Inquiry-based or teacher-directed science? Evidence from PISA

Publication Details

This paper explores a highly polarised debate in the literature on teaching methods: the effectiveness of inquiry-based science instruction and teacher-directed science instruction in raising students’ scientific competences and wider dispositions towards science.

Author(s): Adam Jang-Jones [Evidence, Data and Knowledge: Ministry of Education]

Date Published: August 2019


This paper also provides insight into how the use of these teaching practices in New Zealand compares in an international context. These findings will be of interest to teaching professionals as well as providers of teacher education.

Key Findings

  • New Zealand students experience high rates of teacher-directed science instruction. Teacher-directed science instruction appears effective at raising students’ scientific literacy.
  • The effectiveness of inquiry-based science instruction appears highly variable. Moderate use is unrelated to lower student performance, although not as effective as teacher-led methods.
  • At high levels of use, inquiry-based science instruction shows a problematic relationship to achievement and the precautionary principle suggests this level of use should be discouraged.
  • Inquiry-based methods show value in helping students develop positive attitudes to science.
  • There is a generalisable ‘sweet spot’ combining both methods, with teacher-directed methods in most to all classes and inquiry-based in some, with the inquiry-based instruction supplementary – e.g., as an end-of-module extension – to a general strategy of teacher-directed instruction.
  • To be effective, inquiry-based instruction relies on good school discipline, pre-teaching of key content, as well as adequate teacher guidance, teacher planning time and school materials.

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