The National Science Education Standards use the word “inquiry” in two ways. It was to be a form of content while also being a way science must be taught. Some argue that the term inquiry needs to have “scientific” in front of it (that is, scientific inquiry) before it has real meaning and use in science education. Such varying positions certainly can cause communication problems and often interfere with success with current reforms.
Inquiry was so important that the National Research Council (NRC) in 2000 prepared a 202-page volume to clarify the use of inquiry in the reform of science advocated in the 1996 National Standards. That volume identified five essential features of inquiry and what it should mean for teachers, students, and model classes. These five features include: 1) learner engages in scientifically oriented questions; 2) learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions; 3) learner formulates explanations from evidence; 4) learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge; and 5) learner communicates and justifies explanations (NRC, 2000, p. 29). The focus is clearly on learners!
The NRC document also focused on the important variations that inquiry could be approached in science classrooms. In many respects teachers should know about the features that can justify changes in typical teacher actions that characterize traditional teaching. The list of Essential Features was followed by ways each feature could be used and illustrated in four levels for success in accomplishing each feature. But, why are the four “variations” for approaching the Essential Features considered to be important, or necessary? They start with a focus on student actions–but move finally to a focus on teacher actions.
Unfortunately the fourth level for doing inquiry in classrooms identifies the teacher as the “guider” of inquiry in the classroom. Most teachers are content with such “guiding” and clearly relate it to the teaching they have always done. It requires minimal change in “Teaching.” Do the other levels for realizing the Features of Inquiry really work? Do they or are they but ways of lessening the real meaning of inquiry for students?
In several Action Research projects central to two major Professional Development efforts in Iowa over three decades science teachers new to the notion of current reforms were polled. Over 90% were clearly at this fourth level indicating what teachers often do to illustrate inquiry in their classrooms and labs; none were found in level 1 (student-centered). They displayed stated actions for all five of the essential features. The specific descriptions of level four are: 1) learner engages in questions provided by teacher, materials, or other sources; 2) learner is given data and told how to analyze it; 3) learner is expected to provide evidence; 4) learner is asked to suggest possible connections; 5) learner is given steps and procedures for communication about teaching as inquiry (NRC, 2000, p. 29). Ideally reformers would hope to see much more use that would illustrate student-centeredness.
All of the variations in teacher use of inquiry suggest ways teachers can achieve and encourage inquiry for their students; the greatest success is with teachers who give guidance (while not being too “directive”). But, is that an accurate/desirable evaluation of reform teaching? Does it achieve student-centeredness in terms of experiencing and carrying out inquiry? Does it make sense for teachers to set all perameters for what is taught and how?
If inquiry is to be recommended as essential content as well as a way of teaching to accomplish the current reforms, we once more need to focus on what changes are basic concerning teaching and less on it as information comprising the curriculum. It may be impossible to guide most students in the typical “teacher-in-control” classrooms if it is something students can do for themselves. Perhaps inquiry for all teachers (and students) must exemplify what science actually is if current reforms are to succeed? Again, it starts with questions and varying attempts to answer them– by students not teachers!
–Robert E. Yager
Professor of Science education
University of Iowa
Image of students in science class courtesy of Pennstatelive.