top of page

An inquirED Blog

Inquiry vs. Knowledge Building: Dismantling the False Dichotomy

Updated: Apr 15

The Power of High-Quality Instructional Materials

Do educators have to choose between inquiry and knowledge building? Where is the instructional sweet spot where the two can work together to deepen knowledge and disciplinary skills? We were joined by Shanti Elangovan (CEO and Founder, inquirED) and Elisabeth Ventling Simon (Chief Academic Officer and Co-Founder, inquirED) to explore a brain-based learning model that integrates deep knowledge building and high-quality, structured inquiry.


Key Takeaways

  • False Dichotomy in Education: The debate between knowledge building through direct instruction and inquiry-based learning is a false choice.

  • Importance of Knowledge Building: Knowledge building is vital for equity, reading comprehension, critical thinking, and informed citizenship, regardless of pedagogical preferences.

  • How Students Build Knowledge: Explicit instruction is crucial for building new knowledge, while engagement, attention, and real-world application play pivotal roles in the knowledge building process.

  • Integrated Approach for Knowledge Building: Build knowledge with a highly structured inquiry-based approach that combines explicit teaching for new information, schema development, and real-world application.

The False Dichotomy

There is an ongoing debate in schools and districts across the country about how to help students develop deeper knowledge. Educators on the one side promote direct instruction (sometimes called explicit instruction) as the best option. It often involves a more traditional, teacher or text-centric learning experience for students. It is also seen as the approach most focused on knowledge building. On the other side, educators are advocating for an inquiry-based learning model, where students are encouraged to ask questions, explore independently, and construct their understanding as they investigate. It is the approach often associated with transferable skills and deeper engagement.

The problem with this debate? It's a false dichotomy. Teachers don't have to choose between student-centered inquiry and knowledge building through explicit instruction. Instead, they can use a structured inquiry-based approach to draw on both of these methodologies at appropriate moments during instruction to maximize how students build knowledge and apply it in the world.

Knowledge Matters

Let’s take a moment to explore why building knowledge matters so much in education. Consider what we know about the benefits of knowledge building:

No matter an educator’s pedagogical preference  – whether explicit instruction or inquiry – they would probably agree that the benefits of knowledge building described above are connected to outcomes that we want for all students. 

How Students Build Knowledge

Research on Knowledge-Building

What does research say about how students actually build knowledge?  

  • Knowledge builds on prior knowledge, providing an advantage when encountering new content. Connecting new knowledge to existing knowledge is essential for transferring information from working memory to long-term memory. 

  • Explicit instruction provides vital support as students navigate the process of building new knowledge. When encountering new information, students need guidance to build relevant background knowledge before they can engage in self-led, independent practice.

  • Engagement and attention play pivotal roles in preparing students to learn effectively. When students are actively engaged and focused, they are better positioned to absorb and retain information.

  • Authentic application of knowledge is a key factor leading students toward mastery and higher-order thinking. Applying what they've learned in real-world contexts enhances understanding and promotes deeper learning.

  • Schema building is identified as a crucial process that allows students to transfer their learning across different contexts. Creating mental frameworks or schemas helps students organize and integrate information, facilitating effective application in various situations.

An Integrated Approach

How do the research findings above help to dismantle the false dichotomy between knowledge building and inquiry? They attest to the importance of explicit instruction when students are building new knowledge, but also demonstrate that instructional elements generally associated with inquiry-based instruction (engagement, attention, authentic application) actually support the development of deeper knowledge. 

Is there a “best of both worlds" approach teachers can use to supercharge knowledge building?  Scholars and researchers are starting to move (slowly) in that direction. The compromise might be a highly structured approach to inquiry-based instruction. This approach would utilize explicit instruction as students encounter new information and build their background knowledge, move students toward the development of robust schema, and guide them to apply that knowledge in real-world contexts and novel situations.

We'll be blogging about knowledge building all for the next few months. Email us at to share your thoughts.

Keep Exploring: View the Webinar & Join the Conversation

To gain a deeper understanding and access further insights, we highly recommend watching the full recording of the webinar. Click below to watch the recording now.

About inquirED

inquirED was founded by teachers with the mission of bringing inquiry-based social studies to every classroom. Inquiry Journeys, inquirED’s elementary social studies curriculum, is used in schools and districts across the country to help students develop deep social studies content knowledge and build the inquiry skills that are essential for a thriving democracy.


Subscribe to receive email updates from inquirED


Les commentaires ont été désactivés.
bottom of page