Inquiry Approach versus Coverage Approach

I think educators around the world would agree that students need to be engaged and motivated to learn. We know from research that children learn best when they are active and have some ownership in their learning. Traditionally, with the coverage approach:students sat in rows, teachers assigned topics and isolated facts, teacher and students worked in solitare, memorization was the trend, classrooms were quiet and students were listening, common practice of forgetting and moving to the next unit…and the list goes on!  Compare this to the inquiry approach to teaching and learning: collaborative work, student voice and choice, strategic thinking, interaction and talk, caring and taking action… You can see why inquiry-based teaching and learning would have students involved and motivated to work and learn. So, why then do I still see students sitting in rows? Why do administrators still think that a quiet classroom is the best learning environment? Why do some teachers continue to move on to the next unit before the students understand?

The discussion is why do we still see traditional classrooms? Do they still have value? How do we move into the 21st centuryof teaching and learning? What should that look like?

Questions to ponder!  I wonder what kind of classroom you see around you!



About Louise Robitaille

A teacher for 21 years, involved in a Teacher Learning and Leadership Project (TLLP) with the Ontario Ministry of Education. Our project is about collaborating, learning about iPad technology and inquiry-based teaching.


  1. Thanks for initiating this conversation Louise. These are questions that have always intrigued me; in fact, my MEd work was centered on some of them. I called my final thesis paper, “Corners of Practice: Where Our Assumptions about Teaching and Learning Meet”.

    For me, there is this whole identity thing that plays out in the minds and lives of teachers. I sense that there’s the teacher that I dream of being, there’s this teacher that I think that others expect me to be and then there’s the teacher that I am content to be.

    Obviously, the teacher that we become is a little more complicated than this, but I’ve always found it helpful to think of my own development in terms of this identity frame. As I’ve grown older, I find I’m more of an advocate for the teacher that I dream of being.

    But here’s something that I’ve discovered in working with other teachers over the years…at many stages of their development. There are a good number of teachers that “dream” of being the traditional teacher in the traditional classroom that you deserve, It’s a dream that they’ve grown up with since they were small, and one that they’ve acted out in their basements and in their minds so many times. Tough to change well-formed identities, I suspect.

    That doesn’t mean we don’t try and that we don’t continue to make a case for your vision of collaborative inquiry. In my mind (and identity frame) it’s the only way to fly, but you really have to believe in it.

    Hmm…you’ve got me thinking about this again…thanks!

  2. Sheila Stewart /

    Great way to think about these questions — Inquiry vs coverage approaches.

    Interesting, Stephen, to recall the way we would “play school” when we were little! We would just role play what we knew, without much question. I don’t recall many wanting to be “the students”…didn’t everyone prefer to be “the teacher”? :)

    This also has me thinking about class size more. How much does this affect a shift from coverage to inquiry? We are hearing that larger class size doesn’t always negatively affect outcomes, but do we mean only what we can measure, or are currently measuring? What would the inquiry-based approach be held back by the most – class size or the kind outcome/performance data needed currently?

  3. sfriesen /

    The elephant in the room for me as a teacher are standardized tests. When I have grade 12 students whose successful completion of my course will be affected by their performance on a diploma exam, which will constitute half of the final mark, it is frightening to avoid ‘coverage’. I am never sure what will be on the exam.
    Where I see value and real learning [that which goes beyond memorization for a test] in inquiry-based learning, I am not sure it is in the best interest of the student. This is a huge factor for many teachers.

    • Exams are so funny. In a sad way. How many history exams did I write, hoping that one of the essay question choices was “close” to the topic I had chosen to write my term paper about? And upon seeing the choices, I had to decide how I could adapt my essay to the question on the exam. Looking back at it now, what was the point of those exams? To prove I had memorized all the important facts of European History from 1789-1848? It would have been better if they had given us a journal article and asked us to summarize the important points. Or were they (the Professors) seriously saying that memorization of facts is as important to a historian as it is in History101? If it’s worth 50% of the term makr, than that must be 50% of the “work” that historians do, right? Interestingly, in the courses that mattered the most (4th year seminar courses) there were no exams.

      The question is: “What is the purpose of the standardized test?” It can only be used to measure how much knowledge a student has on that test vs. all other students. Useful to determine that one specific piece of data. Society holds standardized tests in such esteem. Until you’re done with school. Then we seem to be okay with assessments that are completely based on “soft” assessments — observations, anecdotal, “word-of-mouth”, conversations, “a gut feel”.

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