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  • Writer's pictureSarah Aiono

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Modern Education: Beyond Knowledge and Inquiry

The emergence of the science of learning has sparked a contentious debate in educational circles, pushing us to reassess the balance between imparting knowledge and fostering inquiry. This ongoing dialogue reveals a deeper issue: the potential oversimplification of education through narrow scientific lenses and the cultural biases inherent in traditional knowledge-based approaches.

The Dichotomy of Knowledge and Inquiry

The discourse around whether foundational knowledge should precede inquiry or whether curiosity should lead the learning path reflects a broader debate on teaching methodologies. Advocates of a knowledge-first approach argue that a solid foundation of facts is crucial for creative and critical thinking. This perspective is often backed by the "science of learning," which suggests that systematic knowledge acquisition enables students to make meaningful connections across various domains.

Conversely, proponents of inquiry-led learning, like Mitchell Resnick (2017) argue for a curriculum that prioritises exploration from the start. Sir Ken Robinson (2015), a highly regarded advocate for creative educational practices, also criticised the view of teaching as merely a delivery system. He emphasised that teaching is fundamentally a creative profession aimed at engaging and stimulating students, not just transferring information. “Great teaching,” Robinson stated, “is about mentoring, stimulating, provoking, engaging. You can't do any of that without understanding each student's learning needs and aspirations." (2013). 

Simplification and Cultural Bias in Knowledge-Based Approaches

The push for a knowledge-first curriculum aligns with the ease of assessing educational outcomes through standardised tests. This method, while straightforward, risks reducing teaching to a series of measurable outputs and neglects the richness of the educational experience. Moreover, this approach often prioritises the dominant culture’s narrative, sidelining minority and indigenous perspectives and thereby perpetuating educational inequities.

Covington and Weingarth (2023) highlight these issues in their critique of the science of learning. They argue that this approach misleadingly simplifies learning to cognitive processes that can be easily quantified, such as memory and retention, while ignoring the complex, interconnected nature of the brain and learning that involves emotional, social, and physical elements.

Addressing the Argument on Missing Basics

Proponents of knowledge-based education often claim that students lack fundamental knowledge, arguing that modern curricula do not adequately cover the 'basics.' This viewpoint holds that the shift towards inquiry-based learning models has led to a generation of students who are ill-equipped with essential facts and historical perspectives, thus advocating for a return to more traditional, direct methods of instruction. This belief underscores a critical misunderstanding of inquiry-based learning, which does not eschew knowledge but integrates it through explorative and contextually meaningful activities. Through formative assessment methods, teachers continually reflect on the knowledge and/or skills needed by students in their inquiries and then utilise the appropriate pedagogical tools to equip students with what they need to develop their learning further.  This can be using child-led strategies, explicit instruction, or a combination of both.  The point being that teachers who use this pedagogy competently do so with an understanding of the intricate nature of all teaching approaches and apply this skill in a timely and responsive manner.   

Critics of inquiry-led models fail to recognise that when children pursue their curiosities within a well-structured inquiry-based environment, they acquire foundational knowledge effectively—often more deeply than through rote memorisation. Inquiry-based education is not the absence of knowledge but its contextualisation, making learning relevant and engaging, thus ensuring that knowledge is not only covered but also understood and applied.

Embracing Complexity and Inclusivity in Education

As educators and policymakers, it's crucial to acknowledge that teaching is not a simple transmission of knowledge, but a complex interaction aimed at fostering lifelong learners capable of critical thought and innovation. Embracing the complexities of both the science of learning and the art of teaching involves creating a balanced curriculum that reflects the diverse cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs of all students.

Ultimately, education should not just prepare students for tests but for life’s diverse challenges, equipping them with the ability to think critically, appreciate diverse cultures, and innovate in an ever-changing world. By moving beyond the false dichotomy of knowledge versus inquiry and acknowledging the broader dimensions of learning, we can foster an educational environment that truly nurtures and inspires the next generation.


Covington, N., & Weingarth, M. (2023, November 7). There is no such thing as 'the science of learning'. Human Restoration Project. Retrieved from

Resnick, M. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. MIT Press.

Robinson, K. (2013). How to escape education's death valley [Video]. TED Conferences.

Robinson, K. (2015). Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That's Transforming Education. Viking.

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