7.4 Inquiry Models of Teaching

  • A physics teacher asks students: "Is it a good idea to continue to develop and build new nuclear power plants?
  • An earth science teacher asks students to interpret a set of dinosaur footprints, and generate several alternative hypotheses to explain the pattern of the prints.
  • A biology teacher takes students on a field trip to collect leaves from different trees. Students are asked to create a classification system using the leaves.
  • A chemistry teacher gives students an unknown substance, and asks them to use scientific tests to determine the composition of the material.

In each of the above situations, the science teacher has created a situation in the classroom in which students are asked to formulate their own ideas, state their opinion on an important issue, or to find things out for themselves. It is a radical departure from the Direct/Interactive Teaching model in which the teacher engages students to learn science information or skills. In each of the above scenarios, the student is encouraged to ask questions, analyze specimens or data, draw conclusions, make inferences, or generate hypotheses. In short the student is viewed as an inquirer---a seeker of information, and a problem solver. This is the heart of the inquiry model of teaching.

What is Inquiry?

J. Richard Suchman, the originator of an inquiry teaching program that was widely used throughout the United States once said that "inquiry is the way people learn when they're left alone." To Suchman, inquiry is a natural way that human beings learn about their environment. Think for moment about a very young child left in a play yard with objects free to explore. The child, without any coaxing will begin to explore the objects by throwing, touching, pulling, banging them, and trying to take them apart. The child learns about the objects, and how they interact by exploring them, by developing his or her own ideas about them---in short learning about them by inquiry. Many authors have discussed the nature of inquiry and have used words such as inductive thinking, creative thinking, discovery learning, the scientific method and the like. To many, the essence of inquiry can traced to John Dewey.

Dewey proposed that inquiry is the "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusions to which it tends." To Dewey the grounding of "any belief" occurs through inquiry processes: reason, evidence, inference and generalization. Recently, science educations have proposed various lists of inquiry process. One such list includes: observing, measuring, predicting, inferring, using numbers, using space-time relationships, defining operationally, formulating hypotheses, interpreting data, controlling variables, experimenting and communicating.

In the context of learning, students will engage in inquiry when faced with a "forked-road situation" or a problem that is perplexing and causes some discomfort to them. In the model of inquiry presented in this chapter, the creation of forked-road situations or discomforting problems will be the essence of science inquiry activities.

What about inquiry teaching in school situations? If you recall from Chapter 1, it was shown that the predominant method of teaching in science is recitation, not inquiry. In fact, the evidence is that very little actual time is spent by students doing inquiry activities. Holdzdom and Lutz (1985) report that direct teaching strategies have greater impact than indirect ones. However, they also report that when inquiry models of teaching were implemented, they were very effective in enhancing student performance, attitudes and skill development. They reported that student achievement scores, attitudes, and process and analytic skills were either raised or greatly enhanced by participating in inquiry programs.

While the research supports the inclusion of inquiry models of teaching in secondary science classrooms, there appears to be a reluctance on the part of the science teachers to implement inquiry in the classroom. Several problems need to be recognized in order to overcome the reluctance to implement inquiry in the classroom.

Why is it that science teachers express the importance of inquiry yet pay little attention to it in the classroom. One reason may have to do with teacher education. It is possible that many teachers have not been exposed to inquiry teaching models in their preparation, and therefore lack the skills and strategies to implement inquiry. Some teachers report that inquiry teaching models are difficult to manage, and some report that they don't have the equipment and materials to implement inquiry teaching. Another concern expressed by teachers is that inquiry doesn't work for some students. These teachers claimed that inquiry was only effective with bright students, and it caused too many problems with lower ability students.

In spite of these problems the evidence is that inquiry models of teaching are viable approaches to teaching, and should be part of the science teachers repertoire. Science teachers have had a love affair with inquiry, and feel strongly that it should be a fundamental part of science teaching. Read about what teachers think about inquiry in theScience Teachers Talk section in the Science Teacher Gazette of this chapter. Note how the teachers interviewed link inquiry with discovery, and indicate that the reason they liked science was because of the excitement of finding out about things, probing, exploring---in short inquiring.

Inductive Inquiry

We will explore three models of inquiry teaching: inductive inquiry, discovery learning, and problem solving. We begin with inductive inquiry.

