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Combining pedagogical approaches…

to enhance learning outcomes.

Hello and welcome to the 61st edition of our fortnightly newsletter, Things in Education.

Ms. Meena is an enterprising teacher who chose to attend a course on inquiry-based learning (IBL). During the course, she was drawn to the fact that IBL gave students the freedom to explore more while learning. She was so excited by the IBL approach that she planned an inquiry-based lesson on photosynthesis for grade 6. She arranged various stations around the classroom with plants, soil, and light sources. Her aim was to encourage students to make observations, ask questions, and devise experiments to understand how plants produce food through photosynthesis.. 

Initially, the students were enthusiastic, eagerly exploring the different stations and setting up creative experiments. However, as time passed, Ms. Meena noticed that some students were struggling with the interpretation of results. For example, some were looking at water, carbon dioxide, and sunlight as separate elements in photosynthesis, not realising how they all work together in the process. They needed clear explanations to understand. They felt lost and uncertain about what to do. Others became frustrated when their experiments didn't get the expected results, and they couldn't figure out why.

Ms. Meena also found it challenging to assess her students' understanding. Without traditional tests or quizzes, she wasn't certain about how well they were grasping the concept. Reflecting on her experience, she posed a few important questions to us, at Things Education: How do I let students explore but still guide and explain when needed? What should I do when students feel lost during inquiry? What changes can I make so that students get enough practice along with exploration? Is it okay to merge two pedagogical approaches?

One of the bigger debates in pedagogy revolves around whether it's more effective to allow students to discover things themselves through methods like inquiry-based, project-based, activity-based learning, etc. or to directly give them the information through direct instruction. When planning a lesson, teachers are faced with crucial decisions to make. Neither side of the above debate helps teachers plan by itself. The optimal approach a teacher can take is to observe student progress and change the approach of teaching in response to the students. Even if it means blending both the methods - letting students explore and giving them guidance and information directly.

Let’s look at an example of blending different pedagogical approaches in a lesson. Things Education has a platform called TEPS, which helps teachers with pedagogical strategies to plan their lessons. Take a look at these two TEPS strategies for the same Maths learning outcome from grade 4. The first strategy tells us what direct instruction would look like in the classroom. 

Below is what an activity-based approach would look like in the classroom.

Research from correlational studies, including PISA data analysis, meta-analyses, and systematic reviews, etc. suggests that inquiry-based instruction works better when combined with direct teacher guidance. The same paper also suggests that some key factors affect how well inquiry classrooms work, how well direct instruction would work, or how well a combined approach would work. These factors can be categorised into four main areas:

  1. Differences in students: their existing knowledge of the subject and the level of support they require

  2. Differences in teachers: their level of experience, expertise in the subject matter, and teaching style

  3. Differences in context: class size, classroom environment, and other situational factors that affect how and where students learn

  4. Differences in content: the complexity of the topic being taught, with some topics being more suitable to direct instruction while others are more suited to student-led exploration

In this context, let’s look at both the strategies separately. Strategy 1 is direct instruction, and it suggests that the teacher clearly explain and guide students in using formulas for real-life problem-solving. However, this can reduce student engagement and creativity required for fourth graders, which might make it harder for them to apply concepts in various situations. Strategy 2 is activity-based learning, which is effective at keeping students interested and helping them understand difficult ideas through the hands-on experience of a relay race. However, it doesn't provide students with guidance on important concepts. 

In this instance, the choice between pedagogical approaches isn't only about determining which is "better", but rather about identifying what will give the students the best chance of achieving the learning outcomes. A well-considered plan takes into account the grade level and students' prior knowledge of the new concept. 

One teacher may think that for students of grade 4, calculating “speed” is a new concept that can be difficult to understand. So, before delving into the relay-race in activity-based learning, it would be beneficial to ensure that students have some basic knowledge about speed. Introducing them to the definition of speed and its formula through direct instruction can lay the groundwork, making it easier for students to engage with the relay race. Once they do the activity, they need to practise applying the formula of speed in different situations. So this teacher may begin with step 1 of direct instruction to give a clear explanation, then move on to steps 2 and 3 of the activity-based approach, which involve hands-on activities to reinforce understanding. For guided practice and exploring real-life situations, progress to steps 4 and 5 of direct instruction, allowing students to apply what they've learned practically. This approach effectively combines the strengths of both instructional methods while catering to the needs and abilities of fourth-grade students.

On the other hand another teacher may think that activity-based learning is the better way to start. The students figure out on their own that if they take less time for the same distance, they are faster. This approach may then lay the foundation of understanding what speed is and how it is calculated, which can then be practised through direct instruction. Again, this teacher will also use a blend of activity-based learning and direct instruction.

So here depending on a teacher’s skills, their knowledge of the topic and more crucially their understanding of the students, they can take a call to have an inquiry lesson, a blended approach or a direct instruction lesson.

We have discussed one example from mathematics, and we're excited to learn about more ways you use such combinations in your teaching. Here’s some homework for our readers – Head over to and identify a learning outcome you want to approach differently. Read through the different pedagogical approaches, and write back to us to let us know how you can combine them! We’ll feature you in our next edition! Let's keep finding new ways to help students learn better.


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Edition: 3.9

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