Direct Instruction and Inquiry-Based Learning - Ellipsis Education

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Direct Instruction and Inquiry-Based Learning

November 18, 2021

Stephanie Bennett
Sr. Curriculum Development Specialist

Katie Baird
Manager, Content Marketing

Albert Einstein once said, “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” As you’ll read later, there is no one right way to go about this. That being said, education research communities have been fascinated by various models of instruction. How can teachers help students retain important knowledge? Spark their creativity? Foster a love of learning?

Direct instruction and inquiry based learning are two popular learning models used in schools everywhere. Although you likely are familiar with both, there are some interesting applications with STEM and computer science specifically. Let’s define direct instruction and inquiry based learning, and explore standards-driven methods for incorporating both into your computer science lessons. Additionally, at the end of this blog, explore peer-reviewed research on each method of teaching.

Direct Instruction

Although many of you are familiar with direct instruction (DI), let’s quickly define this learning model. According to the National Institute for Direct Instruction, DI is based on systematic, well-planned, and explicit instruction delivered by teachers. These lessons are usually in the form of lectures, reading assignments, or writing exercises that can be conducted either with the entire class or small groups. 

The Direct Instruction model was developed by Siegfried Engelmann and Dr. Wesley Becker and is based on five key principles:

  1. All children can be taught.
  2. All children can improve academically and in terms of self image.
  3. All teachers can succeed if provided with adequate training and materials.
  4. Low performers and disadvantaged learners must be taught at a faster rate than typically occurs if they are to catch up to their higher-performing peers.
  5. All details of instruction must be controlled to minimize the chance of students misinterpreting the information being taught and to maximize the reinforcing effect of instruction.

These philosophies are supported by the actual teaching practices suggested in the direct instruction approach. The National Institute of Direct Instruction says that only 10% of each lesson should be new material and 90% should be practice of existing knowledge. This boosts student comfort and confidence with the material. Additionally, teachers drive the entire lesson. The educator chooses concepts and language carefully to make sure learners are completely understanding the lesson. If students need more practice with a specific skill, the teacher has the flexibility to review concepts using different language or lesson layout.  

Direct learning is highly researched and overall, regarded as a very effective way to teach students. We’ll discuss some specific studies later in this post.   

Inquiry Based Learning

Like direct instruction, you are probably familiar with inquiry based learning. Inquiry learning is a method of teaching that begins by asking students questions and posing problems. From there, students engage their natural curiosity to research and develop solutions. These lessons are usually in the form of projects, student presentations, and research papers.   

Inquiry based instruction is based on 5 Es:

  1. Engage
  2. Explore
  3. Explain
  4. Elaborate
  5. Evaluate

Since they are student-driven, inquiry-based activities can play out any number of ways in the classroom; however, these 5 Es provide a high level framework for what teachers can expect. First, educators help students recall prior knowledge about a topic. Importantly, this is not through a lecture, but rather through a video, demonstration, or journal session. Then, students further explore the topic through research and hypothesis creation. Next, students share what they have found and teachers help correct misconceptions. Finally, in the elaborate and evaluation stages, learners apply their knowledge to different subjects or interest areas, and reflect on their work.  

Inquiry based learning is praised by educators for its ability to get students actively engaged with their learning. Educators release some control over the lesson, helping students create their own aha moments. 

Incorporating Both Direct Instruction and Inquiry Based Learning

Both DI and inquiry based learning come with their own benefits and challenges. Direct instruction allows teachers to communicate information clearly and correctly, but may get tedious for students. Inquiry based instruction helps students to get excited about their learning, but such independence may result in the misinterpretation of key concepts and skills. Luckily, as educators, you know you don’t have to choose one method of instruction over another.  

Our curriculum team at Ellipsis Education incorporates both methods of instruction into our curriculum (more on this later). At a high level, though, we suggest teaching the “big idea” with a direct instruction approach. That way, you can ensure students understand the key driver of the lesson. Then, using the inquiry method of teaching, you can figure out what part of the big idea is most compelling to your learners. This empowers students to own their learning and personalize the lesson to their own passions and interests.

