In addition to examining the research base for inquiry, it is important to understand what research can and cannot provide. As Hiebert (1999) points out in his discussions of the research support for the national mathematics standards, the question about the strength of that research is fair, even though it does not have a simple answer. Simple answers, in fact, do not provide the credibility necessary to support a substantially different approach to teaching and learning.
Research has several limitations. First, research cannot determine goals or standards, which are primarily a reflection of values (Hiebert, 1999). The standards being written by some states and districts are largely lists of factual information to be memorized. These reflect a different set of values than those behind the National Science Education Standards, which focus on major concepts in science and on learning for understanding. The methods of teaching most appropriate for these different kinds of standards vary as well. Inquiry-based teaching that encourages questioning, developing alternative explanations, challenging each others’ ideas, and conducting open-ended, long-term projects may not be most appropriate if the goal is for students to memorize information.
Second, research alone cannot establish what is best. Education is a very complicated enterprise, and most outcomes are influenced by more factors than can be identified, let alone controlled.
Third, research cannot prescribe a curriculum or pedagogical approach for all students and for all times. Such decisions must always be made within a given context, and the level of confidence with which they are made changes with new information and new conditions.
This said, there are several things that research can do (Hiebert, 1999). It can be used to make decisions that are based on probabilities that a certain outcome will ensue. Thus, research can inform decisions but not guarantee that they are right for all circumstances. By reviewing many studies done under a variety of conditions and looking for patterns in the results, decision-makers can increase the possibility of success. Indeed, looking at a variety of studies can sensitize decision-makers to the complexities involved in a decision and to the crucial issues involved.
Research also can help prevent mistakes. It can show that some goals, however lofty, are unattainable. And it can probe below the surface to indicate why certain results occur: why certain programs do not work as