Classroom Management and Inquiry-Based Learning: Finding the Balance

By Poon, Chew-Leng; Tan, Doris et al. | Science Scope, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Classroom Management and Inquiry-Based Learning: Finding the Balance


Poon, Chew-Leng, Tan, Doris, Tan, Aik-Ling, Science Scope


Inquiry practices often involve more student-centered activities where students interact more intensively with materials and with other students during investigations. In addition to monitoring the learning taking place, teachers in an inquiry classroom have to manage more movements of materials and equipment and the social dynamics among students. The imagery that comes readily to many teachers' minds is that of active kids running around the classroom, playing around with materials and equipment, leaving a mess to be cleared up at the end of the lesson, as well as a noise level that not only attracts disapproving frowns from administrators (and colleagues in nearby classrooms) but also leaves the teacher hoarse with the effort of trying to be heard above the din. As one teacher put it, just thinking about the possible scenario was already very "tiring." In this article, we would like to share seven successful strategies one teacher used in managing a grade 6 class that gave her confidence in transitioning from a traditional classroom to a more inquiry-based classroom.

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Doris and her sixth-grade class

The classroom management strategies described in this article arose from observing a sixth-grade science class in Temasek Primary over three semesters. Temasek Primary is a large, government-funded school in Singapore that caters to more than 2,000 students from a multiethnic background. It was established in 1980 and, over its short history, has achieved fairly good standing among neighborhood schools (schools mainly serving students from surrounding government-subsidized housing estates) in terms of academic achievement and as a school of choice among parents residing in the area.

Doris, a veteran teacher with 40 years of teaching experience, is the sixth-grade science teacher at Temasek. There are 22 girls and 21 boys in her class. She sees her students three times a week for a total of 2.5 hours of science.

Classroom management strategies for inquiry

There are various theories that guide the development and choice of classroom management strategies. Basing their work on a number of theories that include Skinner's behaviorist theory, Glasser's choice theory, Bronfenbrenner's ecological theory, and Dreikurs' goal-centered theory, Arthur-Kelly et al. (2006) developed an integrated model of classroom management. In this model, classroom management strategies are classified into two broad categories: (1) preventative practices that seek to create positive learning environments and student behavior, and (2) intervention practices that are used to deal with disruptive behaviors. The classroom management strategies observed in Doris's class fell into the category of preventative practices and could be further grouped into two clusters, one centering on curriculum and instruction and the other focusing on classroom organization.

Curriculum and instruction

Classroom management not only involves organizing the physical environment, but also curriculum and instruction to create an environment conducive for learning. The relevance and appeal of tasks and activities chosen and how they are organized for teaching and learning can have an impact on student behavior in the classroom. Classroom research has shown that students are motivated when they experience success in completing their tasks. Therefore, tasks must be designed to be achievable (Brophy 1987). At the same time, when tasks are not sufficiently challenging, bored students could choose disruptive behavior such as horsing around, bothering the teacher, or talking to a friend (Hayes 2008).

Use of hands-on, minds-on investigative activities

Students in Doris's class noted in their reflection journals that they were engaged by activities that were not only fun, but also demanding. They preferred hands-on activities that made them think and generate solutions on their own. …

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