Perhaps the best example of inductive inquiry is the Inquiry Development Program developed a number of years ago by J. Richard Suchman. Suchman produced a number of inquiry programs designed to help students find out about science phenomena through inquiry. Suchman's views on inquiry are quite applicable today, and this statement by him is worth pondering:

"Inquiry is the active pursuit of meaning involving thought processes that change experience to bits of knowledge. When we see a strange object, for example, we may be puzzled about what it is, what it is made of, what it is used for, how it came into being, and so forth. To find answers to questions (emphasis mine) such as these we might examine the object closely, subject it to certain tests, compare it with other, more familiar objects, or ask people about it, and for a time our searching would be aimed at finding out whether any of these theories made sense. Or we might simply cast about for information that would suggest new theories for us to test. All these activities---observing, theorizing, experimenting, theory testing---are part of inquiry. The purpose of the activity is to gather enough information to put together theories that will make new experiences less strange and more meaningful" (Suchman, 1968, p.1).

The key to the inquiry model proposed by Suchman is providing "problem-focus events." Suchman's program provided films of such events, but he also advocated demonstrations, and developed a series of idea books for the purpose of helping students organize concepts. It is the inquiry demonstrations that we use to help you develop inquiry lessons.

The Inquiry Session

As mentioned above, the inquiry demonstration is a method to present a problem to your students. The demonstration is not designed to illustrate a concept or principle of science. It is instead designed to present a discrepancy or a problem for the students to explore. In fact, we refer to inquiry demonstrations as discrepant events. An inquiry session is designed to engage the class in an exploration of a problem staged by means of the discrepant event. An inquiry session should begin with the presentation of a problem through a demonstration (the discrepant event), a description of an intriguing phenomena, or a problem posed by the use of prepared materials (see the inquiry box activity below). In Minds on Science, you will be introduced to an alternative approach to creating an "inquiry situation" by means of using EEEPs (see Chapter 8).

Suchman proposed six rules or procedures that teachers have found helpful in conducting inquiry sessions (Figure 7.13). According to the inquiry model, students learn that in order to obtain information they must ask questions. Questioning becomes the students initial method of gathering data. Thus the climate of the inquiry classroom must foster the axiom: 'there are no dumb questions." Students must come to believe that you will accept their questions---no holds barred. For example if you use the "Wood Sinks and Floats" (page 000), students will immediately be drawn to the discrepancy that one of the blocks of wood sinks. Once the event is presented, the teacher must be sure the students understand the real problem. Once the problem is established, the students engage in the inquiry session to construct a theory to account for the focus event. The major portion of the inquiry session is devoted to the students asking questions to gather data, which is then used to formulate one or more theories. You should refer to the "procedures for an inquiry session" before conducting an inquiry session yourself (Figure 7.13 and 7.13a).


Procedures for an Inquiry Session



Rule 1: Questions

The questions by the students should be phrased in such a way that they can be answered yes or no. This shifts the burden of thinking onto the students.

Rule 2: Freedom to ask questions

A student may ask as many questions as desired once they begin. This encouraged the student to use his or her previous questions to formulate new ones to pursue a reasonable theory.

Rule 3: Teacher response to statements of theory

When students suggest a theory, the teacher should refrain from evaluating it. The teacher might simply record the theory, or ask a question about the student's theory.

Rule 4: Testing theories

Students should be allowed to test their theories at any time.

Rule 5: Cooperation

Students should be encouraged to work in teams in order to confer and discuss their theories.

Rule 6: Experimenting

The teacher should provide materials, texts, reference books so that the students can explore their ideas.

Inquiry Activities

There are numerous sources of inquiry activities (including discrepant events). I recommend the inquiry activities developed by Tik L. Liem. He has put together hundreds of discrepant events and inquiry activities that you can use in all areas of science.

Following are some examples of inquiry activities and discrepant events.

The Inquiry Box. Of all the approaches to help students learn about inquiry, the inquiry box might be considered the universal strategy. The inquiry box can be made with a shoe box, and it should be painted black. For a classroom of students, you could prepare several inquiry boxes. Students are given the box, and asked to determine what the inside of the box is like. An inquiry box contains a marble, which is the main probe that the student can use to determine the pattern that exists within the box. You can prepare different patterns by taping pieces of cardboard in interesting and perplexing patterns.

The inquiry activity consists of having teams of students explore each inquiry box that you have prepared. The student's theory consists of a diagram of the possible pattern in each box.

The Wood Sinks and Floats Discrepant Event. The teacher shows two blocks of wood, one much larger than the other. They are placed on an equal-arm balance and the results shows that the larger block is more massive than the smaller block. The blocks are then placed in container of water. The larger, more massive block floats, while the smaller and less massive ones sinks.This discrepant event leads to an inquiry into the following questions: Why did the lighter block sink and the heavier one float? Why do objects sink and float? Science principles that emerge include displacement, Archimedes' principle, and pressure.

