Inquiry and Direct Instruction in the Age of NGSS

Text: What is the optimum balance? and scale balancing inquiry and direct instruction

When it comes to the best approach for student learning, there seems to be two very divided camps: those who promote direct instruction and those who favor inquiry. I have been thinking a lot about this issue for several years now and decided to finally write my reflections down, based on 6 years of experience as a science teacher. I consider myself to still be a newbie teacher with lots to learn, but I have been teaching long enough I think my “feet are wet”. My purpose in writing this article is not to claim alliance or to promote either of the two camps, but to hopefully engage in professional discussion with fellow educators that leads to better understanding and improved lessons in classrooms. I embrace the methods that produce the best results in my classes and I’m always willing to experiment to find those methods.

Direct instruction is usually viewed as the traditional approach, the way most of us were taught science. With the widespread adoption of NGSS, there has been a big push for inquiry-style learning in science classes. NGSS is often viewed as a new movement attempting to help us move beyond the traditional approach by championing new methods that will provide better student learning results. The truth is, the inquiry movement isn’t new. Proponents of inquiry teaching have been around for many decades, and over the years it has gone by many names: problem-based learning, discovery learning, inquiry learning, experiential learning, etc.

This divide is confusing because both camps are trying to accomplish the same thing, student learning, and both camps claim to be supported by a substantial amount of research. I think the two sides have more in common than it sometimes seems. For example, I think most supporters of inquiry will agree that students must have some basic background before they can engage in an inquiry task and I doubt that most advocates of direct instruction think it is never good to give students opportunities to figure things out independently. In addition, I think it is fairly safe to assume that most teachers deliver direct instruction at times and inquiry instruction at other times in their classes. In other words, I don’t think very many teachers teach using exclusively direct instruction or exclusively inquiry methods. So, why does this debate go on? In my opinion, semantics is a source of unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding as there are no universal definitions for the terms “direct instruction” and “inquiry”. I think you could ask 100 different teachers what inquiry and direct instruction are, and get nearly 100 different answers. I think almost any task we ask students to complete can be considered inquiry on some level and direct instruction itself can sometimes look like inquiry. Here is how I choose to think about these terms:


Inquiry happens anytime students are asked to figure something out on their own. In my opinion, almost anything a student does, other than basic recall, can be considered “inquiry” on some level. There is a whole spectrum of inquiry and one way to determine the level of inquiry is to consider the number of NGSS Science and Engineering Practices a task requires students to use. The more Science and Engineering practices the task requires, the higher the level of inquiry.

Direct Instruction

Students are provided with information they need to successfully complete a task. I think anytime a teacher is interacting and communicating with students, direct instruction is happening. Direct instruction isn’t just lectures and note-taking sessions. I think it can also be done through class discussions, working out sample problems, whiteboard sessions, videos, demonstrations, mentoring through projects. Some of these are also often considered to be “inquiry” methods, hence the confusion!


What is the right balance between Direct Instruction and Inquiry at the K-12 Level?

What is the right balance between Direct Instruction and Inquiry at the K-12 Level? Overall, I think the adoption of NGSS has positively impacted my teaching practice. I appreciate the emphasis on practices and concepts that apply across all disciplines of science b- the Cross Cutting Concepts and Science and Engineering Practices. To me, the biggest strength of NGSS is the focus on using phenomena and their explanations in our curricula as a way to make learning more interesting and relevant to students. Despite these positives, implementation of the inquiry aspects of NGSS hasn’t been without bumps.

Inquiry instruction is often promoted as a way to make students more engaged in their learning, to make learning more interesting for students, and to increase student learning. I think these things can be true as long as the inquiry activity is well facilitated and students are well prepared for it. Leading students in an inquiry activity before they are ready for it can easily backfire and be counterproductive. Confusion, frustration, and the development of misconceptions are all real outcomes of an inquiry activity. Based on my experience, I am not convinced that asking novice learners to complete tasks at high or even intermediate levels of inquiry is beneficial to them, especially since many students have limited perseverance. I am cautious that I don’t withhold too much information from students and ask them to complete tasks they are not prepared for. Therefore, the inquiry activities I facilitate with my novice learners tend to be highly guided and I have become okay with this. Clark, Kirschner, and Sweller have made an argument against inquiry instruction being delivered to novice learners. They wrote an article in American Educator that I think is well worth a read and some reflection time. I think it is important to note that Clark et al. are not anti-inquiry instruction altogether. They argue there is a place for inquiry instruction and it is with advanced learners who already have strong knowledge in the content area.

Learning to effectively lead an inquiry activity is a skill that is developed over time. It requires a deep content knowledge, flexibility, and a certain confidence to respond on-the-spot to student comments.


John Hattie has spent many years studying factors that impact student learning, and he has assigned a numerical effect size on each. Hattie has found both direct instruction and inquiry-based teaching to improve student learning, but according to Hattie, direct instruction (0.59 impact factor) has a bigger positive effect than inquiry-based teaching (0.46 impact factor) and discovery-based teaching (0.21 impact factor). I think one of the biggest impact-limiting challenges of inquiry instruction is how difficult it can be for a teacher to effectively facilitate. It takes a lot of training and experience that many teachers simply don’t have. Learning to effectively lead an inquiry activity is a skill that is developed over time. It requires a deep content knowledge, flexibility, and a certain confidence to respond on-the-spot to student comments. Realistically, it’s a higher level teaching technique that is not something most teachers are naturally good at. Like most things that are hard to do, it is a skill that must be learned and refined over time. The biggest weakness I see with NGSS is that the strong push for inquiry may influence teachers to facilitate tasks that their students aren’t ready for and/or they themselves are not adequately prepared to effectively facilitate.

I think good teaching practice probably always has and probably always will be a fusion of direct instruction and inquiry instruction. The art and the challenging part of good teaching is providing our students with the information they need to complete a task (i.e. direct instruction), without telling them too much so they can still figure some things out on their own (i.e. inquiry). Instead of labeling instruction as direct or inquiry or even guided inquiry, I have started to prefer thinking about good teaching practice as simply “engaging instruction”. Whether I’m delivering direct instruction or inquiry instruction my goal is the same: for my instruction to be delivered in a way that engages students, leading them to be interested in the topic, to think about it, and communicate their thoughts about it. I think direct instruction and inquiry can be engaging on their own (they can also both be dis-engaging), but more often than not I think “engaging instruction” ends up being a mix of direct and inquiry methods. The mix of direct instruction and inquiry that makes a lesson engaging will be different for different students. For example, an open-ended inquiry activity will probably not be “engaging” for novice learners because they will likely be lost and confused. “Engaging instruction” for novice learners will likely include more aspects of direct instruction than inquiry while “engaging instruction” for advanced students already possessing background knowledge, “engaging instruction” will probably be toward the higher levels of inquiry with less direct instruction.


I think the spirit of NGSS is making topics relevant and interesting to students, but I don’t think this necessarily means inquiry all the time. I want to say something I think isn’t said enough in the age of NGSS: I think direct instruction is perfectly acceptable, required, and teachers shouldn’t be hesitant to provide it. This being said, I do think there is also a place for lower-level inquiry in introductory classes. I think direct instruction and inquiry methods should co-exist. When given, direct instruction should be phenomenon-based as much as possible and delivered in a way that provides students with opportunities to think and make connections. Or, in other words, direct instruction should incorporate elements of inquiry. This may be through a series of prompts students must respond to during a lecture, providing data sets and figuring out patterns together with students, constructing explanations of phenomenon together, providing a reading and then discussing together, etc. I believe there is an optimal balance between direct instruction and inquiry methods that must be struck to make instruction of any type engaging to students. I don’t think it is very helpful to debate direct instruction versus inquiry instruction because I think these two forms of instruction are really dependent on each other for successful and “engaging instruction” to happen. In conclusion, I think direct instruction/heavily guided inquiry is necessary in introductory courses and we need to be cautious about advancing to higher levels of inquiry too quickly, before we are adequately prepared to facilitate it or before our students are adequately prepared with content knowledge and perseverance.


  1. Clark, R. E.; Kirschner, P.A.; Sweller, J. American Educator, Spring 2012. Found at (accessed 7/30/19)
  2. Hattie, J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, 2009. See also (accessed 7/30/19)
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Comments 8

Eric Nelson | Tue, 08/06/2019 - 16:00

Dustin –

Great summary of what the cognitive scientists say on these issues.  The Clark article you cite for me was tremendously helpful in improving my instruction.

May I add to your list of direct instruction activities?  Homework.  I give students 7 numbered “fundamental metric system relationships,” tell them to practice at home until they can write them from memory, and say they will be asked to write them on a quiz two classes from now.  I do the same for a list of metric prefixes, abbreviations, and their exponential equivalents.  With those recallable from memory, metric conversions in dimensional analysis are far easier and faster to  teach. 

I hand out an empty (and specially scrunched) periodic table and say:  Two classes from now, your quiz will be to fill in names and formulas for the X elements.  In first year chem, I assign the first 12, then 20, then 20 + the first and last two columns.  AP gets all at once - since many are familiar.

Why memorize what’s on the wall (and needs to be covered on quiz day)?  Science says that once you read the problem goal and data into your working memory, you start to forget it quickly as you do other steps.  If a student knows where to look for an element, it speeds finding its protons, electrons and molar mass. Speed helps working memory work.  

It is of concern to me that as you point out, the NGSS is at odds with what scientists who study learning agree are the best practices in teaching students who come to us for help.  Teachers should not be asked to follow standards that deny science.  Standards should follow scientific best practices, as all helping professions are ethically (and often legally) required to do.

-- rick nelson

Bruce Wellman's picture
Bruce Wellman | Sat, 08/10/2019 - 12:40


Thank you for putting forth your ideas and supporting them with specific references to articles that influenced your reasoning.   I agree that we need to find a balance in how we provide instruction to our novice learners, especially in chemistry.  In the Clark article you cited, the authors point out that a good example of more direct instruction is the "worked example effect".  I definitely use this technique when introducing a more well-defined problem like calculating the number of grams required for a given reaction to produce so many grams of another substance.  However, the recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education, bring out the need to have science students learn science by doing some authentic science and engineering experiences.   In real science problems, the answer is not yet known and must be constructed from various forms of experimental evidence to the point that a majority of my colleagues agree that a given explanation is valid.  Likewise, in real engineering problems, there are MANY possible answers for which an engineer must defend her proposed solution as being the best one given specific constraints and criteria.  These two dimensions of science and engineering, according to the Academy of Sciences' report, are not effectively learned through being told about this reality, but rather experienced through the science and engineering practices.  NGSS was ONE attempt to operationalize the recommendations put forth in the Framework document, but NGSS is not the only way the recommendations of the Framework can be implemented.  Given how NGSS was developed (many states collaborated with teams of scientists, engineers, industry partners, and teachers), I think it is the most accessible option we have to provide guidance on the direction to improve K-12 science and engineering education.  

Your reminder to exercise balance is wise and we all need to be critical consumers of research findings when shaping our instructional practices.  I have come to believe that the relationships we develop along the journey of learning and teaching are far more important than any technique or dogmatic position on pedagogical techniques.  Thank you for choosing the pathway of science teaching and for the lives you impact through your caring guidance to young learners of chemistry.

Eric Nelson | Sun, 08/11/2019 - 22:25

You write about “the need to have science students learn science by doing some authentic science and engineering experiences.   In real science problems, the answer is not yet known and must be constructed from various forms of experimental evidence ….  Likewise, in real engineering problems…, an engineer must defend her proposed solution as being the best one given specific constraints and criteria.”

But students cannot construct answers from evidence the way a scientist or engineer does.   Scientists and engineers have a vast storehouse of knowledge in long-term memory which they rely upon to solve virtually all aspects of problems in their discipline.  Students have no such storehouse. 

Isn’t it therefore the case that their experience in trying to construct answers from evidence is not at all authentic science and is likely to fail without repeated heavy “guidance.”  Is that authentic science?

Is it not the uncontested view among cognitive experts that students cannot “think like a scientist?”  As science educators, if we claim that the novice (student) brain can solve problems in ways that scientists who study the brain say the student brain cannot, are we not denying science?

