Instruction and enquiry both get learning moving

11th January 2019 at 00:00
It is often assumed that a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum requires direct instruction techniques. But science teacher Alex Black believes that schools must also use ‘epistemic enquiry’ to help young people grasp complex ideas and make connections between them

Much of the debate surrounding a knowledge-rich curriculum has been premised on the claim that it implies the need for a direct instruction model of learning (or guided instruction as Paul Kirschner has termed it – see

I do not want to make the alternative claim that a project-based/enquiry-led teaching model is the preferred pedagogical foundation for a knowledge-rich curriculum. But I would like to explore the concept of “epistemic enquiry” and its fruitfulness in clarifying what “knowledge-rich” actually means – and how such a curriculum might best be delivered.

I believe that direct instruction, especially when it demands active learning strategies of those being instructed, is absolutely essential. I have always used direct instruction for all the key phases of learning.

However, it is not sufficient to deliver all the learning needed to really achieve what we would call “knowledge”. You cannot directly instruct someone to connect ideas, apply ideas and generalise ideas. In these areas, challenges that demand social construction can help learners to develop this extended engagement with knowledge. The role of the teacher in mediating the epistemic language of reasoning is crucial in enabling students to fully grasp the complexities of knowledge systems.

The concept of “epistemic enquiry” is best understood as exploring questions about “what” there is to know and “how” we know these things. This is succinctly described by Kind and Osborne (2017) as they put forward a science curriculum structure based on the highest level of questions that scientists are attempting to answer: “a) What exists? b) Why do things happen? c) How do we come to know? d) What can we do with the knowledge?”

Personalised connection

Meanwhile, Hodson (2014) asserts that the school science curriculum should engage students in learning science, learning about science and doing science, and that all these aspects are interdependent. Through this engagement, students can develop a personalised connection to build knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas.

Both Kind and Osborne’s questions and Hodson’s framework are transferable to many school subjects. The general principle at work here is that knowledge is not just “facts and information” – these do not gain their status and meaning until they are connected into a system of knowledge, or more precisely, of knowing. Knowledge has a social, cultural and historical genesis. Also, knowledge is continually being produced and evaluated in an ongoing set of practices.

So a knowledge-rich curriculum and its methods of teaching should reflect the diverse aspects and nature of knowing. How, therefore, can we bring in the epistemic enquiry elements of the process?

The way I do it is based on the five pillars of the cognitive acceleration programmes developed at King’s College London from 1981 to the present, including Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education (CASE), Cognitive Acceleration through Mathematics Education (CASE) and the Let’s Think! programmes in science, maths and English (see

A problem is introduced to the whole class that helps them to engage with the basic knowledge required for the topic. This could be simply eliciting observations and inference about the starting stimulus and discussing prior knowledge or beliefs. This stage frequently leads to disagreements between students about their observations and inferences, which the teacher can mediate. Sessions are often short and are highly focused on the key question of “How do we know?” What is the evidence? How good is it? Which claim seems the most probable?

Cognitive conflicts

The social construction and cognitive conflicts are maintained until a resolution can be achieved. This is sustained intellectual work that is knowledge-focused, especially looking at the “truth characteristics” of the knowledge claimed. Teacher mediation can keep the emphasis on coherence of argument, agreement with available evidence, and awareness of missing or insufficient evidence.

Ways of thinking are discussed using techniques and questions that guide metacognition and direct students to consider how that thinking can be usefully applied in bridging to new contexts.

All these phases in epistemic enquiry lessons are supported by techniques such as retrieval practice, elaboration and different ways of coding knowledge and connections. These have been shown to be effective in many studies, as summarised by Hattie (2012) – for example, the use of modelled reciprocal teaching, Assessment for Learning and the subsequent opening up of opportunities for feedback, which lead to the development of metacognition.

Furtak et al (2009) and Ruiz-Primo and Furtak (2006) also discuss how what they call “assessment conversations” are the key element in teacher-led enquiry. Assessment conversations are described as consisting of four-step cycles, where the teacher elicits a question, the student responds, the teacher recognises the student’s response and then uses the information collected to further learning.

And Black and Wiliam (2009), commenting on cognitive acceleration programmes, state: “The emphasis paid to creating cognitive conflict rather than giving answers, to the importance of dialogue to serve the social construction of knowledge, and to metacognition involving learners’ reflection on their own learning makes it clear that formative assessment practices are an essential feature of these programmes.”

With the intense epistemic focus of the form of enquiry I have outlined above, metacognition is given even more emphasis than in the cognitive acceleration pedagogy. At every stage, we are involved in monitoring what we know, planning what we need to know and evaluating how we get to know. This means that the teacher is constantly modelling metacognition and scaffolding the metacognitive development of their students.

The evidence that these techniques have a key place in the teaching of knowledge is clear and growing. If we are truly going to have a knowledge-rich curriculum, then we need a pedagogy to reflect that. Direct instruction is certainly part of the answer, but I hope I have demonstrated that epistemic enquiry should be, too.

Alex Black is a teacher of science and the theory of knowledge


* Black, P, and Wiliam, D (2009) “Developing the theory of formative assessment”, Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21/1: 5-31

* Furtak, E M, Seidel, T, Iverson, H, and Briggs, D (2009) “Recent experimental studies of inquiry-based teaching: a meta-analysis and review”, paper presented at the European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction biennial meeting, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

* Ruiz-Primo, M A and Furtak, E M (2006) “Informal formative assessment and scientific inquiry: exploring teachers’ practices and student learning”, Educational Assessment, 11/3-4: 205-35

* Hattie, J (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers: maximizing impact on learning (Routledge)

* Hodson, D (2014) “Learning science, learning about science, doing science: different goals demand different learning methods”, International Journal of Science Education, 36/15: 2534-53

* Kind, P, and Osborne, J (2017) “Styles of scientific reasoning: a cultural rationale for science education?” Science Education, 101/1: 8-31

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