Inquiry-based learning

Home educators are not in general great ideologues. They tend to get on with their lives and their children's education without worrying overmuch about which pedagogical technique they might theoretically be using. There is however one exception and that is of course autonomous education. This is an ideology or philosophy of education which many home educating parents, particularly in this country, have taken to with enthusiasm.

Autonomous education is really no more than a rather extreme version of inquiry-based learning, which is itself descended from the sixties notion of discovery learning. In all these schemes, the teacher assumes the role of facilitator and not an infallible font of knowledge and wisdom, which was all too frequently the image presented by the traditional pedagogue. Proponents of this philosophy scatter words like 'contructivist' and 'experiential' around when they are writing about their methods.

Now there is of course nothing at all wrong with a little of this sort of pedagogy. Many children have hobbies and interests that they have taken up spontaneously and with which their parents only help when specifically asked to do so. My own daughter was a keen bird watcher and she read up a great deal about birds and their habits, observed them, took notes and also photographed them. I would help when asked by taking her to nature reserves and zoos and buying her various books which she wanted. A perfect example of what I would call enquiry-based science and many home educators would describe as autonomous education. Hot diggety, it sounds as though the guy has had a Road to Damascus type experience! Does this mean that he has become one of us and will soon start posting about the wonders of autonomous education?. Well, no.

One of the great things about home education is that it is possible to segue smoothly from one pedagogical method to another depending upon circumstance, mood of the child, phase of the moon and so on. In the morning there might be intense, highly focused work on mathematics and then in the afternoon an aimless ramble through the countryside to observe whatever one comes across. Obviously, one wouldn't want to stick to the same intensive work all day, every day. However, effective very structured academic work is, one wouldn't want this to be the only sort of learning. Similarly, one wouldn't want the education to consist of nothing but aimless rambles in the countryside. This too would be unbalanced and not make for a good education. Some parents though, eschew entirely the kind of structured teaching which has been planned in advance by adults. They feel that discovery learning should be the primary or even the only technique used with the child. That is to say, the child should lead the education by asking questions and following interests and the parent should simply be on hand to assist in this process. What could be wrong with this?

One of the problems home educators face is that they are often a little out of touch with mainstream education. They sometimes have very negative feelings towards schools and teachers and this can become generalised and lead to a dislike of anything which smacks of orthodox education. This is unfortunate, because there are some pretty important debates going on right now about the value of inquiry-based learning. Since this is very similar to what home educators call autonomous education, these debates are worth following. The gist of the matter is that although enquiry-based learning is still popular in many schools, serious questions are being asked about its effectiveness. There is little empirical evidence for its working and most supporters rely merely upon theory and bare assertion. In short, they say that philosophically it's a great idea and that it must be better than sterile, conventional teaching. It certainly sounds better. We find this attitude not only among orthodox educationalists but also of course in the world of home education. Both teachers and parents can provide plenty of philosophy to support their chosen method, but hardly any solid evidence to show that it works

What it comes down to is this. There is a huge body of evidence to suggest that conventional teaching is pretty effective in getting ideas and knowledge across to children. There is little evidence to suggest that inquiry-based learning and problem-based approaches are similarly effective. The sensible dodge would be to make the ordinary teaching the basic method of education and then supplement it with those methods about whose effectiveness there is doubt. Instead, some parents abandon the tried and tested methods and adopt solely a technique which may be a very inefficient way of learning.

I have never been much of a one for philosophy or ideology myself. I am a fan of Karl Popper, for instance, but when he makes a claim I want to see the evidence. I feel the same way about Dewey, Froebel and anybody else who has what they claim to be a brilliant insight into the nature of learning and education. Any fool can propound a theory of education which sounds plausible. What we need to ask ourselves is how is education based upon this theory working out in the real world of real children and their learning? In the case of inquiry-based learning, the answer is, 'Not very well'. Despite forty years or so of the use of this method, there is very little evidence that it works at all. This contrasts sharply with the huge amount of research and evidence which demonstrates that conventional teaching is effective. For now, and until further evidence emerges, it is probably safer to use traditional methods for the great bulk of a child's education and then supplement it with small amounts of less orthodox learning methods.