The Coin Drop and Throw. The teacher places one coin (a quarter) on the edge of a table and holds another in the air next to it. At the same instant he flicks the quarter on the table so that it flies horizontally off the table, and drops the other quarter straight down. Both coins strike the floor at the same time. An inquiry about "Why do the coins strike the floor at the same time? ensues. Hint: practice this demonstration before you perform it with a group of students. Science principles that will emerge from this inquiry include vectors, universal gravitation, and Newton's second law of motion.

The Double Pendulum. The teacher places a long rod (meter stick) across the backs of two chairs. From the rod two simple pendulums of the same length are hung. One of the pendulums is started swinging. The other is allowed to hang straight down. In a few minutes the stationary pendulum begins swinging as the arc of the swinging pendulum decreases. The inquiry focuses on: Why does the second pendulum begin to swing? Why the arc of the first pendulum decrease? The science principles in this inquiry include periodic motion and conservation of energy.

The Balloon in Water. A balloon is partially inflated, tied shut and tied to a heavy object (a rock). It is dropped into the bottom of a tall cylinder filled almost to the top with water. A rubber sheet is placed over the top of the cylinder and sealed with a rubber band. The teacher pushes on the rubber cover, and the balloon becomes slightly smaller. When the rubber cover is released, the balloon returns to its original size. The inquiry focuses on Why does the balloon become smaller and then larger again? Principles of science in this inquiry include pressure, gases, liquids and solids, and Newton's first law of motion.

Deductive Inquiry

Another form of inquiry teaching is deductive inquiry, which we can contrast with inductive inquiry. In this approach to inquiry, the teacher presents a generalization, principle or concept, and then engages students in one or more inquiry activities to help understand the concept. For example suppose the teacher's lesson plan calls for the introduction to the differences between physical and chemical weathering. The lesson begins with an explanation of physical weathering. Next the teacher discusses the attributes of chemical weathering. During the discussion of physical weathering the teacher would discuss various types of mechanical weathering including frost action, drying, and cracking. Chemical weathering processes such as carbonation, oxidation, hydration and leaching would be introduced.


Inductive and deductive inquiry contrasted in concept maps

After the development of the major concepts through presentation and questioning, the teacher then engages the students in an inquiry activity in which they explore the concepts of physical and chemical weathering. One approach that has been successful with these concepts is the following. The teacher places in individual trays, examples of earth materials that have been effected by either physical or chemical weathering (e.g. rocks with cracks, soil, mud cracks, plants growing in cracks in rocks, staining evident in the minerals of rocks). Working in teams, students study each tray and hypothesize what caused the change they observe. After all teams have investigated each tray, students write their hypotheses on a large chart on the chalkboard. The teacher leads a post-activity discussion in which the students defend their hypotheses.

Most of the science textbooks written for middle and secondary science courses contain hands-on activities that reinforce the deductive inquiry approach. If the activities are used in the context of deductive inquiry they can be extremely helpful in aiding students' understanding of the concepts in the course.

Discovery Learning

Discovery learning, a concept advocated by Jerome Bruner, is at the essence of how students learn concepts and ideas. Bruner talked about the "act of discovery" as if it were a performance on the part of the student. To Bruner, discovery, "is in its essence a matter of rearranging or transforming evidence in such a way that one is enabled to go beyond the evidence so reassembled to new insights. Bruner believed that discovery learning could only take place if the teacher and student worked together in a cooperative mode. He called this type of teaching "hypothetical teaching" and differentiated it from "expository teaching." In Chapter 1 referred to these forms of teaching as "engagement" versus "delivery."

Discovery learning in the science classroom engages the student in science activities designed to help then assimilate new concepts and principles. Discovery activities help guide the students to assimilate new information. In such activities students will be engaged in observing, measuring, inferring, predicting, and classifying.

There are a number of practical suggestions that you can implement to foster discovery learning in the classroom.

1. Encourage curiosity. Since the student in discovery learning is the active agent in learning, the science teacher should foster an atmosphere of curiosity. Discrepant events and inquiry activities are excellent ways to foster curiosity. Having interesting and thought provoking bulletin boards is another way to arouse curiosity.

2. Help students understand the structure of the new information. Bruner stressed that students should understand the structure of the information to be learned. He felt that teachers needed to organize the information in a way that would be most easily grasped by the student. Bruner suggested that knowledge could be structured by a set of actions, by means of graphics, or by means of symbols or logical statements. Demonstrating the behavior of objects is a more powerful way for some students to grasp Newton's laws of motion, rather than by the three classic verbal statements.

