Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Template for Open Inquiry: Using Questions to Encourage and Support Inquiry in Earth and Space Science

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

A Template for Open Inquiry: Using Questions to Encourage and Support Inquiry in Earth and Space Science

Article excerpt

Over the past few decades, much has been written about what inquiry is and is not. Inquiry should not be considered a singular construct, but rather a range of approaches that form a continuum. The National Research Council provides one example; this continuum ranges from more to less learner self-direction with respect to five features of inquiry (Figure 1, p. 28; NRC 2000).

Although inquiry can be described this way, some researchers have found it helpful to demarcate the continuum with descriptive stages--and differentiate whether the instructor or the learner is responsible for developing specified learning outcomes. For example,

* in confirmation, students are provided with a question, and the results are known in advance;

* in structured inquiry, the question and procedure are provided, but students generate an explanation supported by their collected evidence;

* in guided inquiry, the teacher provides the question, but students design the procedures and develop explanations; and

* in open inquiry, students develop questions and procedures, carry out experiments, and communicate their results (Bell, Smetana, and Binns 2005).

Although inquiry-based instruction has been written about for decades, there is little evidence that it is widely used in science classrooms. Open inquiry, in particular, is often thought to be difficult to use in the classroom, and Settlage (2007) has argued that it is impractical for teachers to regularly implement. Perhaps one explanation for this is the perceived difficulty in moving students toward the development of novel research questions.

This article provides an instructional approach to helping students generate open-inquiry research questions, which we call the open-inquiry question template. This template (Figure 2, p. 29) was created based on our experience teaching high school science and preservice university methods courses. To help teachers implement this template, we describe its use in a ninth-grade Earth and space science class, in which students learn about meteorite impacts. The lesson takes place over two, 90-minute class periods.

The instructional approach

The open-inquiry template is designed to facilitate student-generated research questions by providing a highly structured yet open-ended questioning format (Figure 2). We have found that when moving students toward the open-inquiry end of the continuum, using a control-group experimental research design--in which only one variable is changed to determine the effect upon another variable--helps limit frustration for students and teachers alike. In these types of experiments, there are independent and dependent variables that are quantifiable and controlled for confounding variables. This type of design provides a strong foundation upon which students can build understanding of less tangible scientific skills and processes.

Once students understand the process by which meaningful and context-driven research questions are developed, they are more capable of developing open-ended research questions.

The Earth and space lesson

To begin the lesson on impact craters, we use an internet browser to find images and create a PowerPoint presentation with pictures of the Moon in various phases, impact craters, and the Moon as it typically appears from Earth with the naked eye. (Note: Check website copyright laws and requirements before using images in class.) We then show this slideshow to students on an LCD projector and ask them, as a class, to compile a list of observations (question 1, Figure 2).

Inevitably, students observe that the Moon appears to go through phases and that the surface appears dust-like and heavily cratered. They are then asked to select an observable quality of the Moon that they wish to explore further. Although the list of observable qualities is often long, the phases of the Moon, the position of the Moon in the sky, or the differences in crater size and shape are common choices. …

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