Effective Inquiry in Science Class

Science, as a discipline is intrinsically inquiry based. This is not up for debate. After all, the only way to discover something new is to ask new questions and seek new answers, to inquire. The scientific method, which provides the intellectual framework of science is also a method of inquiry.

Real scientists use inquiry, but they all, always rely on a wealth of background knowledge to make their inquiry productive. So when we as teachers have our students think like scientists we need to be very careful because our students are not scientists and therefor they do not have a wealth of background knowledge to draw from.

While inquiry will always be an important part of science, I believe we have deified it. Think about it. Scientists will often go to conferences or seminars to be lectured at. Why? To learn. To save time. Why take the time to rediscover what your colleagues at another school already discovered? Just listen to them explain it. So, even though scientists are experts in their fields, they still rely heavily on traditional methods (being told).

To be clear, I firmly believe that there should be room for inquiry in all science classrooms and that teaching students how to use inquiry based strategies like the scientific method is of paramount importance. However, I also believe that if we spend less time on inquiry based instruction, and more time on explicit instruction then our students will benefit because they will have developed more background knowledge to apply in novel situations. One way this benefit will be made manifest is in higher rates of success when we do an inquiry based activity.

When should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • Towards the end of a unit

How should teachers utilize inquiry based instruction?

  • To encourage students to make, recall, and extend connections between facts/topics/concepts they have already learned

Teachers should regularly use inquiry based instruction especially towards the end of a unit. This can be done in a way that encourages students to make connections between the various topics they have been learning about. For example, in a Biology course a student may learn about life-cycles, nutrient transfer and environmental conditions. The teacher could create an inquiry based activity with algae that requires students to make connections between the above topics.

The students would need to create and test a hypothesis (inquiry) applying what they have already learned through the teacher’s explicit instruction.

The teacher could just tell students these connections and save a lot of time but the purpose of allowing students to form and test their hypothesis is two-fold.

Benefit one: It gets the students using the scientific method.

Benefit two: It forces them to retrieve previously learned information and elaborate on it. The act of retrieval and elaboration help to strengthen and organizer student knowledge, which is the first step towards making knowledge flexible (applicable to varying contexts).

Note: Teachers should be making the relationships between various facts/topics/concepts clear throughout the course of a unit. So, most labs will, in a sense, simply be a test on if students can retrieve and apply previously learned information to a novel context.

So put this into practice. When you use inquiry in your science class, make it productive.