Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Open-Ended Inquiry: Practical Ways of Implementing Inquiry in the Chemistry Classroom

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

Open-Ended Inquiry: Practical Ways of Implementing Inquiry in the Chemistry Classroom

Article excerpt

"Oh, I don't know if I can do inquiry in my classroom. It's too hard, and I don't even know where to begin."

How often have you heard comments like those? Maybe you've made them yourself. Inquiry has a reputation for being a great way for students to learn but difficult for teachers to implement. It doesn't have to be that way. Inquiry comes in many forms, which can be adapted for any science classroom at any point in the year for any level of student. In this article, we describe how to help chemistry students develop a method to answer their own research question, called open inquiry, using the reaction of hydrochloric acid and aluminum foil as an example. Open inquiry isn't the only option. We explain how to structure this activity to accommodate students' varied experience and comfort levels with inquiry. Teachers can also use this straightforward method to modify other activities they're already using.

What is inquiry, and why is it important?

A practical definition of inquiry is "an active learning process in which students answer research questions through data analysis " (Bell, Smetana, and Binns 2005, p 31). Inquiry in-corporates the scientific practices of hypothesizing, investigating, observing, explaining, and evaluating (NRC 2011). Please note, however, three caveats:

1. Not all hands-on activities are inquiry, and not all inquiry is hands-on. Hands-on activities can be defined as any activity where students are interacting with or manipulating materials (Lumpe and Oliver 1991). For example, making 3-D molecules is hands-on but isn't necessarily inquiry. On the other hand, as long as students are analyzing data to answer a research question in their inquiry, they might get the data from the internet instead of collecting it themselves in a laboratory.

2. While inquiry is an essential part of science instruction (NRC 2000), other activities are also valuable. An effective teacher might chose to teach students the details of dimensional analysis through direct instruction, for example. Furthermore, teaching lab safety through inquiry would not be responsible!

3. Third, many teachers believe all inquiry should be open-ended, but that is not the case nor should it be (Settlage 2007). Different levels of inquiry help scaffold the process to support students' success.

Levels of Inquiry

Inquiry can be scaffolded by moving through four levels: confirmation, structured, guided, and open (Bell, Smetana, and Binns 2005). In all levels, students analyze data to answer a research question; the levels of inquiry differ in how much information the teacher provides (Figure 1).

Figure 1

Examples of different chemistry activities at different levels
of inquiry.

Inquiry Level   What Teacher       Examples in         National
                Provides           Chemistry with      Standards
                                   Suggestions for     Addressed
                                   Data Analysis       (Content
                                                       Standard C)

1-confirmatory  Question, method,  Example: After      Chemical
                solution           learning about      Reactions, #4
                                   reaction rates,
                                   students confirm
                                   the relationship
                                   between
                                   temperature and
                                   rate using a
                                   reaction rate lab.
                                   Data Analysis:
                                   Reaction times can
                                   be graphed based
                                   upon increasing
                                   temperature.

2-structured    Question, method   Example: Students   Structure and
                                   are given a         Properties of
                                   procedure to        Matter, #2
                                   determine the
                                   relationship
                                   between freezing
                                   point and the
                                   addition of
                                   solutes to solvent
                                   before learning
                                   about colligative
                                   properties. … 
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