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  • Section 1: Inquiry Science

    How do children learn science?

    Studies by education researchers indicate that to learn science concepts well, students must confront their preconceptions of how the universe works, compare these with what they glean from books and hands-on experiments, and then discuss discrepancies among themselves and with teachers. Often, however, textbooks and classroom activities don't allow for such analysis or reflection, and instead, simply present statements, questions, and experiments with little view of "the big picture."

    For students to have the time needed to acquire essential knowledge and skills of science literacy, the sheer amount of material that today's science curriculum tries to cover must be significantly reduced. Effective education for science literacy requires that every student be frequently and actively involved in exploring nature in ways that resemble how scientists themselves go about their work.

    But for the most part, the nation's curricula, textbooks, and teaching continue to lack focus and emphasize quantity over quality, often emphasizing the learning of answers and memorization more than the exploration of questions, and reading rather than doing. They fail to encourage students to work together, to share ideas and information freely with each other, or to use modern instruments to extend their intellectual capabilities.

    In learning science, students need time for exploring, making observations, taking wrong turns, testing ideas, doing things over again, asking, reading, and discovering – not just memorizing scientific facts.

    (Source: www.tryscience.org/parents/ss_3.html)  

    Meaningful learning occurs when new information is linked to existing or previous concepts.

    Information derived without meaningful learning is not retained for long periods.

    (Source: David Ausubel, Educational Psychologist (1918- 2008)

    Chinese proverb: “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, let me do it and I understand”.

    What is inquiry?

    Defining Inquiry-Based Learning  

    What is inquiry-based learning? There are as many specific answers as there are people to ask, but there are common themes to the descriptions that represent a core of belief about inquiry. The list below is loosely based on Nickerson (1988), but includes some additional thematic elements and some connections to technology.

    Constructivism. The major claim of this theme is that learning is an active process, described as forming new mental models rather than as assimilating information. Students continually create their own mental models as they encounter new material. It is questionable if "passive learning" could even exist. Integral to the concept of constructivism is the notion that much of learning comes from grappling with complex problems, for which there may be multiple approaches. The interaction a learner has with others engaged in the task adds to the learning potential; language is the most important carrier of these inquiry-supporting interactions. Out of such experiences, learners build their own knowledge.

    Importance of conceptual understanding, rather than procedural efficiency. Especially in math and science, much of the knowledge students are often expected to know is procedural; that is, how to follow particular rote recipes. If this knowledge is not situated in an understanding of how and why the procedures work, students may not be able to know when and how to use them. Conceptual understanding includes a much richer and more flexible array of knowledge that makes it possible for students to think deeply even without a procedure, to know when and how to apply proper procedures, and to interpret their results appropriately.

    Responsiveness to what students already know. No student enters a class as an empty vessel. Education must take account of what students bring with them. Based on life and school experiences, every student has formed many ideas about math, science, social studies, writing, etc. Some of these pre-existing ideas are valuable bases for continued learning; others are wrong and would lead the student further into territory that is not educationally useful. Students' incorrect ideas have sometimes been called "misconceptions" and inquiry-oriented methods to help students reform their ideas into more correct conceptions have been designed. Technology can play a role in this regard by assisting teachers in understanding students' knowledge and current conceptions, as many pieces of software help students display their thinking and procedures in a more accessible form.

    Summarizing: What is Inquiry?

    Inquiry is:

    • Connecting our prior understanding with new experiences 
    • Modifying and accommodating our previously held beliefs and conceptual models 
    • Providing opportunities for discourse 
    • Constructing a new knowledge

    Inquiry is a multi-faceted activity that involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze and interpret data; proposing answers; explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results.

    -National Research Council, National Science Education Standards

    What is the inquiry cycle?

    Inquiry Cycle 

    In the inquiry cycle six steps are performed during a scientific investigation.

    • Inquisition - stating a “What if” or “I wonder” question to be investigated 
    • Acquisition - students rely on prior experiences to brainstorm possible solutions to their question 
    • Supposition - students design a plan to investigate the question under investigation 
    • Implementation - students carry out the plan designed in the supposition phase 
    • Summation - recording and analysis of the observations from the implementation phase takes place and often leads to more “What if” questions 
    • Exhibition - findings are shared in the form of a written report, poster, or oral presentation

    (Source: Douglas Llewelynn, Inquiry Within, pg 24)

    What are the different levels of inquiry?


        Invitation to Inquiry Grid 

      Demonstration  Activity  Teacher-Initiated
    Posing the question Teacher Teacher Teacher Student
    Planning the procedure Teacher Teacher Student Student
    Formulating the results Teacher Student Student Student

    The four levels of inquiry are demonstrations, activities, teacher-initiated inquiry, and student initiated inquiry.

