The Science Teacher, Vol. 64, No. 7, October 1997, pp. 18, 20-21.
once again being widely touted as basic to science instruction.
Unfortunately, despite repeated emphasis on this important
teaching focus over many years, little inquiry learning has
historically taken place in the public schools of the United
States (Costenson and Lawson, 1986; Welch et al., 1981).
publication of the National Science Education Standards, there
is reason for greater optimism that inquiry will become a central
part of science education. According to the standards, "inquiry
into authentic questions generated from student experiences
is the central strategy for teaching science." The standards
encourage teachers to focus on inquiry as it relates to the
real-life experiences of students and to guide students to
fashion their own investigations. Students formulate their
own questions and devise ways to answer them. They also collect
data, decide how to represent them, and test the reliability
of the knowledge they have generated. They learn to justify
their work to themselves and one another. This process involves
reacting to challenges regarding their conclusions, explaining
limitations of their work, making presentations to others,
and being willing to receive constructive criticism (NRC, 1996).
analysis of the above expectations along with an examination
of current science curricular materials reveals a basic flaw
in most of these materials, even in those whose primary aim
is to promote inquiry. As well intentioned as curriculum developers
might be, it is difficult to create materials that in fact
provide inquiry experiences for each student. For one thing,
it is hard to create materials that attend to the personal,
real-life experiences of students. An even more difficult problem
is the development of materials that require students to create
their own questions and hypotheses for investigation and then
to engage in investigations of their own design. Instead, most
laboratory experiences are fashioned to help students understand
a particular science concept rather than to conduct self-directed
investigations of problems in which they have a personal interest.
True inquiry is usually forfeited in the process.
To have bona
fide inquiry experiences, students must formulate their own
questions, create hypotheses, and design investigations that
test the hypotheses and answer the questions proposed. Published
materials are generally too structured to provide the necessary
freedom for students to engage in these important inquiry skills.
However, to meet the expectations of the science standards,
students need an opportunity to do self-directed inquiry learning
that takes their curiosity and interest into account.
often need help initially to engage in authentic inquiry experiences.
Neither teachers nor students know in advance the direction
of the inquiry activity. Teachers may know the general category
of the research students will undertake, but the specific direction
of the research must be dictated by students' interest and
desires. Students' attention can be focused upon a particular
area of learning, but no direction should be given in advance
about what will be studied. Students need to be directed to
follow through the steps of the scientific method to solve
problems they themselves have devised.
The first inquiry skill students need to learn is that of asking
questions. Young children seem to have a never ending supply
of questions. Older children, on the other hand, rarely ask
questions, preferring instead to let their teachers perform
this duty. They are more accustomed to providing memorized
answers to questions asked by teachers. It can be safely
said that this behavior is shaped by the educational system.
The consequence of this conditioning process is well established
in most learners once they have spent a few years in school
and can significantly interfere with their ability to formulate
questions and conduct self-directed investigations. Teachers
interested in promoting inquiry have a challenging task to
overcome the tendency of many older students to become passive.
three basic strategies for helping students ask questions.
The first is to provide them with an observable phenomenon
to ask questions about. Initially some coaching will be necessary.
Teachers can, for example, ask students to focus their attention
on a particular aspect of what they are asked to observe. This
works best when the phenomenon being observed is active in
some way. For example, in a demonstration in which a Florence
flask is inverted over a burning candle anchored in a shallow
pan of water, students will observe that the candle will burn
for a time and eventually will be extinguished. Two different,
related phenomena are commonly observed in connection with
this demonstration. Sometimes the level of the water starts
to slowly rise in the neck of the flask just as the candle
is extinguished. Other times the water level starts to rise
before the flame goes out and is the agent for extinguishing
it. Students should be invited to formulate questions that
occur to them as they watch and later to explain what they
observed and suggest possible follow-up investigations.
strategy that promotes questioning is to have students read
articles regarding interesting happenings in science. Appropriate
articles can be found in newspapers and various science periodicals
such as Science News and Scientific American. This activity
can often stimulate extensive research by students on topics
of interest. A dialogue between students and teacher will undoubtedly
be necessary to begin the questioning process.
