This post by Australian physics and maths teacher Harry Webb on his blog Webs of Substance is a critical discussion of inquiry or discovery learning.
Unlike the author, who has an axe to grind with constructivist education theories, I happen to be much in favour of discovery learning. This does not mean that I propose to replace all of the more usual teaching methods by discovery or inquiry, or whatever it is called. Rather, I believe, there is a time and place for every method.
The quality of education should not be measured by cognitive results alone. However important, education is about more than just that. Professor Gert Biesta, in his book ‘The Beautiful Risk of Education‘, argues that good education is world oriented. It consists of three domains, in addition to providing young people with knowledge, skills and understanding (qualification), education serves to support students to become members of and part of particular social, cultural and political traditions (socialisation) and to develop as autonomous, responsible and independent adults (‘Bildung’ or subjectification).
Discovery learning can be very effective, even in physics classes – if I may say so, Harry, as a physics teacher myself – to help students ask questions and develop critical thinking. The really interesting problems in science, technology and art have more than just one solution. In my opinion then, education should not be about providing the right answers, but about asking the right questions.
Every teacher should use the methods he or she feels most comfortable with, provided they are effective. And effective meaning: capable of stimulating students’ development in the three domains mentioned above. I believe that, ideally, a teacher should have more than just one teaching method up his sleeve, using guided instruction one time and discovery learning the next, as the occasion calls for.
Although I do not agree with Webb’s criticism of Inquiry, I recommend reading his post and particularly the discussion below it.