I realize that the current consensus among cognitive scientists on the importance of knowledge in long-term memory during problem solving has only been reached in the past decade.  But when new science becomes consensus, our assumptions based on the old science must be re-examined.  Delay in such re-examination in education has negative impact on young people.  How long must we wait for a re-examination in chemistry education to take place?


Chris Leverington | Tue, 08/13/2019 - 16:25

In the past I had developed a chemistry curriculum/course that had a pretty good mixture of inquiry and direct instruction...with lots of practice built in.  My students did well.  They would often do quite better on district tests than other chemistry teachers in my school/district.   I then felt the urge to move to a new school and the school was known for using the "modeling" curriculum.  When I interviewed I told them I wasn't a modeler and wasn't interested in becoming if that was an issue just tell me so and I'd look elsewhere.  They told me it was fine and I didnt have to do modeling....but then of course once I was hired and signed my contract they said that I had to.  So I went to modeling courses, etc.  Throughout the courses...i constant heard..."the kids learn better this way." They "retain the information better", etc.

Sorry...that was a lot of background info.  I'm going into my 4th year of doing the modeling and I have seen absolutely no evidence to support those statements.  They don't "learn better" or "retain better"  If anything they are more confused.  I've worked with the other teachers and they often say..."well they never actually come up with the concept that you want them to come up you have to lead them to it or eventually just tell them what it is."    So then how is that better??  Is that really inquiry?


Olivia Mullins | Thu, 09/05/2019 - 12:32

"Scientists and engineers have a vast storehouse of knowledge in long-term memory which they rely upon to solve virtually all aspects of problems in their discipline.  Students have no such storehouse. " --> As a former scientist turned science educator I think about this all the time. I had a huge amount of prior knowledge that was crucial to being able to come up with experiments and evaluate results.

While I was in science I had a chronic condition that caused some memory loss. Losing that content knowledge absolutely made things more difficult. I could think critically but constantly had to look things up. It made it harder to do deep thinking say on a walk or in the shower, where ideas often come. Having an encyclopedia in your brain supports critical thinking and this is why I will always push back when people say "the focus shouldn't be on content." The focus should be on all parts as they are intertwined. You can't think critically if you have nothing to think critically about.

Kids can and do think like scientists though. And little kids do this naturally. Literally their brain is created to conduct mini science experiments all the time. The NGSS thankfully pushes deep thinking skills and scientific practices that were not being pushed before. I think inquiry is a reasonable first step for subjects where students have lots of prior knowledge (say the first grade standard for putting objects in a beam of light). I don't think inquiry or student-centered explanations are normally good first steps for abstract concepts like sound waves or learning about molecules. It seems students hearing incorrect but reasonable sounding explanations from their peers without correction could create confusion. But if there is data that student discussion is better than teacher explanation I would be interested!

(I do enrichment though a nonprofit, I'm not a classroom teacher, just FYI.)

David Gervais | Tue, 08/13/2019 - 07:18

1) Inquiry is time consuming. I taught for thirty years and never did complete the curriculum, whether it be Chemistry, Physics or Biology. If I do a substantial amount of inquiry, will it be at the sacrifice of content necessary for the next level? (University/college).

2) Tools: Like any other method, inquiry is one tool. Overused, it can become a source of frustration, and students can experience inquiry fatigue. Direct teaching can also be overused and ineffective.

3) Pre-requisite knowledge: Your point is well taken, inquiry requires prior knowldge. That applies to all approaches. If teachers do not do a significant pre-lab, and post lab, the lab activity will condense to doing without thought.

Congratulations. You have written well, and have found some resolution to a problem facing teachers.

Dave Gervais

Chair STAO Safety Committee

Deborah Herrington's picture
Deborah Herrington | Thu, 08/15/2019 - 10:31

I completely agree that there needs to be a balance and that using just one instructional method all the time is not ideal. However, I disagree with the statement that students cannot think like a scientist. This  undermines the abilities of our students. The eight science practices outlined in the NGSS are practices used by scientists to invesitgate and make sense of the natural world and it is important that our students understand that science is a process where we use data to construct answers, not a set of facts to be memorized and repeated. Those answers can change as more and better data are collected, and the better answers are the ones that are supported by more data.