A third strategy
for questioning calls for teachers to suggest possible topics
for investigation. Typically the teacher asks the class what
questions occur to them about a particular topic, perhaps the
nature of and conditions for plant growth. To prepare for this
inquiry activity, the teacher generates a list of possible
investigations. These provide a background for the teacher
to draw upon in offering cues about possible projects in case
students' initial inquiry efforts are not fruitful. Suggestions
would not be given directly to students. This list would consist
of items like the following:
- What is
the effect of temperature on the growth of different plant
- What is
the effect of the amount of water on the growth of different
- What combinations
of temperature and water provide ideal conditions for growth
of different plant species?
- How does
the amount of light affect the growth of different plant
- How does
the length of day affect the growth of different plant species?
- What are
the effects of different nutrients on plant growth?
- What are
the tolerances of different plant species in terms of salinity,
pH, and various nutrients?
Once students have decided on questions they wish to answer and
hypotheses they wish to address, they should be encouraged to
design experiments that test their hypotheses. In this effort
they should be directed to apply proper controls and make careful
measurements. This should be done with an eye to proper data
collection and presentation of results to other class members.
In each of these activities, the teacher should avoid excessive
structure and encourage students to attend to the important aspects
of their research design and data collection. Students should
also be encouraged to look for possible confounding variables.
The focus is on inquiry, not on transmitting science concepts
conduct their experiments, the teacher should continue in a
role of mentor or guide, giving as little direction as possible.
Questions and issues can be brought up as situations demand.
Every effort should be made to let students make decisions
and draw conclusions. Students should also devise their own
way to report their findings to other class members. They also
may want to publicize their research beyond the classroom.
One convenient place to do this is on the Internet. If the
school has its own web site, students' research can be routinely
placed online. The Internet also is a place they can look for
ideas to investigate or to conduct background research for
In teacher training programs, it is helpful if preservice
teachers are taught to promote inquiry by participating in inquiry
experiences similar to those they will eventually provide for
their students. This can involve three kinds of activities. The
first is to help preservice teachers conceptualize true inquiry
and understand the difference between inquiry science and traditional "cookbook"
lab activities. Second, preservice teachers can conduct a series
of inquiry investigations under the direction of the instructor.
A third activity is to have preservice teachers create inquiry-based
labs to teach to groups of students or their peers. These labs
should contain all the elements of inquiry as outlined above.
Preservice teachers may also be required to do an extended project
similar to a science fair project. These projects may be displayed
and judged according to the criteria established for the Intel
International Science and Engineering Fair (these criteria can
be found on the World Wide Web at www.sciserv. org/ isefpubs.htm).
teachers in our program have a number of interesting reactions
when involved in inquiry activities. First, they claim never
to have experienced this kind of science activity before at
any level of schooling. Second, they become excited not only
because they value this kind of activity but also at the prospect
of providing similar inquiry experiences to their students.
In addition, they become critical of the kind of laboratory
activities they have been exposed to in the past.
teachers usually experience initial difficulty conceptualizing
appropriate problems for scientific inquiry but eventually
devise interesting studies. In the beginning some students
display shoddy thinking along with poorly designed research.
Ironically, even at this late stage of their education in science,
their research commonly lacks proper controls. With sufficient
practice, however, they eventually acquire the knack for conceptualizing
research problems and formulating appropriate research strategies.
For example, one group of students grew plants that were attached
to a ceiling fan. They wanted to find out if plant growth would
be influenced by centrifugal force. They discovered that the
stems and leaves grew away from the direction of the force.
They were excited by the results until they realized that the
ceiling fan also contained a light to which the plants may
have been responding. Thus they needed to redesign their research
and conduct follow-up studies.
prospective teachers can learn how to provide inquiry experiences
for their students. However, before authentic inquiry will
become an integral part of science education, the following
three things must happen. First, inquiry will need to be properly
conceptualized and publicized. Second, traditional published
laboratory materials will have to be replaced by inquiry-based
personal investigations initiated by students with the help
of their teachers. Finally, teacher training will need to include
properly conceived inquiry experiences as an integral component
of science courses as well as a central aspect of training
in science education methods.
K, and A. E. Lawson. 1986. Why isn't inquiry used in more classrooms?
The American Biology Teacher 48(3): 1 50- 1 58.
Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards.
Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.
W. W., L. E. Klopfer, G. S. Aikenhead, and 1. T. Robinson.
1981. The role of inquiry in science education: Analysis and
recommendations. Science Education 65(1):3355.
N. Edwards is a professor of secondary science education, Department
of Secondary Education, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602.
to use from the National Science
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