Let’s look at a computer science example using the CSTA Standards. The standards are organized into 5 major concepts (“big ideas”) with multiple sub concepts for each. An educator might start a lesson based on the concept Data and Analysis with the DI approach.

They could present a data set and various ways data should be cleaned and checked before it can be used to draw any conclusions. Then, the teacher could allow students to select or invent a question they would like to explore with the data. This gives them the opportunity to utilize coding functions, variables, and conditional statements to manipulate the data based on the information they want to explore. This inquiry based activity encourages learners to further explore the Data and Analysis sub concepts by creating graphics or charts (Collection, Visualization, and Transformation) or modifying the data itself (Inference and Models).

In the example lesson above, DI allows the teacher complete control of the most important lesson objective — that students learn how to clean data to make it more reliable and why that process is an important step before manipulating or analyzing data to draw conclusions. On the other hand, through the implementation of inquiry- based learning, students are allowed a strong degree of ownership over their learning since they can select which questions they attempt to answer using the data and can infuse creativity into how those answers and data pieces are presented to an audience.

Research on Teaching Strategies

For decades, research has been done on a wide-variety of teaching strategies, and much of this research has been focused specifically on the effect that certain teaching strategies have on student learning outcomes. With his groundbreaking 2008 meta-analysis of the influences on achievement in school-aged students, John Hattie gave educators a new view into what works best for teachers and students. Ten years later, in a webinar hosted by CORWIN, John Hattie stated unequivocally that “excellence is all around us” in schools and in classrooms. Teachers should be encouraged that what they do each day matters in the lives and learning achievements of their students. As Hattie went on to further clarify, “your [teacher] expertise makes the difference.” This is important for teachers to keep in mind as they go about selecting their approaches to teaching specific content area topics. Because, for all his diligent work measuring specific effect sizes, Hattie’s philosophy clearly shows his belief in the value of the implementation of a variety of approaches to teaching and learning, and he has not endorsed any one pedagogical approach. Hattie’s research does not center around a zero-sum mindset that any one tactic is “all good” or “all bad.” Instead, Hattie’s approach centers on the belief that all students can learn at high levels and on understanding and seeking evidence of learning. He honors the belief that there is no one “right” way of teaching, but insists that teachers adapt their teaching to activate learning for all students.

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DI and Inquiry Based Learning in Ellipsis Education Curriculum

With this research in mind, Ellipsis Education lessons are built with both direct instruction and inquiry based approaches. Each course provides educators with the tools needed to teach standards-aligned computer science topics through the use of visuals, posters, reference sheets, code examples, and more. Lesson topics are appropriately paced and focused to allow students time to engage and experiment with clearly defined learning goals and objectives. Teachers can be assured that lessons provide step-by-step instructions and opportunities to reach students and check for understanding through multiple modalities such as visual aids, videos, discussion, written assignments, and collaboration.

These direct instruction methodologies are complemented with inquiry based learning activities that allow students’ choice and voice to drive their engagement with the subject matter and hone their critical thinking and analytical skills. Our full spectrum of K-12 offerings provides lessons that empower students to define their own questions, formulate hypotheses, and present their findings to a variety of audiences for feedback and critique. Inquiry based learning examples  abound in our curriculum offerings. From opportunities to code websites teaching a viewer a new skill to data projects allowing users to select customized zoo tours, students at all levels are provided with the chance to push their creativity and analytical thinking to new heights via computer science curriculum.

Free Inquiry Based Learning Activities

Download a free inquiry based learning activity for your classroom! Spark creativity among your students with our Idea Generation lesson built for grades K-2. In this lesson, students will practice different ways to communicate an idea and generate ideas with a visualization activity. 

Through this activity, students gain an understanding that ideas are unique and different for everyone. The lesson plan PDF includes links to the appropriate materials and resources, a detailed procedure, activity tips, and a bonus challenge activity.

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