Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Is the Inquiry Real? Working Definitions of Inquiry in the Science Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Is the Inquiry Real? Working Definitions of Inquiry in the Science Classroom

Article excerpt


When describing activities in today's K-12 science classrooms, the word inquiry often causes some confusion. Inquiry can be an elusive concept, despite the fact that many descriptions and examples are available in the research literature, in national and state science standards, and in science curricula. The models presented in these resources all identify a similar inquiry sequence but vary in the way they define the specific actions students and teachers take in the inquiry process--leaving room for confusion (Nadelson 2009; Llewellyn 2002; Atkin and Karplus 1962; Rutherford and Ahlgren 1990; Milani et al. 1992; AAAS 1993, 1998; NRC 1996, 2000; Anderson 2002; Leonard and Chandler 2003; Leonard 2003; Leonard, Penick, and Speziale 2008) (see "More on inquiry," p. 42).

Many of us find ourselves asking the same questions: How do we know when inquiry is authentic? What should happen in an inquiry-centered science classroom? What is the teacher's role in an inquiry-centered class and what is the students' role? We have thought long and hard about these questions. In this article, we offer suggestions for determining whether your classroom activities are engaging all students in true inquiry.

Inquiry: Teacher and student roles

Even a cursory review of the literature tells us that the best way for students to learn science concepts effectively, think scientifically, and understand the nature of science is to learn through inquiry (Nadelson 2009; Marshall, Horton, and White 2009). Inquiry learning results in deep understanding of many aspects of science, as opposed to learning through more prescriptive methods. Teachers and students both play an important role in inquiry learning. From our perspective, in authentic inquiry, students typically do the following:

* make initial observations;

* pose (or respond to) researchable questions;

* formulate predictions or cause-and-effect hypotheses to test these research questions;

* plan procedures that identify relevant variables and produce data to test these research questions;

* collect, organize, and display data;

* analyze data and craft tentative inferences to evaluate predictions or hypotheses;

* share ideas, results, and inferences with a group that provides feedback on potential validity and utility;

* revise, if necessary, the evaluation of the data; and

* reach a formal consensus on answers to the research questions.

If the answers to the original research questions are unclear from the data collected, students prepare new questions, hypotheses, or procedures and conduct additional investigations. Thus the inquiry process starts over again.

The teacher's role is to provide appropriate resources, guide students, and react to student actions. In authentic inquiry activities, teachers usually do the following:

* create a safe, stimulating environment where students feel free to explore, question, digress, and communicate;

* ask questions that require thinking and thoughtful responses or action on the part of students;

* listen to what students say and respond in ways that encourage students to examine and investigate ideas, questions, and suppositions;

* promote multiple and creative ideas for researchable questions as well as ways to conduct investigations; and

* develop classroom characteristics that place value on student communication, diversity, individuality, and intellectual freedom.

In our view, in the most ideal classroom, rather than learning about inquiry, students learn through inquiry. They apply the processes of inquiry to problems, devise ways to obtain and analyze data, and discuss the meaning of their data and experiences. Finally, students communicate their findings and ideas with others. This is true inquiry.

Real inquiry Initiating the inquiry

The following inquiry activity takes place in a biology class but would be appropriate for a physics or physiology class as well. …

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