–Occasional commentary by Robert E. Yager (NSTA President, 1982-1983)
Inquiry is a term which has been central to reform efforts, certainly those included in the 1996 (old) National Science Education Standards (NSES). Inquiry was a term used to define what science is as well as how science should be taught. The term was “avoided” as such for the “new” Standards – called the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The team responsible has chosen to avoid the term since so few seemed to know its meaning and use associated with current reforms. Inquiry received much attention in the 1996 Standards and especially with the 2000 publication of a whole monograph dealing with it. Often the definition was included to avoid such “troublesome” terms. Too few have been able to use it! Rather than spending even more time and attention, the NGSS leaders decided to use the term “practices” instead.
A quick review of the use of the inquiry term is questioned before merely accepting the new word “Practices”. This 2000 effort to explain inquiry succeeded in terms of identifying five essential features used to illustrate the meaning of the inquiry term. These “Essential” features are: (1) Learners engage in scientifically oriented questions; (2) Learners give priority to evidence in response to questions; (3) Learners formulate explanations from evidence; (4) Learners connect explanations to scientific knowledge; and (5) Learners communicate and justify explanations.
This 2000 Inquiry Monograph also included “four” levels for teachers to use in working on (and accomplishing) the inquiry features. These levels include: (1) Learner engages in question provided by teacher, materials, or other sources; (2) Learner given data and told how to analyze it; (3) Learner provided with evidence; and (4) Learner given steps and procedures for communication. The features and ways readers could accomplish these seem clear and worthy of continued progress!
Rather than entering into debate, the New NGSS decided to ignore inquiry and to use the term “Practices”. It is specifically called “science practices” (actually using science and engineering practices, and technology practices). The term “Practices” seems to avoid the problems with defining and using the term “inquiry” as major focus offered in the 1996 Standards. But, it also illustrates the use of new science terminology for teacher lesson plans, ignores the degree of the meaning of teacher “guidance” offered by teachers, and adds confusion regarding the features concerning inquiry. The new term “practices” seems relevant while also missing the chance to emphasize that all science terms used by scientists result in a “need” for quick ways of communicating with each other. It misses the need to identify objects and events used to answer questions as a valid part of science. It focuses only on Content and not the acts required to practice it.
The forty-one NGSS leaders and teachers decided to abandon the word “inquiry” to avoid the confusion associated with it! Further, its use did not result in significant reforms in classrooms! The decision to avoid the term is important with so many versions of its meaning – both as a tool and a facet of content. But, this type of evidence “collecting” unfortunately does not help with real reforms.
Definitely the NGSS is a major undertaking because of the current interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education. Linking the four aspects of STEM is difficult to accomplish. This is good – but it also provides reformers with a chance to deal with science visibly in terms of actions used by researchers. Perhaps it was wrong to indicate the required features of inquiry as well as arguments concerning the importance of using the term “Scientific” as an adjective with the term “inquiry” when talking or considering ideas for K-16 classrooms concerning science.
The decision of the 1996 Standards team finally centered on the use of science in typical discipline categories consisting of life, physical, earth/space. These foci for the curriculum and teaching were major efforts for completing the NSES. Does STEM provide a better effort for combining science with the three disciplines instead of the “whole” of science? Is it better to keep or move science to what it is, namely, human explorations of the natural world? This encourages ideas actually used when personally “doing” science! Have the objects and events been suggested with real evidence concerning the validity of the interpretations offered? Does use of the term “Practices” help or lessen the focus only on important science “disciplines” and/or ideas? Where is the focus on starting with questions, moving to possible answers, and collecting evidence to indicate the validity of the answers proposed? Do these differences promote student interest while encouraging varying interpretations and the validity of the answers provided? It also should provide ways to involve all students in science processes used to consider science for all!!
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa