Doing Science: The Process of Scientific Inquiry
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Doing Science: The Process of Scientific Inquiry

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Teacher's Guide

Information about the Process of Scientific Inquiry (Page 1 of 3)

1 Introduction

“Scientific Inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”

—National Research Council9

three photos showing scientist using microscope, two scientists conducting an experiment, and a door-to-door interviewer talking to a resident
Figure 1. Scientific inquiry takes on different forms.

To a scientist, inquiry refers to an intellectual process that humans have practiced for thousands of years. However, the history of inquiry in American science education is much briefer. Until about 1900, science education was regarded as getting students to memorize a collection of facts. In fact, many of today’s teachers and students can confirm that this approach is still with us. In 1910, John Dewey criticized this state of affairs in science education.11 He argued that science should be taught as a way of thinking. According to this view, science should be taught as a process. During the 1950s and 1960s, educator Joseph Schwab observed that science was being driven by a new vision of scientific inquiry.12 In Schwab’s view, science was no longer a process for revealing stable truths about the world, but instead it reflected a flexible process of inquiry. He characterized inquiry as either “stable” or “fluid.” Stable inquiry involved using current understandings to “fill a … blank space in a growing body of knowledge.” Fluid inquiry involved the creation of new concepts that revolutionize science.

To help science education reflect the modern practice of science more accurately, Schwab advocated placing students in the laboratory immediately. In this way, students could ask questions and begin the process of collecting evidence and constructing explanations. Schwab described three levels of openness in laboratory instruction. At the most basic level, the educational materials pose questions and provide methods for students to discover relationships for themselves. At the second level, the materials again pose questions, but the methods are left to the students to devise. At the most sophisticated level, the materials present phenomena without posing questions. The students must generate their own questions, gather evidence, and propose explanations based on their work.2 This approach stands in contrast to the more typical one, where the teacher begins by explaining what will happen in the laboratory session.

The launch in 1957 of the Soviet satellite Sputnik alarmed Americans and gave rise to fears that the United States was lagging behind the Soviet Union in science and technology. In response, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act in 1958. This legislation provided grants to teachers to study math and science and included funds for the development of new educational materials. The National Science Foundation, which was established in 1950, initially played little role in precollege education. However, during this “golden age” of science education, it created a number of discipline-based curriculum reform efforts including

The intent of these curriculum reform efforts was to replace old materials with updated textbooks, inquiry-based laboratory activities, and multimedia packages. Large-scale teacher education programs were begun to help teachers implement the new materials. By the 1970s, however, it was clear that implementation levels for the new programs were not what the reformers had hoped for. The reasons for this relative lack of acceptance vary but include

Despite these problems, the notion that inquiry-based approaches promote student learning continues to this day.

2 Inquiry as a Topic for the Middle School Science Curriculum

Scientific inquiry is a topic well suited to the middle school science curriculum. The National Science Education Standards (NSES), published in 1996, recognizes the importance of the topic and lists both abilities and understandings of inquiry (see the NSES, Inquiry and Educational Research section).9 As discussed in the NSES, middle school students are naturally curious about the world. Inquiry-based instruction offers an opportunity to engage student interest in scientific investigation, sharpen critical-thinking skills, distinguish science from pseudoscience, increase awareness of the importance of basic research, and humanize the image of scientists. The process by which students acquire their understandings and abilities of inquiry continues during their school career. The practice of inquiry cannot be reduced to a simple set of instructions. The purpose of this supplement is to expose students to approaches that emphasize different elements of scientific inquiry. These approaches include

cover of the National Science Education Standards guidebook
Figure 2. The National Science Education Standards lists abilities and understandings of scientific inquiry.

3 Inquiry and Educational Research

Inquiry is a process that scientists must be comfortable with and use successfully in their work. Does it necessarily follow that middle school students who are learning science should also use the process of inquiry? After all, scientists are experts in their chosen fields, while middle school students are novices by comparison.

Several years ago, the National Research Council (NRC) released the report How People Learn.10 It brought together findings on student learning from various disciplines, including cognition, neurobiology, and child development. Research demonstrates that experts tend to approach problem solving by applying their knowledge of major concepts, or “big ideas.” Novices tend to seek simple answers that are consistent with their everyday expectations about how the world works. Science curricula that stress depth over breadth provide the time necessary for students to organize their understandings in a way that allows them to see the big picture.

Some of the findings from the NRC report that are relevant to inquiry are summarized in an addendum to the NSES titled Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards.11 A brief description of these findings follows.

  1. Understanding science is more than knowing facts.

According to noted biologist John A. Moore, science is a way of knowing.8 More than a collection of facts, science is a process by which scientists learn about the world and solve problems. Scientists, of course, have many facts at their disposal, but how these facts are stored, retrieved, and applied is what distinguishes science from other ways of knowing. Scientists organize information into conceptual frameworks that allow them to make connections between major concepts. They are able to transfer their knowledge from one context to another. These conceptual frameworks affect how scientists perceive and interact with the world. They also help scientists maximize the effectiveness of their use of inquiry.

Understanding science is more than knowing facts.

Students may not perceive science as a way of knowing about their world, but rather as facts that must be memorized. They may view parents, peers, and the media as their primary sources of information about what is happening and what should happen. It is important for students to distinguish science as a way of knowing from other ways of knowing by recognizing that science provides evidence-based answers to questions. Furthermore, decisions should be based on empirical evidence rather than on the perception of evidence.

  1. Students build new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know and believe.

The knowledge and beliefs that students bring with them to the classroom affect their learning. If their understanding is consistent with the currently accepted scientific explanation, then it can serve as a foundation upon which they can build a deeper understanding. If, however, students hold beliefs that run counter to prevailing science, it may be difficult to change their thinking. Student misconceptions can be difficult to overcome. Usually, students have an understanding that is correct within a limited context. Problems arise when they attempt to apply this understanding to contexts that involve factors that they have not yet encountered or considered. Simply telling students the correct answer is not likely to change their way of thinking.

Inquiry-based instruction provides opportunities for students to experience scientific phenomena and processes directly. These direct experiences challenge deeply entrenched misconceptions and foster dialogue about new ideas, moving students closer to scientifically accepted explanations.

  1. Students formulate new knowledge by modifying and refining their current concepts and by adding new concepts to what they already know.
photo of five students in a classroom discussion
Figure 3. Students refine their thinking through interactions with others.

Two things must occur for students to change their conceptual framework. First, they must realize that their understanding is inadequate. This happens when they cannot satisfactorily account for an event or observation. Second, they must recognize an alternative explanation that better accounts for the event or observation and is understandable to them.

  1. Learning is mediated by the social environment in which learners interact with others.

This finding goes beyond the idea that “two heads are better than one.” As is true for scientists, students do not construct their understanding in isolation. They test and refine their thinking through interactions with others. Simply articulating ideas to another person helps students realize the knowledge they feel comfortable with and the knowledge they lack. By listening to other points of view, students are exposed to new ideas that challenge them to revise their own thinking.


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