What is Inquiry?

One meaning of the “i” in “iTeam” is Inquiry, actually the starting point for our program. But what is “inquiry” . . . particularly as it relates to science instruction? I like the following brief description provided by San Francisco’s amazing Exploratorium: “Inquiry is an approach to learning that involves a process of exploring the natural or material world, that leads to asking questions and making discoveries in the search for new understandings. Inquiry, as it relates to science education, should mirror as closely as possible the enterprise of doing real science.”

Doing real science.  Exploring the natural or material world.  Asking questions. Making discoveries.  Searching for new understandings.

Clearly these two brief sentences contain some powerful ideas that could transform science instruction in our classrooms.  There is a mini-roadmap for that transformation in this definition.

A colleague of mine, who is a math science coach for CPS, just told me that one of his non-negotiables going forward is journaling in science class, having kids capture their questions, their insights, their thought processes . . . a meta-cognitive map, if you will of themselves as scientists.  This is 180 out from the typical science notebook, in which the student dutifully inscribes the oh so orderly steps of the scientific method and jots down the results of a carefully scripted science experiment that isn’t really an experiment at all, because it doesn’t really come from an authentic question.  Or, even worse, looking up and writing definitions for a list of science vocabulary words as a first step in learning a new science concept.

Your humble scribe remembers being one of the students in 4th grade who was delegated to write  the teacher’s notes about dinosaurs on the blackboard for my fellow students to copy into their notebooks and then sitting down at my desk to copy those same notes into my own science notebook ~ one of the penalties of having legible handwriting.  That experience certainly killed any interest I had in paleozoology . . . and I was the kid who read Anne Terry White’s Prehistoric America multiple times prior to this class.

Science is not social studies, not that social studies should be taught this way either.  But in the absence of a clear sense of how it ought to be taught, we often teach science in ways alien to its nature.

Inquiry has at its base the asking of questions . . . usually in response to seeing or experiencing something that we don’t fully comprehend. If students aren’t excitedly asking questions or forming hypotheses in response to what they’re seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, or smelling, it is probably not an inquiry lesson.

For more ideas about what inquiry is, please check out this link:  http://www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/resources/inquirydesc.html

And in the comments, please feel free to add your own observations, definitions and defining moments.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here: http://www.goldenapple.org/inquiry-science-institute

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