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 3 of 3)

Misconception 6: Student interest generated by hands-on activities ensures that inquiry teaching and learning are occurring. Student engagement in the topic is a critical first step in learning. Many students certainly prefer hands-on activities to sitting through a lecture. This enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into learning. The teacher must assess the students’ level of mental engagement with inquiry, challenge naive conceptions, ask probing questions, and prompt students to revise, refine, and extend their understanding.

Misconception 7: Inquiry-based instruction is too difficult to implement in the classroom. Teachers unfamiliar with inquiry-based instruction may be uncomfortable trying something new. They may reason that they were not taught using these methods and question why their students should be any different. Common excuses for not using inquiry are that it takes too much time, does not work with large classes, or does not work with less-capable students. These frustrations typically result from improper use of inquiry methods rather than from any inherent problem with the inquiry approach itself. When teachers understand the essential features of inquiry, its flexibility in the classroom, and students’ willingness to embrace it, they usually come to regard it as an essential strategy in their teaching.

6 Important Elements of Scientific Inquiry for this Module

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.

Teaching the process of scientific inquiry might seem different from teaching content-related material in the life or physical sciences. As the basis for Content Standard A in the National Science Education Standards, scientific inquiry can be broken down into discrete steps or methods that students can practice, just as content can be broken down into distinct concepts that students can explore. The process of scientific inquiry involves generating questions, designing investigations to answer questions, making predictions based on scientific concepts, gathering data, using evidence to propose explanations, and communicating scientific explanations (see the Essential Feature column in the table Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry and Their Variations).

It is important to recognize that the process of scientific inquiry is not linear. When students learn about the process, they often try to simplify it into a series of steps to follow. Teachers, too, often teach inquiry as the “scientific method” with a lock-step linear process. Why do students and teachers try to make inquiry a step-by-step process? They are misled by the formal, orderly way scientific research is published. Students and teachers may believe that scientists went about answering their questions in the same orderly fashion. In fact, that is not how science is done. Aspects of scientific inquiry interact in complex ways. New evidence, new observations, and new lines of questioning can lead scientists in a circuitous route, the end of which, they hope, is a good explanation for a set of phenomena. For example, questions lead to the design of an investigation, and the evidence gathered through the investigation may lead to more questions.5

This module focuses on three elements of scientific inquiry: science as a way of knowing, scientifically testable questions, and scientific evidence and explanations. Although these elements are the focus, students are exposed to other elements, such as conducting investigations, using mathematics in inquiry, and communicating scientific explanations.

6.1 The Nature of Scientific Inquiry: Science as a Way of Knowing

An important aspect of scientific inquiry is that science is only one of many ways people explore, explain, and come to know the world around them. There are threads of inquiry and discovery in almost every way that humans know the world. All of the ways of knowing contribute to humanity’s general body of knowledge.

Each way of knowing addresses different issues and answers different questions. Science is a way of knowing that accumulates data from observations and experiments, draws evidence-based conclusions, and tries to explain things about the natural world. Science excludes supernatural explanations and personal wishes.8

In some ways of knowing, the meaning of statements or products is open to interpretation by any viewer. Science is different because it is characterized by a specific process of investigation that acquires evidence to support or reject a particular explanation of the world. While the meaning of the evidence can be debated, the evidence itself is based on careful measurement and can be reproducibly collected by any individual using appropriate techniques.

Science is often presented as a collection of facts, definitions, and step-by-step procedures. However, science is much more than this. Through science we ask questions, collect data, and acquire new knowledge that contributes to our growing understanding of the natural world.

6.2 Scientifically Testable Questions

photo of abstract art with dot patterns and photo of test papers showing dot patterns
Figure 8. A work of art is open to the interpretation of the viewer. Scientific evidence is also open to interpretation, though it can be collected by different people using appropriate techniques.

Students are naturally curious and often spontaneously ask questions. Questions foster students’ interest in science, leading them to make observations and conduct investigations.6 Asking questions is part of the process of scientific inquiry, but not all questions can be answered using scientific investigations. Questions can be divided into two categories: existence and causal. Existence questions, which often begin with why, generally require recall of factual knowledge.4, 6 Causal questions, which begin with how, what if, does, and I wonder, can be addressed through scientific investigations.6 True cause and effect is very difficult to prove scientifically. Often, scientists rely on statistical and other analytical methods to determine the likelihood that certain relationships exist.

Science answers questions that are different from those answered by other ways of knowing. Testable questions are answered through observations or experiments that provide evidence. Students need guidance and practice to be able to distinguish questions that are testable from those that are not. A testable question meets these criteria:

As students develop their understanding of scientific inquiry, they should be able to generate their own testable questions. Students who are inexperienced with scientific inquiry ask factual questions more frequently because they are easy to generate. Students ask more meaningful questions once they have had more experience asking questions and have learned how questions influence the design of an investigation.3, 5 Teachers can improve the questioning skills of students through the following strategies:

6.3 Scientific Evidence and Explanations

Through science we ask questions, collect data, and acquire new knowledge that contributes to our growing understanding of the natural world.

Scientists conduct investigations for a variety of reasons. They might want to discover why a particular phenomenon happens, explain something they only recently observed, or test conclusions of other investigations that they or their peers have conducted. Investigations might involve experiments, observations, or modeling. All these investigations provide evidence for the patterns, relationships, or phenomena that scientists are studying. Evidence is free of opinion and can be gathered by others with similar results.

Scientific explanations are based on a body of evidence and use scientific principles.9 Scientists use evidence to establish relationships and causes of phenomena. They recognize that scientific explanations must be based on evidence. Knowing when they cross the line into explanations that are not consistent with their evidence is part of what makes an effective scientist and what makes science different from other ways of knowing about the world.

7 Teaching Scientific Inquiry

photo of students in classroom with teacher standing behind a student and reviewing her papers
Figure 9. When teaching inquiry, keep the abilities and understandings of inquiry in the foreground.

When teaching inquiry, keep the abilities and understandings of inquiry in the foreground and scientific content in the background. That is not always easy to do. In Lesson 3 of this module, you might be tempted to focus on the potential health problem described in the scenario. However, to teach inquiry effectively, you will need to focus, instead, on questions such as,

This does not mean that you should ignore content. You want students to understand that the process of inquiry results in a greater understanding of the subject matter. However, the subject matter must be simple enough that it does not obscure or detract from the students’ ability to learn how to conduct investigations. The ultimate goal is for students to recognize that they should be accomplishing both—learning science as they are doing science. If they aren’t, they aren’t doing true inquiry.

7.1 Posing Questions in the Inquiry Classroom

Questions are not only an important part of abilities and understandings of inquiry for students; they are also a valuable tool for teachers. Teachers’ questions engage and motivate students, assess prior knowledge and preconceptions, focus and clarify class discussions, keep students on task, and guide student problem solving. Knowing how and when to ask questions is an important aspect of teaching inquiry.6

Students may be inexperienced at making observations. Questions (such as, What do you notice about … ?) help students figure out how to start making observations. Broadly focused questions allow students to decide what they should look for on their own, while narrowly focused questions help students recognize details that they might miss.4 During student investigations, ask action questions that get students to think and respond at higher cognitive levels. Questions may include, What do you think will happen if you try … ? and What do you think you should do next?6

During inquiry lessons, students participate in class discussions in which they are asked to provide explanations. Initially, students may provide vague or general explanations. Encourage them to better articulate their thoughts by asking them 1) to be more specific by providing an example or 2) to explain the significance of their statement. Also use follow-up questions to redirect students. Follow-up questions may contain clues to steer students to a conclusion when they are having difficulty coming up with an answer.6

8 An Example of Scientific Inquiry: Epidemiology

When students are learning the abilities and understanding of inquiry, it is helpful for them to experience a good model for inquiry. In Lesson 3 of this module, students play the role of epidemiologists for a community health department. Epidemiology is a branch of medical science that deals with the incidence and distribution of diseases. Epidemiologists investigate the cause of a disease, how it spreads, and what can be done to control and prevent it. Like all scientists, epidemiologists use the process of scientific inquiry in their work.

city map with a triangle drawn around part of the city; a circled cluster of dots is within the triangle and several separate dots are outside the triangle
Figure 10. Epidemiologists seek explanations for clusters of disease.

As students role-play epidemiologists, they are guided through the process of inquiry. Guided inquiry is a helpful way to introduce students to the understandings and abilities of inquiry (see Inquiry in the National Science Education Standards). Guide students through the process of inquiry by directing them to specific questions and providing them with specific information to investigate. As students gain more experience with this type of guided inquiry, they will, over time, be able to conduct more of the process on their own.

In this module, students see that they are following the process of scientific inquiry by asking questions, making observations, gathering evidence, and proposing explanations based on their evidence. When students recognize this in their investigations as epidemiologists, they are more inclined to learn about the process.

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