Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Planning and Implementing Inquiry-Oriented Activities for Middle Grades Science

Academic journal article Middle School Journal

Planning and Implementing Inquiry-Oriented Activities for Middle Grades Science

Article excerpt

Middle school teachers face mounting pressure to increase the science content knowledge of their students as states implement sets of very broad science standards and corresponding high-stakes assessments their students must take as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). These conditions create a difficult dilemma for teachers: when should they ask-guiding students through inquiry-oriented lessons; and when should they just tell-providing traditional, lecture-oriented instruction because they feel pressed for time?

On one hand, major science education reform efforts, such as Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) and the National Science Education Standards (NSES) (National Research Council, 1996) have repeatedly called for teachers to use inquiry in their classrooms. As a result, science teacher educators and school administrators have often urged teachers to teach science using an inquiry approach.

On the other hand, many teachers feel pressured to use traditional approaches such as lecture, because they consider them to be more efficient when addressing the large number of topics listed in the state standards documents. Teachers reason that there is simply not enough time to use inquiry-oriented instruction because of the vast amount of content that needs to be taught.

The current educational climate poses a difficult challenge for middle grades science teachers, because they must respond to calls for more inquiry-oriented instruction in the science classroom and, at the same time, prepare students to pass high-stakes proficiency tests based on broad state science standards. The purpose of this article is to help middle grades science teachers resolve this dilemma by clarifying the nature of inquiry and providing a process for planning and implementing inquiry in the classroom. This step-by-step process will allow teachers to engage students in deep, meaningful, inquiry-oriented activities in an efficient way that may help to alleviate the time pressure that sometimes prevents them from using inquiry.

What is scientific inquiry?

According to the National Research Council (2000, p. 29), scientific inquiry has five essential characteristics.

1. Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.

2. Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions.

3. Learner formulates explanations from evidence.

4. Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.

5. Learner communicates and justifies explanations.

Inquiry-oriented activities may be classified according to the amount of guidance and structure teachers provide. Open inquiry involves a minimal amount of guidance and structure. The teacher gives students a general problem (e.g., "Conduct an experiment to determine what factors affect the melting rate of an ice cube."), and students decide how to solve the problem and then locate and set up the required materials. While many science educators have considered this the most effective approach for teaching science, there is very little evidence to support this claim (Settlage, 2007).

With guided inquiry, the teacher provides more guidance and structure by giving the students a specific task and the materials needed to complete the task (e.g., "Determine the effects of crushing, stirring, and temperature on the melting rate of an ice cube.").

In directed inquiry, the teacher provides the most guidance and structure by giving specific directions and the required materials (e.g., "This is how to determine the effects of various factors on the melting rate of an ice cube ...").

Teachers should adjust the type of inquiry they use to accommodate the developmental needs of their students and the topics they are addressing. The next two sections suggest a series of steps middle level teachers can use to develop and implement inquiry-oriented activities in their own classrooms when using guided inquiry. …

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