Inquiry-based vs direct instruction learning – which is more effective?

Posted on 1st Sep 2015 in International Schools, Early Years, School News, Singapore

The Early Years Centre at the Australian International School (Singapore) adopts an approach that allows young children to learn at their own pace

It is widely known that a child’s brain is like a sponge, soaking up information at incredible rates and at just age 4, a child’s brain is more than twice as active as an adult’s (1). How, then, can we ensure that our children are absorbing as much knowledge as they can? Different teaching methods are often at the centre of the debate and for young learners two methods of teaching, the inquiry-based learning approach and the direct instruction approach, pose many questions for parents and educators.

In a direct instruction model of teaching, teachers provide instructions, ask leading questions and dictate relevant information to the topic of discussion. In contrast, an inquiry-based approach challenges students to learn by observing, experimenting and asking questions. The direct instruction method is popular and remains widely used by educators in both public and private schools. Why then does the Australian International School (AIS) Early Years Centre (EYC) choose an inquiry-based Nursery and Preschool curriculum?

Inquiry-based learning allows children to discover knowledge
The Early Years specialists at AIS recognize that children are playful, curious and love to ask questions. Asking questions is one of the best ways in which children can make sense of the world and their place in it.

Under an inquiry-based approach, children’s knowledge is enhanced through investigative experiences that open their minds to creativity. A direct instruction method, by contrast, is taught by a routine of imparting information rather than by building experiences. This method lacks the crucial step of allowing children to form connections between an event and what they learn, and does not give an opportunity for them to use the necessary process skills for discovery and problem solving (2).

Children enjoy exploring our world, formulating and testing theories about what they see, hear, and feel, thus deepening their understanding. It is an educator’s role to facilitate children in expressing these understandings of the world around them. Rather than focusing on transmitting knowledge, educators must see themselves as co-learners who support and extend children’s attempts at learning. Whether it’s Mandarin, music, literacy or visual arts, the dedicated teaching specialists at AIS do this by planning the curriculum with overall outcomes and experiences in mind, while keeping lessons responsive, flexible and open-ended, able to move with the children’s ideas and questions as they arise.

Inquiry-based teaching develops active learners
Recognising that at any one time, children of the same age are not always at the same point in their development, the AIS inquiry-based pedagogy allows children at the Early Years Centre to learn at their own pace.

Rather than being a passive recipient of someone else’s knowledge, the inquiry-based approach makes the child a constructor of his or her own knowledge. Inquiry-based learning challenges students to ask questions, to discover, to be actively involved in their learning and to take ownership of their education. Active involvement in learning builds children into confident, inspired and attentive learners, resulting in an education that is both fulfilling and fun.

An inquiry-based curriculum is individualised to each learner
AIS is a diverse, vibrant and dynamic community that recognizes that each child has his or her own interests, passions and goals even at two-years-old. The inquiry-based approach uses children’s unique interests and questions as a starting point for learning, making the curriculum meaningful, interesting and engaging to each child. While the direct instruction method risks having students forget facts given as rote memorization (3), the inquiry-based framework allows AIS Nursery and Preschool students to develop a meaningful connection with the essence of inquiry, laying the foundation for a love of learning.

Inquiry-based learning is fun
To support an inquiry-based approach, the Nursery and Preschool curriculum at AIS has a specific emphasis on play-based learning, which ensures children are happy and develop a love of learning with an inquiring attitude.

The AIS EYC grounds are purpose-built to encourage curiosity, investigation and wonder. Expansive green spaces encourage children to connect with and be fascinated by nature, while engaging materials and resources in the classroom can equally provide stimuli for children’s questions and investigations.

Learning at the AIS EYC is thus multi-faceted, providing a myriad of purposeful play activities catered to facilitate children’s cognitive growth as well as important life skills such as creative thinking, language and fine and gross motor skill development.

AIS inspires inquiry in children
Learning can be shallow or deep. Understanding that children are motivated to delve deeper into a subject when they are interested in the topic at hand, AIS is committed to the notion of personal excellence, encouraging a passion for learning and a spirit of inquiry in each child.

Discovery, exploration and curiosity thus form the foundation of all learning for Nursery and Preschool students at AIS. Early Years practice at AIS is underpinned by the internationally renowned Reggio Emilia early childhood philosophy, which emphasizes the voice of the child, their identity and sense of belonging. This philosophy supports the school’s inquiry-based learning approach, where the two-year-old Nursery class follows a curriculum under the Early Years Learning Framework for Australia (EYLF) and the three- and four-year-old Preschool classes follow the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (IB PYP) framework.

As one current parent observes, Early Years at AIS encourages learning through inquiry in close partnership with families, where each day is like “discovering new treasures in bright airy classrooms and surrounds”.

This is AIS – globally focused, distinctly Australian.

1. Nadia, S. The Oregonian, Technology Review, 12-15-93.
2. Wang, J., & Wen, S. (2010). Examining reflective thinking: a study of changes in methods students’ conceptions and understandings of inquiry teaching. International Journal of Science and Mathematics Education. 1-21. Retrieved from EBSCO.
3. Vandervoort, F. S. (1983). What would John Dewey say about science teaching today? The American Biology Teacher, 45 (1), 38-41. Retrieved from JSTOR.

Australian International School Pte Ltd is registered by the Council for Private Education. CPE Registration Number 199204405H. Period of Registration 6 July 2015 to 5 July 2019 For more information about Australian International School, click here.