    • Demonstrations are usually presented to exhibit a particular concept. This can lead to “what if” questions, especially if the demonstration observations and conclusions are counterintuitive to the student’s normal experience. These are called discrepant events and often lead to student inquiries. 
    • Activities have the teacher posing a question and providing a procedure for students to follow. The students follow the procedure and formulate their own results. This can act as a catalyst for further inquiry. 
    • Teacher-initiated inquiry, sometimes called guided inquiry, had the teacher posing the question and then allowing time for students to (a) consider possible solutions, (b) plan and investigation, and (c) go about answering the question. This level of inquiry is particularly useful when teaching problem solving skills. 
    • Student-initiated inquiry is the highest level of inquiry occurring when students raise the question and formulate a procedure to answer the question raised. Observations occur and their own results are formulated.

    (Source: Douglas Llewelynn, Inquiry Within, Ch 6)

    How do I organize an inquiry classroom?

    • Inquiry classrooms are centered on the student. Teacher and students share decisions about room design and seating arrangements for maximum student interactions, work, and discussions. 
    • Supplies and materials are readily accessible for student to access on their own. Teacher permission is needed for student access to only some critical items. 
    • The classroom contains centers and areas for students to work or read independently. The arrangement of the room changes quite regularly. 
    • The classroom walls are filled with work representing all of the students in the class and various stages of completion. 
    • Time is provided for students to investigate questions they have developed and materials are provided to conduct these activities.

    (Source: Douglas Llewelynn, Inquiry Within, pg 196)

    What are the characteristics of effective science instruction?

    There are several characteristics that are indicators of an effective science instruction. These characteristics capture the imagination of both the teacher and student.

    • The science instruction is centered on hands-on investigations of objects and organisms. Students have the opportunity to manipulate and experiment with physical objects. 
    • Materials used are engaging materials that allow children to experience scientific phenomena. It emphasizes development of the child’s repertoire of experience on a single topic rather than memorization of multiple topics. 
    • The concepts presented or investigated should be developmentally appropriate for the cognitive level of the children. 
    • Accommodations for different learning styles are provided to insure all students benefit from the learning experience. This helps meet the needs of a diverse student population
    • The science instruction provides time for free exploration of materials followed by more structured teacher-directed investigations. 
    • A connection between the concepts under investigation and students’ lives is provided to make the learning more meaningful. 
    • Lessons are designed to stimulate children to reason and inquire. This leads to further investigations and student initiated inquiry. 
    • Additionally an effective science instruction program helps students to work cooperatively, which is a skill needed in the 21st Century working environment.

    How does one effectively design an inquiry lesson using the 5E and FERA instructional models?

    The 5E and FERA instructional models are both based on the constructivist approach to lesson planning. Using this Learning Cycle approach one can structure inquiry-based lessons in science. (Llewellyn, Inquiry Within, pg 134) The 5E model and the FERA learning models are similar in nature but differ slightly. Both models will be described below. Planning a science lesson around either of these models will create an effective inquiry-based lesson.

    5 E Model  

    This model was originally proposed in the early 1960s by Atkins and Karplus. According to Beisenherz and Dantonio (1996), the learning cycle enables students themselves to construct discrete science concepts. (Llewellyn, Inquiry Within, pg 134) The steps in the cycle are:

    • Engagement 
    • Exploration 
    • Explanation 
    • Elaboration or Extension 
    • Evaluation

    In the engagement step the teacher sets the stage for learning. This is accomplished by stating the purpose of the lesson. This could be done by introducing an essential question and explaining what the students should know and be able to do by the end of the lesson. It is also a means of focusing the students’ attention as well as assessing student prior knowledge.

    The exploration step allows students to explore, raise questions, and develop statements to test and work without direct instruction from the teacher. Evidence and data is recorded and shared in cooperative groups. This stage enables all students to experience hands-on learning and helps to “level the playing field” within a culturally diverse classroom.

    The explanation step involves the teacher-directed role of data and evidence processing strategies from the information collected during the exploration step. The information is discussed and the teacher can explain the scientific concepts associated with the exploration.

    In the elaboration or extension step the teacher helps to reinforce the concept by extending and applying the evidence to new and real-world situations outside the classroom. This step facilitates the construction of generalizations by the students that may modify their presently held understandings of the concept being studied. This could lead to student questions that inspire other inquiries.

    The evaluation step allows the teacher to bring closure to the lesson/unit. It helps students to summarize the relationships among variables studied in the lesson and posing higher-order and critical thinking questions that support students I making appraisals and judgments about their work. Students compare their prior knowledge outlined in the engagement step with their post investigation knowledge to discover that learning that has taken place.

    ( Douglas Llewellyn, Inquiry Within, pg 135,136,137)  


    The FERA cycle of learning basically combines the 5E model into four steps.

