in the Middle School: Content Learning
the March/April 2000 issue (vol. 13, Issue 4) of Connect,
a publication of Synergy
When I began
teaching ten years ago, my goal was for my students to love science.
My own experience had taught me that science is not about memorizing
facts, but about doing. As a new teacher, I made the common error
of stringing together interesting science activities, most of which
were teacher-directed. My students were enjoying science, but without
a great deal of critical thought. It was my work with the Institute
for Inquiry at the Exploratorium which moved my teaching from being
merely engaging to truly inspired.
with the Exploratorium began after my first year of teaching, when
I signed up for a three-week workshop on light and color. Rather
than being taught how to teach light and color, the participants
of the class were engaged fully in the learning process. We didn't
just study light and color, we participated in an in-depth investigation
of the intricate phenomena involved in the subject. More fascinating
than the content was the notion that by taking part in an investigation,
the way I looked at the world could change. Through such immersion,
I began to notice phenomena which had previously escaped my eye.
Shadows and reflections held new meaning for me. I was determined
to excite my students in the same way. Later I joined the Teacher
Learning Group and through interaction with the other teachers
in the group, expanded my ideas about inquiry.
I now guide my
sixth graders through three to five scientific inquiries a year.
I measure my
success by the level of enthusiasm in the classroom, as well as
the level of thinking that goes on there. My students look forward
to science and feel confident about their capacity for conducting
scientific investigations. Their questions are realistic and grow
in sophistication. They can determine which experiments are "fair" or "unfair," and
they readily identify controls and variables in an experiment.
Just as we want our developing writers to view themselves as authors,
we hope that our budding investigators will view themselves as
scientists. My classroom is full of scientists: students who think
critically about, care about and reflect on what they are learning.
The biggest jump in my teaching occurred when I began to see how
almost any unit could be opened up into a scientific inquiry.
The four stages
There are essentially
four stages my students move through in an inquiry: concept development,
planning and prediction, investigation, and summary of findings.
In the first
stage, students are given multiple experiences with a single phenomenon.
Through this interaction, students develop a variety of concepts
and questions. It is ineffective to ask students to come up with
questions on a topic before they have concrete experiences with
As an example,
I teach a unit on the physical states of matter. I begin the unit
by having students complete a set of stations on physical states;
this takes about a week. Their questions often arise directly from
their participation at one of the stations. For example, one of
the stations the students engage in is designed to show the concept
of diffusion. The students simply put a drop of food coloring into
a beaker of water and observe what happens over time. Many are
surprised to find that the food coloring mixes on its own, thus
explaining one of the properties of liquids: molecules in a liquid
are constantly moving. This experiment can lead to multiple investigations.
Does the temperature of the water change the rate of diffusion?
Do all liquids diffuse at the same rate? Does the color of the
food coloring affect the rate of diffusion? These questions come
from the students. In formulating their questions they are already
beginning to understand some of the rules of science: for example,
only change one thing at a time.
have had multiple experiences investigating phenomena, we come
to the second stage of the inquiry: planning and predictions. In
this stage students formulate a question, create a plan for investigating
their question and predict what they think their results will be.
It is extremely important for students to be given feedback on
their plan before they begin their investigation. I like to conference
with each student or group of students (if they are working together)
before they begin their plan. If the question is not clear, the
investigation will not work. I point out any difficulties that
I see in a particular question though I will allow students to
keep a problematic question if they are really wed to it. (Often
some of the best learning takes place under these circumstances.)
feel confident that they have a solid question, they work on writing
their plan. They then share their plans with their classmates,
either in groups or as a whole class, for feedback. I also participate
in giving feedback to students. I make sure that all students know
what they need to bring in for their investigation and what their
first step will be.
The third stage
is the investigation itself. Here the students are pretty much
on their own. I am always amazed at how little they need or want
completing the investigation
involved students become in their inquiries is for me the greatest
evidence of the value of scientific inquiry in the classroom. Classroom
management is handled because students are interested in what they
are doing. They feel empowered at being allowed to make their own
choices. I do circulate amongst them as they work but mostly to
ask them questions about what they are noticing and to take part
in their discoveries.
It is very important
to allow students as much time as they need to complete their inquiries.
I always make sure I have something for them to do if they finish
early. More often than not they begin working on analyzing their
results. I require students to keep accurate records of their findings
as they work, and many students create tables to organize their
data. Students invariably want to see what their classmates are
doing and I allow them to move about the room to do so. I am often
pleased with the level of critical thought that is apparent as
students give what is truly authentic feedback to one another.
The final stage
The final stage
of the inquiry is the summary of findings. I like to tell my students
that all scientists report their findings. Often we turn the classroom
into a mock conference. I have learned to vary the way in which
students report their findings. The first inquiry of the year usually
requires a written report as well as an oral one but as the year
progresses I sometimes make this stage entirely oral. I made this
change after realizing that some students were beginning to associate
inquiries, not with the process of investigation, but with the
paper they were required to write. The summary itself has three
components: restate the question and predictions, describe the
investigation, and interpret the results. Students are assessed
with a rubric which details each of these components. Towards the
end of the year I have students create their own rubric and assess
Last year the
students completed the inquiry on physical states, where they learned
about the water cycle. While most students investigated questions
that arose directly from the preliminary stations, some ventured
further. One group decided that they wanted to see if they could
make a thermos that would work better than the ones that they used
at school. Their goal was to try to keep ice water cold for as
long as possible. In their enthusiasm they brought in a bevy of
materials: Styrofoam (popcorn, fabric, tape, Play-Doh, and more.)
During the process of investigation they researched thermoses on
the Internet, adding to their own knowledge of what helps keep
things cold. In the end, their thermos didn't function as well
as the commercial ones they had brought in, but this was by no
means a measure of their success. These students clearly felt proud
of their accomplishment and made it known to me that they could
have spent an additional week investigating their question. One
of them said they would never look at a thermos in the same way
again. Then I knew I had been successful.
is a 6th-grade teacher at White Hill Middle School, Ross Valley,
California. School District.
post this issue of Connect granted by Synergy
Learning International, Inc.
San Francisco, CA 94123