3. Design inductive science labs or activities. The use of inductive science activities is based on the assumption that the teacher is aware of the generalization, principle or concept that the students are to discover. An inductive lab or activity is designed so that the student is actively engaged in observing, measuring, classifying, predicting and inferring. Generally speaking the teacher provides the specific cases, situations or examples that students will investigate as they are guided to make conceptual discoveries. An example of an inductive science activity is the footprint puzzle (see below) in which students are guided to make discoveries about the behavior and environment of dinosaurs that made these prints. After the students have explored the footprint puzzle, and have written at least three alternative hypotheses to explain the tracks, the teacher leads a discussion to help the students discover some concepts about the dinosaurs.

One of the points Bruner made about discovery was that it the is result of making things simpler for the student. In science, making the science concepts simpler through inductive activities is a far more powerful approach than presenting vast amounts of information about the concept.


The Dinosaur Footprint Activity

4. Encourage students to develop coding systems. Coding systems help students make connections among objects and phenomena. Bruner felt that students could learn the method of discovery---the heuristics of discovery---if provided with many puzzling situations. For example, giving students a box of rocks and asking them to invent a classification system of their own would help them understand the principles of coding and classification. The computer is a powerful learning tool in this regard. Programs are available to enable students to practice working with puzzling situations and develop expertise in coding.

5. Design activities that are problem oriented. Students need to be engaged in problem solving on a regular basis if they are to learn about the heuristics of discovery. Bruner said "It is my hunch that it is only through the exercise of problem solving and the effort of discovery that one learns the working heuristics of discovery." In short, he said that students need practice in problem solving or inquiry in order understand discovery. Activities that are problem oriented often have a simplistic ring to them. For example, here are some problems, anyone of which, could be a learning activity for students:

• . Find a million of something and prove it.

• . Go outside and find evidence for change.

6. Foster intuitive thinking in the classroom. Intuitive thinking to Bruner implied grasping the meaning, significance, or structure of a problem without explicit analytical evidence or action. Here is where Bruner thought that playfulness in learning was important. Students in a classroom whose teacher values intuition knows that it is acceptable to play with all sorts of combinations, extrapolations, and guesses, and still be wrong. Including some science activities that encourage guessing and estimating will foster intuitive thinking. Qualitative activities in which students are not encouraged to find a specific answer to a problem will encourage intuitive thought. Skolnick, Langbort, and Day (1997), in their book How to Encourage Girls in Math & Science suggest a number of intuitive strategies including estimating, and engaging in activities with many right answers and multiple solutions.

Problem Solving

Problem solving as a method of inquiry can be used to teach problem solving skills and to engage students in the investigation of real problems. Don't be fooled by questions and problems that appear at the end of the chapters in science text books. For the most part, these "problems" are merely questions that require students to look up the answer in the text, or plug in the numbers of a formula.

Problem solving in the context of inquiry engages students in problems that real and relevant to them. The problems do not have to be ones that students generate (although this approach is probably more powerful). They can be problems that the teacher has presented to the students for investigation. Science, unfortunately, is often presented in textbooks as "problem-free." That is, the content of science is arranged in a very neat and tidy way. The truth of the matter is that science is often messy and cluttered, and full of problems.

There are many approaches to dealing with the question of problem solving as a model of inquiry teaching. Dorothy Gabel (1989)points out that some science educators prefer an approach that focuses on process skills, others concentrate on helping students solve global qualitative problems, while others focus on mathematical problem solving.

For example, Charles Ault (1989) makes these suggestions for teaching problem solving in earth science classes. These suggestions are quite applicable to physical and life science.

  • Identify the conceptual models needed to reason in specific domains. For example, accounting for falling raindrops is not simple. How do droplets form in the sky? How do they get bigger? What keeps small droplets suspended? Do ice and water coexist in clouds? Do static charges make drops coalesce or not? When rain stops, why are there often still clouds in the sky? Good conceptual models have the raw materials for constructing answers to unusual questions as well as standard ones.
  • Solve problems about phenomena familiar to students' experiences. Include plenty of usable content that can resolve dilemmas, such as those dealing with condensation nuclei and the vapor pressure of ice crystals versus water droplets in the preceding example.
  • Use props to assist visualization and abstract reasoning. If there are distortions of scale, make them explicit.Have students construct three-dimensional, two-dimensional, and verbal representations of problems. Link the levels of representations.
  • Ask for oral and written restatements of problems, emphasizing precise meanings of terms and relationships in models.
  • Connect abstractions to everyday experience by analogy: For example, compare escalators and merry-go-rounds to relative motion and orbit. Be certain that important relationships are well understood in the context of the analogies.
  • Use imagination and imagery to express scale: Contrast ancient toeholds in the Betatakin ruins of the Anasazi people with the even-older excavation of the canyon and cavern. Try body language to convey patterns in Earth forms or motion in celestial bodies.
  • Remember that the complexity of teaching and learning Earth science vastly exceeds the ability of research to offer prescriptive advice.