    • Focus 
    • Explore 
    • Reflect 
    • Apply

    Focus – Students share ideas they already have about a topic. (Tell what they already think they know about a topic.) This information, revealed in classroom brainstorming sessions or in students’ journals, helps the teacher tailor learning experiences that are appropriate to students’ level of understanding. This information also acts as a benchmark from which to assess growth in students’ knowledge and skills as the unit progresses.

    Explore – Students engage in structure, hands-on explorations of science phenomena. Classroom investigations/experiments which are developmentally appropriate are conducted centered on a particular scientific concept. This is done in cooperative groups. First graders begin with simple observing and measuring. Later, they begin to recognize cause-and-effect relationships. By sixth grade, they can design and conduct controlled experiments.

    Reflect – After completing their investigations, students record their observations, describe or draw them in their science journal, and discuss them with classmates. These activities help student reinforce and consolidate their learning. This is the time to guide students as they work to synthesize their thinking and interpret their results.

    Apply – Students integrate what they have learned in science class with social studies, language arts, mathematics and other area of the curriculum. They apply the science learning and insights to real-life situations.

    How does a constructivist classroom differ from a traditional classroom?

    What does a classroom in which inquiry is taking place look like? Commonly, some or all of the following characteristics are present:

    • Questions are, in general, complex. 
    • Answers to questions are open-ended. 
    • Most questions have more than one right answer or more than one way to get to a right answer or both. 
    • Students are assessed by how they get to the answer, as well as the answer itself. 
    • Discussion among students or between students and teacher is part of the process. 
    • Students have to plan and organize as part of their work on a problem. 
    • Communication takes place in multiple modalities and forms--oral and written, pictorial, graphical, and symbolic. 
    • Teachers play a role as facilitators of learning, rather than as transmitters of information.

    "A Look at School Environments"


    Traditional Classrooms  Constructivist Classrooms 



     Curriculum is presented part to whole, with emphasis on basic skills. Curriculum is presented whole to part with emphasis on big concepts.
    Strict adherence to fixed curriculum is highly values. Pursuit of student questions is highly valued.
    Students are Viewed as "blank slates" onto which information is etched by the teacher. Students are viewed as thinkers with emerging theories about the world.
    Teachers generally behave in a didactic manner, disseminating information to students. Teachers generally behave in an interactive manner, mediating the environment of students.
    Teachers seek the correct answer to validate student learning. Teachers seek the students' point of view in order to understand students present conceptions for use in subsequent lessons.
    Assessment of student learning is viewed as separate from teaching and occurs almost entirely through testing. Assessment of student learning is interwoven with teaching and occurs through teacher observations of students at work and through student exhibitions and portfolios.
    Students primarily work alone. Students primarily work in groups.



    What are the benefits of an inquiry centered classroom?

    The benefits of an inquiry centered classroom are many. In the inquiry center classroom students develop metcognition skills. Students need to know how to take responsibility for managing and monitoring their own thinking and learning activities. These kinds of skills (e.g., knowing when you have learned something or planning to use your most effective learning strategies to master some content) are sometimes called "metacognitive skills" because they require the students to examine their own learning practices. In an inquiry-based perspective, students need to reflect on the steps they take to generate questions about a new topic, how they collect information to help focus on a smaller set of questions, how they evaluate the relevance of the information, how they decide to what steps to take next, and how they communicate their conclusions.

    Students also develop skills for lifelong learning. The students of today will need to learn throughout their lives. In the past, technology and jobs changed relatively slowly, but today's world can change practically overnight. Many of today's jobs require facility with technologies that didn't exist 20 years ago, and reeducation is the only way some people can continue to work at skilled jobs. Students need to prepare in school to continue to learn for the rest of their lives; in terms of inquiry, this means cultivating curiosity, knowing where learning resources might be, having experience with tacking complex problems, and knowing how to work with others in crafting approaches to difficult situations.

    A connection to the world outside of schools is another benefit of the inquiry centered classroom. Research is beginning to show that one problem with school learning is that students often fail to connect it to what they have learned outside school.

    Students often bring knowledge to class that is directly relevant to what they are learning, but fail to see the connection. In response to this issue, some of the new curriculum efforts are focusing on the creation of authentic tasks which meet needs and goals that students either have already or might have in the future. Furthermore, students often fail to see how the work they do in school is related to their lives at home. The inquiry learning cycle makes this connection with the world outside of school and creates relevance in school work.

    In an inquiry centered classroom the students become the center of learning. They process information, interpret, explain and hypothesize. Activities are student designed and shared cooperatively. Students direct their own learning and emphasis is placed on reasoning, reading, and writing for meaning. Problem solving is emphasized and application of knowledge is paramount.

    (Source: Traditional-Reform Pedagogy Continuum and Defining Inquiry Based Learning)