The science education reform movement that emphasizes student-centered construction and meaningful understanding of science concepts, has identified inquiry teaching and learning as an effective strategy for student learning.
The National Science Education Standards (National Research Council, 1996) has become, arguably, the most important single influence in reshaping K-12 science instruction in the United States during the past several years. Central to their vision of effective science teaching and learning is the strategy of student-centered inquiry as the primary vehicle for students to develop meaningful understandings of key science concepts as well as learn about the nature and process of science.
During the past five years, in response to the strong emphasis on inquiry by the National Science Education Standards (NSES), I have been involved in developing and facilitating professional development workshops for K-12 science teachers on the use of inquiry strategies and practices for meaningful learning of science concepts. These workshops have been designed to model inquiry by doing hands-on investigations on a wide variety of physical, earth, and biological phenomena. In the workshops, these investigations are combined with reflection and discussion of both the inquiry experience and the vision for inquiry promoted by the NSES and other science education literature. While participant response has been generally very positive about inquiry-style learning, there has also been a great deal of concern expressed about the actual implementation of this vision in the classroom.
As a result of the reflections and discussions with hundreds of K-12 teachers in more than 30 different workshops, a model of inquiry has emerged that seems to balance the vision of student-centered inquiry described in the NSES with an inquiry strategy that reflects teacher concerns. This model, called the Coupled Inquiry Cycle, combines, or "couples", "teacher guided" inquiry with "full" or "open" inquiry, into an inquiry cycle based on a learning cycle format (Dunkhase, J.A., 2000; Martin-Hansen, L., 2001).
Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NSES)
"Inquiry into authentic questions generated from student experience is the central strategy for teaching science." This powerful statement from the teaching standards section of the National Science Education Standards (NSES p. 31 ) illustrates the important role inquiry plays in the NSES vision for science education reform. Inquiry is pervasive throughout the standards as the driving force for effective teaching and learning in science. From the teaching standards to the content standards, the assessment standards, and the professional development standards, inquiry is central to the mission of acquiring scientific literacy for all learners. To further reinforce the importance of inquiry as a learning strategy for scientific literacy, the National Research Council has subsequently published an additional volume entitled Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards which is dedicated specifically to elaborating on the inquiry standards (National Research Council, 2000).
What is Inquiry and Why is it so Important?
Historically, science instruction and the assessment of achievement in science, has focused on students acquiring the products of scientific inquiry - content knowledge - the all too familiar encyclopedic body of facts, formulas, definitions, and equations, to be memorized and regurgitated on the chapter-end or semester-end quizzes and tests. This knowledge has not served the needs of most of our science students because they generally have not learned the science concepts meaningfully for understanding. As a result, students have not gained useful knowledge that is relevant to their lives or science understandings that help them make informed choices as scientifically literate citizens.
Inquiry, on the other hand, is a much more powerful way to learn science meaningfully. …