Earlier this month I shared with you my view that science is an exciting and dynamic process of discovery. Today, I expand upon that definition to explore the importance of inquiry, specifically scientific inquiry. The National Science Education Standards (NSES p. 23) defines scientific inquiry as “the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Scientific inquiry also refers to the activities through which students develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world.”
Unfortunately, our traditional educational system has worked in a way that discourages the natural process of inquiry. Students become less prone to ask questions as they move through the grade levels. In traditional schools, students learn not to ask too many questions, instead to listen and repeat the expected answers.
In many classrooms and homeschool families, students enjoy fun science lessons that feature hands-on projects and activities that help bring the exciting world of science to life. Unfortunately, many of these science experiences are canned lessons that do not require them to apply their skills and understanding of the scientific concepts. Frequently, the experiments are laid out for them including the title, question, materials, and procedures. While these technically “hands-on” activities are essential, they are not enough. Students must also have “minds-on” experiences as well. Science is an active process, learning science is something that students should do, not something that is done to them.
Success in science is more than “science as process,” in which students learn such skills as observing, inferring, and experimenting. Inquiry is central to science learning. When engaging in inquiry, students describe objects and events, ask questions, construct explanations, test those explanations against current scientific knowledge, and communicate their ideas to others. They identify their assumptions, use critical and logical thinking, and consider alternative explanations. In this way, students actively develop their understanding of science by combining scientific knowledge with reasoning and thinking skills.
The importance of inquiry does not imply that teachers should pursue a single approach to teaching science, nor a single curricula. Just as inquiry has many different facets, so teachers and home educators need to use many different strategies to develop their students’ understandings and abilities. The content can be organized and presented with many different emphases and perspectives in many different curricula.
Join me again in two weeks when I share with you examples of how to easily modify canned science activities to create inquiry based experiences. I will provide examples of how teachers can move their classical instruction to an inquiry-based instructional approach.
My other posts in this series include: