Frontiers of Education in China

, Volume 6, Issue 1, pp 139–157 | Cite as

Inquiry-based learning in China: Do teachers practice what they preach, and why?

  • David Yun DaiEmail author
  • Kathryn A. Gerbino
  • Michael J. Daley
Research Article


China is undergoing an education reform that calls for a change from a rigid, fixed curriculum and didactic pedagogy to a more flexible, school-based curriculum and more inquiry-based pedagogy. This study investigated the extent to which Chinese middle and high school teachers (a) endorse an inquiry-based approach and underlying learning principles, (b) practice this mode of teaching, and (c) believe that the approach is practically viable in the current educational contexts in China. A structured survey was developed to solicit Chinese teachers’ responses to the above three issues. A total of 582 valid responses were collected, representing middle and high schools in different geographic locations. The results show that Chinese teachers are receptive to inquiry-based pedagogy but find practical constraints in fully implementing it. Several cultural and pragmatic reasons are explored. Policy implications are discussed with respect to teacher education/development, capacity building for the new pedagogy, and teaching/evaluation alignment. Finally cultural issues are discussed regarding using inquiry-based learning to enhance critical thinking and nurture independent thinkers.


inquiry-based learning education reform teacher development high-stakes testing 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Aulls, M. W., & Shore, B. M. (2008). Inquiry in education: The conceptual foundations for research as a curricular imperative. New York: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  2. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bransford, J. D., Sherwood, R., Vye, N., & Rieser, J. (1986). Teaching thinking and problem solving. American Psychologist, 41, 1078–1089.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice (pp. 229–270). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Bruner, J. (1979). On knowing: Essays for the left hand. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Darling-Hammond, L., & Bransford, J. (Eds.). (2005). Preparing teachers for a changing world: What teachers should learn and be able to do. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  7. Dewey, J. (1933). The process and product of reflective activity: Psychological process and logical forms. In J. Boydston (Ed.), The later works of John Dewey (Vol. 8, pp. 171–186). Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.Google Scholar
  8. Dewey, J. (1997). How we think. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. (original published in 1910 by D. C. Heath Co., Publishers, Boston).Google Scholar
  9. Duschl, R. A., & Duncan, R. G. (2009). Beyond the fringe: Building and evaluating scientific knowledge systems. In S. Tobias, & T. M. Duffy (Eds.), Constructivist instruction: Success or failure? (pp. 311–332). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Duschl, R., & Grandy, R. (Eds.). (2008). Teaching scientific inquiry: Recommendations for research and implementation. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  11. Engle, R. A. (in press). The Productive Disciplinary Engagement framework: Origins, key concepts, and developments. In D. Y. Dai (Ed.), Design research on learning and thinking in educational settings: Enhancing intellectual growth and functioning. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  12. Engle, R. A., & Conant, F. C. (2002). Guiding principles for fostering productive disciplinary engagement: Explaining an emergent argument in a community of learners classroom. Cognition and Instruction, 20, 399–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hatano, G. (1988). Social and motivational basis for mathematical understanding. In G. B. Sax, & M. Gearhart (Eds.), Children’s mathematics: New directions for child development, No. 41 (pp. 51–70). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  14. Hu, J. P. (2010). 教师应成为“源头活水” [Teachers should become a source of inspiration]. 当代教育论坛(教学版) [Forum on Contemporary Education], (1), 23.Google Scholar
  15. Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lan, X. M. (2010). 从创新能力培养层面讨论中国教育改革 [On education reform from the perspective of nurturing creativity]. 南昌教育学院学报 [Journal of Nanchang College of Education], 25(1), 1–2.Google Scholar
  17. Langer, J. A. (in press). The Interplay of creative and critical thinking in instruction. In D. Y. Dai (Ed.), Design research on learning and thinking in educational settings: Enhancing intellectual growth and functioning. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  18. Li, W., & Shan, Z. (2010). Blackboard 网络教学平台下 “探究式学习” 的研究与实践 [Research and practice on inquiry-based learning in the context of the teaching platform of the Blackboard network]. 计算机教育 [Computer Education], (1).Google Scholar
  19. Li, X. G. (2009). 浅析语文阅读教学中探究式学习的组织实施 [A preliminary analysis of organization of inquiry-based learning in teaching language arts]. 新课程研究(基础教育) [New Curriculum Research (Basic Education), (6), 67–68.Google Scholar
  20. Liang, Y. F., Qian, Z., & Lu, F. L. (2008). 试论探究式学习与接受式学习的辩证关系 [On the dialectical relationship between inquiry-based learning and receptive learning]. 当代教育论坛(学科教育研究) [Forum on Contemporary Education (Disciplinary Education Research), (3).Google Scholar
  21. Ministry of Education. (2001). 基础教育课程改革纲要(试行) [Guidelines for curriculum reform in basic education (Trial)].Google Scholar
  22. Perkins, D. N. (1995). Outsmarting IQ: The emerging science of learnable intelligence. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  23. Ren, C. S. (2002). 对探究式学习的18 种评论—支持探究式学习的12 条评论和反对探究式学习的6条评论 [Eighteen propositions regarding inquiry-based learning: 12 for and 6 against the pedagogy]. 华东师范大学学报(教育科学版) [Journal of East China Normal University (Education Science Edition), (4).Google Scholar
  24. Scardamalia, M., & Bereiter, C. (2006). Knowledge building: Theory, pedagogy, and technology. In K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 97–118). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Schwarz, N. (1999). Self-reports: How the questions shape the answers. American Psychologist, 54, 93–105.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Shulman, L. S. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.Google Scholar
  27. Sun, H. S. (2010). 如何在数学课堂教学中开展探究式学习 [How to carry out inquiry-based learning in mathematics teaching]. 新课程研究(基础教育) [New CurriculumResearch (Basic Education)], (3), 104–105.Google Scholar
  28. “Theoritical and Experimental Research on Inquiry-Based Learning in Science” Project (2001). 探究式学习:含义、 特征及核心要素 [Inquiry-based learning: Meaning, characteristics, and core elements]. 教育研究 [Educational Research], (12).Google Scholar
  29. Wang, J. (2010). 从“应试教育校园文化”到“素质教育文化校园”—论当前学校文化的特点与转型 [From the test-preparation school culture to a quality education school culture: On characteristics of the current school culture and its transition]. 教育理论与实践 [Education Theory and Practice], (7), 18–21.Google Scholar
  30. Whitehead, A. N. (1957). Aims of education and other essays. New York: The Macmillan Company.Google Scholar
  31. Wu, L. P. (2009). 探究式教学实验方案设计中的问题及解决策略 [Problems and solution strategies for planning experimentation in inquiry-based learning]. 读与写杂志 [Read and Write Periodical], (4), 190–191.Google Scholar
  32. Xu, P. (2010). 以学力培养为核心的基础教育改革初探 [On basic education reform with nurturing the ability to learn as its core]. 现代教育科学 [Modern Education Science], (4), 49–51.Google Scholar
  33. Xu, X. H. (2002). 校本培训的探索与实践—点击青岛新世纪学校教师培训活动 [Explorations and practices in school-based curriculum: Teacher training activities in Qingdao New Century School]. 继续教育 [Continuing Education], (2), 29–30.Google Scholar
  34. Yan, D. F. (2009). 也谈化学教学中的探究式学习法 [Also on inquiry-based learning in chemistry teaching]. 新课程研究( 基础教育) [New Curriculum Research (Basic Education)], (6), 87–88.Google Scholar
  35. Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2007). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement. Bloomington, IN: Center for Evaluation and Education Policy, Indiana University.Google Scholar
  36. Zhang, J. (in press). Designing adaptive collaboration structures for advancing communal knowledge. In D. Y. Dai (Ed.), Design research on learning and thinking in educational settings: Enhancing intellectual growth and functioning. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  37. Zhang, J., Scardamalia, M., Reeve, R., & Messina, R. (2009). Designs for collective cognitive responsibility in knowledge building communities. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18, 7–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Zhong, Q. Q. (2009). 从日本的“学力”概念看我国学力研究的课题 [On the ability to learn in China from the Japanese notion of the ability of learn]. 教育发展研究 [Research in Educational Development], (2), 1–5.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Yun Dai
    • 1
    Email author
  • Kathryn A. Gerbino
    • 2
  • Michael J. Daley
    • 3
  1. 1.Division of Educational Psychology and MethodologyUniversity at Albany, State University of New YorkAlbanyUSA
  2. 2.Capital Region BOCES of New York State AlbanyAlbanyUSA
  3. 3.Department of Educational Administration and Policy StudiesUniversity at Albany, State University of New YorkAlbanyUSA

Personalised recommendations