Posted by: Principal/Editor | March 17, 2016

Reflections on Inquiry Learning and High-Stakes Testing

Why inquiry learning?

Students and colleagues have asked me this question on quite a number of occasions. My response has always been the same: After enumerating the dangers of standardised tests and how teachers and students end up teaching and learning disparate facts and not knowledge, I usually conclude my piece by saying my predictable refrain — that inquiry methods promote authentic learning. University classes for the year 2016 have commenced once again and I am pretty sure that students (and even some colleagues) would be asking me the same question: Why inquiry learning?

The roots of inquiry learning can be traced to Jerome Bruner’s critique of American curriculum reforms that began sprouting in the 1960s. During that time, Bruner noted a trend that saw increasing use of extrinsic rewards in teaching. He provided evidence from empirical studies conducted during his time that pointed toward the need to re-think the extrinsic rewards approach. Instead, what he proposed was the need to nurture among students the art of discovery:

“Our aim as teachers is to give our student as firm a grasp of a subject as we can, and to make him as autonomous and self-propelled a thinker as we can –one who will go along on his own after formal learning has ended.” [1]

Inquiry learning in an era of high-stakes testing

It can be convincingly argued that 21st century education has increasingly become a high-stakes testing environment.  This trend can be seen unmistakeably in Australia. Particularly with the introduction of standardised tests referred to as the National Assessment Program-Literacy and Numeracy or NAPLAN.[2] It has also become much more prominent in America, more specifically in its public education system. [3] Notwithstanding this global trend, there are dissenting voices that have spoken out about the ills of standardisation and have proposed ways to counteract this.  Sir Ken Robinson, world-renowned academic/philosopher is one of the leading authorities who have spoken out against this trend:



Sir Ken Robinson’s succinct presentation critiques the increasing incidence of a disproportionate adherence towards testing and standardised assessments in education typified by the “No Child Left Behind” policy in the United States of America. His proposal to counteract the high-stakes testing trend resonates with the ideals of inquiry learning. He identifies what he believes are three approaches that promote the flourishing of the human mind: diversity, curiosity and creativity.

From a scholarly perspective, the points enumerated by Sir Ken Robinson are supported by empirical evidence and theoretical assertions. Banks et al. in an analysis of effective educational practices within multicultural contexts have identified that recognition of diversity is a positive contributor to teaching and learning. [4] Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, acknowledged authorities of Self-Directed Theory and Motivation, have explicitly identified curiosity as an essential element for the learning development of an autonomous and self-directed child. [5]  In an influential paper written by Pasi Sahlberg analysing the efficacy of the Finnish education system, he stated how creativity is fostered and nurtured in the nation’s schools.

Initial Reflections on High-Stakes Testing and Inquiry Learning

In a 2015 article that critiqued the high-performing Singapore education system which also maintains a strict high-stakes testing regime, Gopinathan and I underscored the fact that in such contexts what happens is that “students value education merely as an instrumental tool while experiencing disconnection between so-called 21st century educational outcomes and fostering civic beliefs and practices.”[6]  An overriding question that arises then is this: Can inquiry learning function alongside high-stakes testing regimes?

A look at the most updated version of the Australian Curriculum provides some interesting points for reflection. The 2014 New South Wales, Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards (BOSTES) Course Descriptions and Syllabus for the Higher School Certificate (HSC) which prepares upper secondary students for Australia’s most prominent high-stakes tests,  the Higher School Certificate, only mentions “inquiry or inquiry learning” four times in the 38 page document. This is in stark contrast to the earlier version known as the 2001 Studies in Society Syllabus which mentions “inquiry or inquiry learning” 19 times in the 17 page document.

In an Australian context as represented by the latest iteration of the Australian Curriculum in the area of social sciences, are we seeing the creeping prominence of high-stakes testing that will eventually displace inquiry modes of learning? A look at the BOSTES, “responsible for school curriculum, assessment, and teaching and regulatory standards in NSW schools,” [7] reveals their core mandate which is “advancing student achievement is at the heart of everything we do.”[8] Questions worth reflecting upon as one analyses the role of BOSTES and the Australian Curriculum is this: What does BOSTES mean by “advancing student achievement”? Is this achievement measured by HSC or NAPLAN results? Or is this achievement related to Bruner’s notion of fostering the act of discovery to enable students to become “autonomous and self-propelled thinkers”? Do schools and teachers in NSW and in Australia, as a whole, arrived at unanimously-agreed definition of what student achievement means?


[1] Bruner, J. (1961). “The Act of Discovery.” Harvard Educational Review 31(1): 21-32.

[2] Klenowski, V. and C. Wyatt-Smith (2012). “The impact of high stakes testing: the Australian story.” Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy& Practice 19(1): 65-79.

[3] Au, W. (2011). “Teaching under the new Taylorism: high-stakes testing and the standardization of the 21st century curriculum.” Journal of Curriculum Studies 43(1): 25-45.

[4] Banks, J., P. Cookson, G. Gay, L. Hawley and J. Jordan (2001). “Diversity within Unity: Essential Principles for Teaching and Learning in a Multicultural Society.” Phi Delta Kappan 83(3): 196-198.

[5] Deci, E. and R. Ryan (1984). Curiosity and self-directed learning. Current Topics in Early Childhood Education. L. Katz. Norwood, NJ, Ablex Publishing Corporation. 4: 71-86.

[6] Reyes, V. and S. Gopinathan (2015). “A Critique of Knowledge-Based Economies: A Case Study of Singapore Education Stakeholders.” International Journal of Educational Reform 24(2): 136-159.

[7] Board of Studies Teaching and Educational Standards NSW. (2016). “About BOSTES.”   Retrieved 16 March, 2016, from

[8] Ibid.


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