Two Caveats on Inquiry: Inquiry as Panacea and Inquiry in Isolation

“Can you give me some inquiry activities for the Stars and the Solar System unit I’m doing next quarter?” (5th grade teacher)

“Today the students will be measuring the calcium content of various liquids.  They’ll form a hypothesis about which liquid will contain the most calcium and then test to see if they were correct or not. The purpose of this lesson is for students to learn that they need to measure precisely and do multiple trials to find an average.” (7th grade teacher)

Both statements recently made by teachers illustrate two common misapplications of inquiry-based instruction. But before taking a closer look at them, let’s establish what we mean by inquiry.

The Inquiry Science Institute team defines “inquiry” as “facilitating the construction of new knowledge by activating and pursuing the inquisitive nature of each student.” Curiosity foments questions, hence our emphasis on framing good focus questions, “hooking” students’ into asking questions about what they observe, and refining both our and our students’ questioning skills over time.

While inquiry, the asking of questions triggered by curiosity, is at the heart of science and is the first of the Next Generation Science Standards Science and Engineering Practices, it isn’t the only approach used by teachers who define their teaching as inquiry-based. The NGSS provides guidance on this. For example, the second of Science and Engineering Practices is “Developing and Using Models.” Sometimes, scientists and engineers make their thought processes and understandings clear to others by creating models to illustrate them. They can then test those models and refine them as their own underlying conception changes. Teachers should encourage students to do the same. Here is where those science journals come in. Students can draw not just the things they observe but also how they conceive something to be. And what a good formative assessment! Having students render their mental models at the beginning of a unit, during it, and at the end can reveal to them, their classmates, and their teacher how their understanding has changed over the course of studying a concept.

For example, take this question asked by a primary student, “How do plants eat?”  What would a child of 5 draw when first considering that question? What would she draw after observing stalks of celery or carnation flowers change color when placed in colored water for a few days? And what would she draw at the end of the unit after viewing the celery stalk through a microscope?  (You can learn more about using models here: Clearly most children’s mental models would change as a result of studying a topic at some depth. Is that inquiry? Strictly speaking, no. But it is how scientists develop and share their understandings. And with something as large scale as the solar system and the movement of earth, sun, and moon with respect to each other, creating models to foster or illustrate understanding is definitely one way to go.

The NGSS offers a range of ways to engage students as scientists.

The NGSS offers a range of ways to engage students as scientists, including using models.

So in response to the fifth grade teacher’s request for specific inquiry activities, a reasonable answer is, “what do you want your students to learn?” By beginning with the standards, the science content, practices and crosscutting concepts rather than the notion that “I must have” an inquiry activity, the teacher can decide on the most appropriate way to facilitate students’ concept formation. Backward design is at the heart of this approach. Begin with an idea of what you want to teach and how you will assess it and from that basis decide what activities will occur and how you will hook students and trigger their curiosity.

But what should we make of the second teacher’s statement? What’s wrong with that picture? It seems to be a scientific investigation … an inquiry activity. And the students did learn that they had to measure accurately and do multiple trials, both important understandings in science.

To begin with, the NGSS offers three foundations for science teaching: Science and Engineering Practices, Crosscutting Concepts and Disciplinary Core Ideas. We are used to teaching these things separately, if at all.  It is common to see teachers begin the school year by going over the so-called “scientific method” as the things scientists do, presented in discrete steps and often as a numbered list. This is usually reinforced by a chart posted somewhere in the classroom and in the absence of any science content. However, we know, and NGSS strongly reflects the fact, that science and engineering are about actually doing something and not just memorizing something. The ubiquitous “scientific process” list almost begs for memorization when you see it posted in the classroom.

As the NSTA states in their newly released position paper on the NGSS, “One of the most significant shifts of the NGSS is the recommendation that students engage in science learning at the nexus of three dimensions: science and engineering practices, crosscutting concepts, and disciplinary core ideas.” Further, “aligned materials integrate the three dimensions.”

The days of teaching the scientific method in advance of and separate from the science content we want students to learn are over. Students learn science in the process of doing science and vice versa. It’s all connected, contextualized. So however much fun the activity is as an inquiry investigation, if it isn’t connected to the science content, it’s probably misplaced. However cool it was and however engaged the students were, the calcium measuring activity wasn’t part of any larger unit of study. It’s sole purpose was to teach the importance of accurate measurement and the need for multiple trials, concepts that could have been taught within the grade level content as part of a larger study. Let’s not even think about the fact that by 7th grade students should have already learned these two critical disciplines scientists follow. Activities like this are gratuitous.

Blogger Thom Markham frames the challenge well. This dilemma — Should I teach content or turn students loose to figure out things on their own? — is at the heart of the debate over teacher preparation for the CCSS. Knowing when to teach directly, or allow for problem solving, is a high art. But that is what inquiry-based education demands. For some content, the best choice is — just teach it. Other topics can’t be taught, but must be learned through discovery, trial and error, or prototyping—all of which require more time. In an inquiry-based world, lesson design allows for fluidity, mini-lessons, and ample time for process. Success relies on whether teachers have the ability—and give themselves permission—to move back and forth between content and process.”

Students engaged in an inquiry activity within a larger study of Energy and Forces.

Students engaged in an inquiry activity within a larger study of Energy and Forces.

In a sense, the teacher of science must become a skilled juggler keeping three balls – the three NGSS dimensions — moving fluidly and simultaneously. That requires mental dexterity and very careful and thoughtful planning, the kind also called for in the Charlotte Danielson Framework of Effective Practice and the CPS Framework for Teaching. Integration is critical and doesn’t stop at the three NGSS dimensions but also includes the Common Core Standards in English Language Arts and Math.

Here is where I want to plug a great resource (referenced above) for developing a better understanding of what teaching for the Next Generation Science Standards requires. Paul Anderson is a high school science teacher in Bozeman, Montana, and a YouTube Edu Guru. He’s made an exemplary series of sixty short videos on every standard in the NGSS. You can find them here:

If you teach science, challenge yourself to watch all of them. I guarantee you’ll come away with a deeper understanding of the new science education and a clearer direction forward.

This leads to an important question. Do teachers have enough time and support for doing this kind of higher order planning? In most instances, the answer is “No.” But taken one step a time and not putting all one’s eggs in the inquiry basket, it is doable, once it’s understood that the starting point for planning science instruction is an in-depth understanding of the implications of the NGSS. Inquiry is not a panacea and should not be taught in isolation. The starting point for any lesson is what you want the children to learn content wise. The assessment, activity, and hook follow from that. Hopefully, much of what happens in 21st century science classes will soon be genuine inquiry with students framing investigable questions and then designing experiments to pursue answers to them. But let’s leave room for simulations, modeling, teacher demonstrations and other ways of learning science.

Experiences with simulations, like this on animal adaptations within ecosystems, help students build science content knowledge and formulate further questions about their world, questions that could become the basis for inquiry investigations.

Simulations, like this one on animal adaptations within ecosystems, help students build science content knowledge and formulate further questions about their world, questions that could become the basis for inquiry investigations.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here:


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