procedures and the nature of science is provided by the experience of and reflection on inquiry-based experiences.

Section 3 also discusses how the benefits of scientific literacy can be made available to all students through their science education, whether or not they continue to study science beyond school. A ‘curriculum for all’, has the potential to motivate more students to continue study of science beyond school. This would go some way to mitigating concern, in both developed and developing countries, that not enough young people, particularly girls, are choosing to seek careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Section 4 addresses the question most often asked of IBSE and, indeed, of other pedagogical approaches, as to whether it ‘works’ in the sense of resulting in improvement in students’ learning. Answers to this question draw on findings from empirical research into the impact of IBSE on students’ learning, on arguments based on current understanding of how learning takes place and on what studies of the brain (neuroscience) add to reasons for learning through 2 inquiry.

The first part of Section 4 describes the procedures and findings of nine research studies of different design and focus, which report on the impact of IBSE on students’ learning. In most cases the results are inconclusive, with any changes in learning attributable to IBSE being small and subject to considerable measurement errors. Given the impact on education policy of the findings of PISA surveys, particular attention is given to the results of the 2015 PISA survey that are a challenge to advocates of inquiry-based teaching. Data from a students’ questionnaire administered as part of the 2015 PISA survey, were used to identify the extent of students’ experience of various teaching approaches. Correlations between PISA scores and students’ experience of inquiry-based or teacher-directed pedagogy resulted in a negative relationship between students’ scores on PISA tests and frequency of experience of inquiry-based teaching, and a positive relationship with teacher-directed instruction. The findings need to be critically interpreted, noting that the information on teaching concerned only quantity, not quality, of inquiry teaching and was supplied by students who are likely to have understood the questions in different ways. Pisa was not set up to compare pedagogic practices and correlational evidence does not establish causal relationships. There are many questions left unanswered by these findings, highlighting the need for more, and more appropriately designed, research to address them.

Following the empirical research studies in the first part of Section 4, the second part turns to arguments from two other fields of research that are increasing our understanding of learning and have implications for inquiry-based learning: theory of learning and neuroscience. Developing understanding through inquiry, accords with a view of learning as a process in which learners make sense of new experience by using their existing ideas; that is, a constructivist view of learning. But current views of learning go further, recognising that learning is not just an individual matter but involves social interaction with others in which understanding is developed in a manner described as socio-constructivist. This view of the process of learning underpins the value of the discussion, dialogue and argumentation around evidence that are integral to learning through inquiry.

The expanding knowledge of the structure and function of the brain and of links between what happens inside the brain and response to events outside are of particular interest in improving teaching and learning. Studies of the role of memory in learning have particular importance for inquiry-based education and the avoidance of ‘cognitive overload’ when there are many things to attend to, as in tasks such as planning and conducting investigations. The load can be reduced by providing help with some aspect of the process of inquiry, as in various forms of ‘guided inquiry’.

The research studies in Section 4 bring to light several factors, drawn together in Section 5, that have the effect of restricting or even inhibiting implementation of IBSE. Some of these are related to how inquiry-based learning is described and interpreted in practice; others are pre-existing circumstances that conflict with what is needed to support IBSE, including an overloaded curriculum that encourages teachers to rush through activities with not enough time for inquiry. Policies relating to assessment and accountability, and established expectations of teaching and the role of teachers can also inhibit implementation of IBSE. Other factors are linked to the resources available for IBSE including not only materials and equipment for practical science, but also teachers’ pedagogical knowledge and ability to help students develop and use inquiry skills.

Section 6 complements Section 5 by revisiting the potential obstacles and considering possible action through which they might be reduced or even surmounted. Some suggestions are found in the studies which raised the problems in the first place; others emerge from research and practical examples of successful implementation.

The changes needed are the basis of the recommendations for policy and practice in Section 7.

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