Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Inquiry is NOT

"Science class should make students think: Our students aren't being allowed to discover the joys of experimenting, and learning on their own."

hits the nail on the head, and is the reason I'm such a huge supporter of students conducting their own independent research projects. (See STEM Student Research Handbook.)  Ironically enough however, if I had read this article while I was still a full-time classroom teacher, I would have defended myself saying that I worked tirelessly to help students enjoy science. And I would have been right. But that was the problem. I was trying to teach excitement, teaching them the intricacies of DNA replication because I found it beautiful. I made laminated paper pieces to help them conceptualize how the okasaki fragments played
in the process, and how the enzymes each had their role.

I wanted my students to love the cell organelles because I loved them. They took oral quizzes to show off their knowledge of the structure and function of the call structures. I encouraged them to each choose a favorite phase of the cell cycle (mine is Metaphase because it is the shortest phase, and I am 5' tall). I had students bring in items from home and then use the digital camera to design and retell the mitosis story themselves.

I made the assumption that ALL my lab experiences were inquiry, however, I realize now, they were not! Many labs that come with traditional text books are not inquiry, but rather, like a recipe; Students are told what they will be "making" they follow directions prewritten for them, and then at the end, know whether it "turned out" or not.

If you are a classroom teacher, hear me out. There are many of you, whose students are experiencing true inquiry. But others of you, may be like me, and only think you are offering inquiry experiences for your students. Read the misconceptions below and see if any apply to your own teaching.

I now realize that I had no idea what learning experiences constituted as inquiry. I knew the term, and even used it to describe how I taught. But since then, I have learned the following to be true.

1. Inquiry is NOT the same as hands-on

Taking students to the lab, does not mean the lab is inquiry; not if the lab is solely to reinforce a concept they've learned by reading text. This is not say that these hands-on experiences are not important-they are. But let's be clear; not all hands-on labs, or demos for that matter, make students think for themselves. Similarly, using manipulatives is great, it helps students understand complex scientific processes, but often students are not using them in an inquiry way. Instead, manipulatives help them learn conceptual facts that they will be asked to share again in some form of assessment (objective test, essay, or oral quiz). Manipulatives CAN be used in inquiry ways, but it takes students longer to get the idea, and most teachers don't spare the time. (This is another post...I can feel it!)

2. Post-Lab Questions or Lab Reports are NOT (usually) Inquiry.

Having students write answers to post-lab questions or write lab reports in order explain the knowledge the laboratory experiment helped them understand is not inquiry. Written assignments that students turn in after completing a hands-on activity or lab, usually make sure the correct answer was achieved, that students knew why they got the results they did, and maybe an additional question that may require them to put the experiment in context of why the experiment matters or applies in real life.

3. Students do NOT need background information before they can begin learning.

I spent a lot of time getting my students "ready" for lab. They learned lab skills and more importantly, they learned the content so that they would be able to understand the experiment or laboratory experience to the fullest. And I believe I did my students a dis-service teaching all my labs this way. And I kinda knew this at the time, because the best teaching experiences I had were in content areas with which was less familiar (physics), and therefore, didn't have the background knowledge myself to get them ready! For example, I knew very little about simple machines, but we did a mouse trap car lab. I couldn't (or chose not to) give them any background before we started. Students knew they were to get the mouse trap to propel the car forward, so they worked together (trial and error) until they got it to work. That is inquiry. Students don't have to have the scientific vocabulary before they begin a lab. They only need to be curious, and that is the motivation.

While I haven't defined inquiry here, (I do this in another post) only what it is NOT, I believe that one reason teachers struggle allowing natural inquiry as a method of instruction is because they themselves love the facts, not the discovery of them. Most teachers have never experienced science in this way, as most are not scientists, and have never performed experiments to learn something they did not already know. Therefore, science teaching and learning in elementary, middle, and high schools teach the facts, not the creative process of scientific thinking.

I want to end this post by saying that not all labs in a science course should be inquiry. Doing labs that help students to "see" what it is they have been learning is also very important. But lets not kid ourselves and call it inquiry, when it really isn't!


  1. That is a great article you shared. Too often the focus in science classrooms is memorization of facts. It think there is a shift in thinking, and many people are realizing the importance of critical thinking and true inquiry.

  2. Trisha, I too believe there is a shift, but change is slow, and teachers are asked to do so much already, and the focus of testing doesn't put focus so much on the thinking side of things. Thanks for your comment!


  3. I am so glad I found your blog today. You have so many fabulous ideas here. I can't wait to spend a little more time here, looking for great ideas for my kids and I to try.

    1. I'm so glad you found me too! I'd love to help in any way that I can. Enjoy looking around!


  4. Nice post! I'm glad I found your blog too :) I like this line: I believe that one reason teachers struggle allowing natural inquiry as a method of instruction is because they themselves love the facts, not the discovery of them.. You have hit on something else there... How can
    natural inquiry be a method of instruction? I think therein lies the problem for many teachers. They can't let go of the 'instruction' side of things...


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