Differences between “Inquiry” and “Practices”

Nature Journaling“Inquiry” and “practices” are recognized actions in science teaching that are used in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).  “Inquiry” was a term which was central to many science education reform efforts–certainly those indicated in the “old” 1996 National Science Education Standards (NSES).  In 1991 the NSTA President asked the National Research Council (NRC) to form a committee to do a background analysis concerning the word “inquiry” for use in identifying how science should be taught in schools.  This resulted in little controversy!  A definition of “Inquiry” has been described as simply asking questions, proposing possible answers, and establishing the validity of proposed answers.  This sequence constitutes the “doing” of science. 

Science is not something we “practice” to achieve known results as in engineering.  Scientists do things differently, and we should specify these differences when referring to science in the NGSS!  The word “practices” should not be used to identify the meaning of “inquiry” when defining science.  Science is not something that is done over and over until the desired outcome has been accomplished as it is with engineering.  Science focuses on identifying the unknown!  It seeks explanations of objects and events encountered by humans and includes evidence to support the explanations proposed.   

The term inquiry” is often associated with actions by police, lawyers, FBI and CIA, political leaders, business executives, and others who formulate questions and try to find answers to them.  “Inquiry” provides a focus for student actions as well as actions of teachers.  All variations of the word “inquiry” used by teachers suggest ways teachers can achieve and encourage “inquiry” for students.   “Inquiry” is not accomplished by teachers setting parameters to determine what and how something is taught.  Teachers often provide guidance (while not being too directive).    

The word “practices” is also associated with numerous professions, for example, medical doctors who “practice” medicine, lawyers who “practice law, actors “practicing” words for a play, dancers “practicing” routine dance steps, artists who “practice” to perfect their painting/drawing skills, as well as engineers working to provide designs for stronger bridges, safer building structures, and even designs of major highways.  “Inquiry” is not a primary focus for engineering. Engineers start with an idea that indicates what they are trying to achieve; they know in advance what they want.  Conversely, scientists are always searching for the unknown as they explore the world around them. 

Robert E. Yager
Professor of science Education
University of Iowa

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