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.

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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 incorporates 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).

In a confirmatory inquiry activity the teacher provides a research question and procedure, and students are asked to confirm a previously taught relationship. In structured inquiry, the research question and procedure are also provided but students don't know the expected outcome. In guided inquiry, students are given the question and develop a procedure to solve the problem. In open inquiry, students come up with their own research question and procedure. Figure 1 offers chemistry-based examples of these levels of inquiry, which teachers can use with activities of their own.

Most inquiry activities found in textbooks are at the confirmatory and structured levels (Pizzini, Shepardson, and Abell 1991). These can be called "cookbook" labs because they typically provide step-by-step procedures. Not all cookbook labs are inquiry, but as long as students are analyzing data to answer a research question and supporting their results with evidence, they are performing inquiry. We recommend that students get experience with confirmatory and structured inquiry activities before moving on to guided or open inquiry.

Open inquiry: Reactivity of metals

Open inquiry is the most challenging to implement (Davis, Petish, and Smithey 2006). …

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