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 2 of 3)

  1. Effective learning requires that students take control of their own learning.

Good learners are “metacognitive.” This means that they are aware of their own learning and can analyze and modify it when necessary. Specifically, students must be able to recognize when their understanding conflicts with evidence. They must be able to identify what type of evidence they need in order to test their ideas and how to modify their beliefs in a manner consistent with that evidence.

  1. The ability to apply knowledge to novel situations (that is, to transfer learning) is affected by the degree to which students learn with understanding.

Ideally, students solidify their learning by applying their understanding to new contexts. They receive feedback from experiences in these new situations and modify their learning accordingly. This process is facilitated by doing tasks that students see as useful and that are appropriate to their skill level. Allowing adequate time for students to acquire new information and make connections to their prior knowledge is essential.

cover of the Inquiry and the National Education Science Standards guidebook
Figure 4. Inquiry and the National Education Science Standards brought together findings on student learning from many disciplines.

The NRC research findings point out similarities between students’ natural curiosity and methods of inquiring about the world and scientists’ more formal approach to problem solving. As both children and adults learn, they pass through similar stages of discovery. As stated in How People Learn,

An alternative to simply processing through a series of exercises that derive from a scope and sequence chart is to expose students to the major features of a subject domain as they arise naturally in problem situations. Activities can be structured so that students are able to explore, explain, extend, and evaluate their progress. Ideas are best introduced when students see a need or a reason for their use—this helps them see relevant uses of knowledge to make sense of what they are learning.10

This research-based recommendation supports the use of inquiry-based instruction, specifically calling for a structure that allows students to revise their conceptual framework. This structure is consistent with the BSCS 5E Instructional Model used in this supplement.

4 Inquiry in the National Science Education Standards

Inquiry is a multifaceted 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. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking and consideration of alternative explanations.9

Human inquiry about the natural world exists in a wide variety of forms. The NSES recognizes inquiry as both a learning goal and a teaching method. To that end, the content standards for the Science as Inquiry section in the NSES include both abilities and understandings of inquiry. The NSES identifies five essential elements of inquiry teaching and learning that apply across all grade levels.

photo of student raising her hand in class
Figure 5. Teachers play a critical role in helping students ask questions that can be answered by scientific investigations.
  1. Learners are engaged by scientifically oriented questions.

Scientists recognize two primary types of questions.11 The existence questions often ask why. Why do some animals have hair, and why do we sleep? Causal questions ask how. How does a mountain form, how does an insect breathe? Sometimes science cannot answer existence questions. The teacher plays a critical role in guiding students to questions that can be answered with means at their disposal. Sometimes this simply involves changing a “why” question to a “how” question.

  1. Learners give priority to evidence, which allows them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented questions.

Scientists obtain evidence as scientific data by recording observations and making measurements. The accuracy of data can be checked by repeating the observations or making new measurements. In the classroom, students use data to construct explanations for scientific phenomena. According to the NSES, “explanations of how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.”

  1. Learners formulate explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented questions.

This element of inquiry differs from the previous one in that it stresses the path from evidence to explanation, rather than the criteria used to define evidence. Scientific explanations are consistent with the available evidence and are subject to criticism and revision. Furthermore, scientific explanations extend beyond current knowledge and propose new understandings that extend the knowledge base. The same is true for students who generate new ideas by building on their personal knowledge base.

  1. Learners evaluate their explanations in light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflecting scientific understanding.

Learners give priority to evidence, which allows them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented questions.

Scientific inquiry differs from other forms of inquiry in that proposed explanations may be revised or thrown out altogether in light of new information. Students may consider alternative explanations as they compare their results with those of others. Students also should become aware of how their results relate to current scientific knowledge.

  1. Learners communicate and justify their proposed explanations.
photo of three students at a whiteboard watching a fourth student write on the board
Figure 6. Communicating results is an important part of scientific inquiry.

Scientists communicate their results in such detail that other scientists can attempt to reproduce their work. Replication provides science with an important vehicle for quality control. Other scientists can also use the results to investigate new but related questions. Students, too, benefit by sharing their results with their classmates. This gives them an opportunity to ask questions, examine evidence, identify faulty reasoning, consider whether conclusions go beyond the data, and suggest alternative explanations.

Inquiry lessons can be described as either full or partial with respect to the five essential elements of inquiry described in the table Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations. Full-inquiry lessons make use of each element, although any individual element can vary with respect to how much direction comes from the learner and how much comes from the teacher. For example, inquiry begins with a scientifically oriented question. This question may come from the student, or the student may choose the question from a list. Alternatively, the teacher may simply provide the question.

Inquiry lessons are described as partial when one or more of the five essential elements of inquiry are missing. For example, if the teacher demonstrates how something works rather than allowing students to discover it for themselves, then that lesson is regarded as partial inquiry. Lessons that vary in their level of direction are needed to develop students’ inquiry abilities. When young children are first introduced to inquiry lessons, they are not developmentally or academically ready to benefit from full inquiry lessons. Partial or guided inquiry lessons usually work for them then. Guided inquiry may also work well when the goal is to have students earn some particular science concept. In contrast, a full or open inquiry is preferred when the goal is to have students hone their skills of scientific reasoning. The following Content Standards for Science as Inquiry, Grades 5–8, table lists abilities and understandings about inquiry appropriate for middle school students that are taken from the NSES content standards for Science as Inquiry.9

Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations
Essential Feature Variations
Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions Learner poses a question Learner selects among questions, poses new questions Learner sharpens or clarifies a question provided by the teacher, materials, or other source Learner engages in a question provided by the teacher, materials, or other source
Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions Learner determines what constitutes evidence and collects it Learner is directed to collect certain data Learner is given data and asked to analyze Learner is given data and told how to analyze
Learner formulates explanations from evidence Learner formulates explanations after summarizing evidence Learner is guided in process of formulating explanations from evidence Learner is given possible ways to use evidence to formulate explanation Learner is provided with evidence
Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge Learner independently examines other resources and forms the links to explanations Learner is directed toward areas and sources of scientific knowledge Learner is given possible connections  
Learner communicates and justifies explanations Learner forms reasonable and logical argument to communicate explanation Learner is coached in development of communication Learner is provided broad guidelines to use to sharpen communication Learner is given steps and procedures for communication
Graphic describing the amount of learner self-direction and the amount of direction from teacher or material.
Source: National Research Council. 2002. Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Content Standards for Science as Inquiry, Grades 5–8

Fundamental Abilities Necessary to Do Scientific Inquiry

  • Identify questions that can be answered through scientific investigations.
  • Design and conduct a scientific investigation.
  • Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data.
  • Develop descriptions, explanations, predictions, and models using evidence.
  • Think critically and logically to make the relationships between evidence and explanations.
  • Recognize and analyze alternative explanations and predictions.
  • Use mathematics in all aspects of scientific inquiry.

Fundamental Understandings about Scientific Inquiry

  • Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations.
  • Current scientific knowledge and understanding guide scientific investigations.
  • Mathematics is important in all aspects of scientific inquiry.
  • Technology used to gather data enhances accuracy and allows scientists to analyze and quantify results of investigations.
  • Scientific explanations emphasize evidence, have logically consistent arguments, and use scientific principles, models, and theories.
  • Science advances through legitimate skepticism.
  • Scientific investigations sometimes result in new ideas and phenomena for study, generate new methods or procedures for an investigation, or develop new technologies to improve the collection of data.
Source: National Research Council. 1996. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

5 Misconceptions about Inquiry-Based Instruction

Despite the consensus found in educational research, teachers may have different ideas about the meaning of inquiry-based instruction. At one extreme are teachers who believe they are practicing inquiry by posing questions to their students and guiding them toward answers. At the other extreme are teachers who feel they are not practicing inquiry unless they allow their students to engage in a lengthy open-ended process that directly mimics scientific research. Given these two extremes, it is not surprising that misconceptions about inquiry-based instruction abound. Some of the more prevalent misconceptions have been wrongly attributed to the NSES.11 These mistaken notions about inquiry serve to deter efforts to reform science education. The materials in this curriculum supplement have been designed to dispel misconceptions about inquiry-based instruction.

Misconception 1: Inquiry-based instruction is the application of the “scientific method.” Teachers have a tendency to teach their students in the same way that they were taught. Many teachers learned as students that science is a method for answering questions and solving problems. They were told that the process of science can be reduced to a series of five or six simple steps. This concept of the scientific method in American science education goes back to John Dewey during the first part of the 20th century. In reality, there is no single scientific method. Scientists routinely use a variety of approaches, techniques, and processes in their work. The notion that scientific inquiry can be reduced to a simple step-by-step procedure is misleading and fails to acknowledge the creativity inherent in the scientific process.

In reality, there is no single scientific method.

Misconception 2: Inquiry-based instruction requires that students generate and pursue their own questions. For some teachers, open-ended inquiry seems to best mirror the process of inquiry practiced by scientists. They may believe that if such open-ended inquiry is not possible, then they should resort to more traditional forms of instruction. In fact, there is no single form of inquiry that is best in every situation. In many instances, the educational goal is to have students learn some specific science content. In such cases, it is the questions themselves, rather than their source, that are most important. Even if the teacher provides the student with a question, an inquiry-based approach to the answer is still possible.

Misconception 3: Inquiry-based instruction can take place without attention to science concepts. During the 1960s, it became fashionable to promote the idea of process over substance. Teachers were sometimes told that they (and their students) could learn the process of inquiry in isolation and then apply it on their own to subject matter of their choice. However, this elevation of process over substance negates lessons learned from research on student learning. Students first begin to construct their learning using their prior knowledge of the topic and then inquire into areas that they do not yet understand.

photo of two students in safety glasses conducting an experiment
Figure 7. Hands-on activities help engage students’ interest. Their use, however, does not guarantee that science concepts are understood.

Misconception 4: All science should be taught through inquiry-based instruction. Inquiry-based instruction is a tool used by teachers to help them attain educational goals for their students. Despite its usefulness, inquiry is not the most appropriate tool for every instructional situation. Teaching science, as well as the practice of science, requires varied approaches. Using any single method exclusively is less effective than using a combination of methods. Ultimately, using a single method becomes boring for the student. Inquiry-based instruction is perhaps most appropriate when teaching concepts that do not conform to common student preconceptions or that require students to analyze discrepant information. Students tend to need more time to construct their understandings of abstract concepts than they need for more concrete information.

Misconception 5: Inquiry-based instruction can be easily implemented through use of hands-on activities and educational kits. Such lessons and materials help teachers implement inquiry-based instruction in the classroom. They also help students focus their thinking in appropriate areas. However, there is no guarantee that student learning will go beyond performing the tasks at hand. It is possible for a student to successfully complete an experiment and yet not understand the science concept it is designed to teach. Inquiry-based instruction requires students to actively participate by gathering evidence that helps them develop an understanding of a concept. The teacher must evaluate how well the lesson or materials incorporate the essential features of inquiry and use them accordingly.

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