To understand science as a process, students need to build competency in using these practices, which they can only do if actually given the chance to engage in them. Students are absolutely capable of examining the relative evaporation rates of different compounds and based on those data determining the relative strengths of attractive forces between the molecules in those compounds. They are also perfectly capable of designing an experiment to determine the relative evaporation rates. Just because these are not novel questions (ones that nobody knows the answer to) does not mean that in answering them students are not thinking like scientists. The students don't know the answers, so they still have to go through the same types of thought processes that scientists do. And in doing this, we are helping students develop the skills to think like a scientist. 

Explaining why the different compounds have different attractive forces between molecules certainly requires some background knowledge. This we cannot expect students to come up with on their own. However, if we teach students about different types of intermolecular forces then they are also capable of using this knoweldge to explain the trends that they see. 

Direct instruction is not necessarily bad and even drill and kill has its place. For example, there are skills (drawing Lewis structures, mole conversions, etc.) that we want to become somewhat automatic for our students so that they can use these skills. The best way for these to become automatic is lots of practice. But allowing students to struggle as they try and use chemistry concepts to explain phenomena or apply the skills they have mastered to new situations also has its place. There is substantial research that tells us that struggling and failure is an important part of the learning process. It is also an important part of the process of science investigation.   


Eric Nelson | Fri, 08/16/2019 - 16:00

Several commenters have spoken of need for balance in instructional issues, which is good. But in instruction, do we need to balance what is true and what science says is not true?

Whether students can “think like a scientist” has been thoroughly researched by scientists who study of how the brain works. In his book “Why Don’t Students Like School,” UVa. cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham notes that many in education have asked:

“How can we expect to train the next generation of scientists if we are not training them to do what scientists actually do? But a flawed assumption underlies the logic, namely that students are capable of doing what scientists or historians do. The cognitive principle that guides this chapter is: Cognition early in training is fundamentally different than cognition late in training.” (page 97).

Willingham then takes a chapter to explain why students cannot “think like a scientist.” The book is inexpensive ($14). It is a cognitive expert explaining to educators what science has recently discovered about how the brain works. I think the educators on this forum would find it to be of interest.

Neuroscientists tell us that when we read a chemistry problem, the cues cause the neurons holding our extensive background knowledge to automatically activate for application to the problem. Student don’t have that stored knowledge, so they can’t solve like we do. See the blog of Harvard neuroscientist Efrat Furst for more (written for educators) on the role of neuron activation in problem solving.

In the article cited by Mr. Williams above, Clark, Sweller, and Kirschner summarize:

“Decades of research clearly demonstrate that for novices (comprising virtually all students)…, teachers are more effective when they provide explicit guidance accompanied by practice and feedback, not when they require students to discover many aspects of what they must learn….”

Explaining why, they cite studies of “expert versus novice differences” and “limitations in working memory.” Those studies are the foundation of science’s understanding of how the student brain learns. A key finding is: Before students can reliably solve problems of any complexity, they need fundamentals about the topic to be recallable from their long-term memory.

Clark et al. note that inquiry activities can be useful after fundamentals have been committed to memory:

“Independent problems and projects can be effective – not as vehicles for making discoveries, but as a means of practicing recently learned content and skills.”

If there are scientists who study the brain who in recent years have disagreed with these positions, I have not been able to find them, but I would invite others to seek to do so.

Because otherwise, based on all the research cited by Willingham and Clark et al., this is uncontested science. When scientists agree on a findings that are within their area of expertise, are not other scientists obligated to respect their consensus?

On ChemEd X, I read comments making claims about how POGIL and modeling and inquiry should be taught that experts on cognition say do not lead to efficient learning. Those claims were not untrue when programs were originally written and the cognitive science was un-clear.

But new and unexpected findings about the brain have now been confirmed. When science finds that old assumptions were mistaken, claims made when the science was less clear must be re-examined.

Who is going to go through those “inquiry” programs, which have many excellent elements, and let us know what does work, and what needs to be changed in light of new and verified science?

For the sake of the students we teach, do not those corrections need to be discussed -- ASAP?