Students' Learning of Inquiry in 'Inquiry' Curricula

By Pine, Jerome; Aschbacher, Pamela | Phi Delta Kappan, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Students' Learning of Inquiry in 'Inquiry' Curricula


Pine, Jerome, Aschbacher, Pamela, Phi Delta Kappan


The ability to conduct inquiry seems basic to an understanding of science. But how well are elementary students being taught to develop their inquiry skills? Mr. Pine and Ms. Aschbacher assessed the ability of students to pursue inquiry, and they conclude that educators need help to move beyond superficial science teaching.

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WHETHER YOU see the primary purpose of science education as preparing tomorrow's work force, as helping individuals lead personally fulfilling and responsible lives, or as ensuring that we will have the collective wisdom and inclination to use science and technology to solve the myriad problems facing the world, we're sure you'll agree that an understanding of scientific inquiry and the critical thinking skills that go with it have become invaluable in the modern world. For each of these purposes, we need to educate students to question, explore, reason, collaborate, and communicate with others rather than just follow directions and memorize a body of existing knowledge. Thus science has become as basic a part of education as numeracy and literacy and has value both for its methodologies and for its ideas.

It is important to introduce science early in children's education because, the longer nonscientific ideas are held, the more difficult they are to change, and attitudes toward science seem to crystallize by the end of the elementary grades. Thus good elementary science education can do much to provide a sound foundation for later learning, as well as helping students become comfortable with using science and scientific thinking skills in their daily lives, whether in a career or as consumers and citizens.

After a long lead time, inquiry-based science education has finally become a major option in American schools. Many elementary students in hundreds of school districts are using the hands-on "inquiry science" curricula developed in the 1990s with support from the National Science Foundation. But are these curricula having the impact on student learning that reformers expected? In this article we discuss some basic research on the inquiry abilities of elementary students and draw implications for curriculum policy and teacher professional development.

What are these inquiry curricula, and what was their genesis? Beginning at least in the 17th century, when Galileo rolled balls down ramps, scientific research has been based on inquiry--experimental investigations that attempt to answer questions about the natural world. However, the idea that science teaching should have students conduct investigations rather than absorb facts from textbooks was slow to gain support. In the latter part of the 19th century, some eminent scientists, such as Herbert Spencer and T. H. Huxley, urged that science be taught through students' experiences, as did Charles Eliot in 1869 in his inaugural address as president of Harvard University. (1) However, teachers of the day mainly lectured and conducted demonstrations. Looking back from the vantage of 1920 on his science education in the late 1800s in Switzerland, Einstein said, "It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry." In 1902, John Dewey added his considerable weight in support of inquiry-based science education:

  The map does not take the place of the actual journey. The logically
  formulated material of a science is no substitute for the having of
  individual experiences. The mathematical formula for a falling body
  does not take the place of personal contact and immediate individual
  experience with the falling thing. (2)

However, in spite of a few powerful supporters, inquiry-based science education remained rare through the first half of the 20th century.

That changed beginning in October 1957, when at the height of the Cold War Russia's Sputnik I became the first successful manmade satellite.

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