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Inquiry means that students are handling science; they are manipulating it, working it into new shapes and formats, integrating it into every corner of their world, and playing with it in unknown ways. Inquiry implies that students are in control of an important part of their own learning where they can manipulate ideas to increase understanding. As students learn to think through the designs and developments of their own inquiry, they also develop a sense of self-responsibility that transcends all subject areas.

Many science textbooks portray science as a collection of facts or a body of knowledge for students to learn. Unfortunately, the impression this may leave with students is that studying science is nothing more than memorizing facts and mastering theories. On the contrary, there is much room in science for intuitive, hypothetical, playful, and imaginative forms of learning. In other words, there is room for inquiry.

"Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work. Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world."

National Science Education Standards
Compare NGSS to Existing State Standards
About the Next Generation Science Standards

The National Science Education Standards state that "inquiry is central to science learning."

These standards point out that students engaging in science inquiry will demonstrate the following behaviors:

  • "Describe objects and events."

  • "Ask questions."

  • Construct explanations."

  • "Test explanations against current scientific knowledge."

  • "Communicate their ideas to others."

  • "Identify their assumptions."

  • "Use critical and logical thinking."

  • "Consider alternative explanations."

Approaches to Inquiry

Alan Colburn, in "An Inquiry Primer," defines inquiry as "the creation of a classroom where student are engaged in essentially open-ended, student-centered, hands-on activities."

Colburn supports that the inquiry-based classroom encompasses several approaches to inquiry-based instruction. These approaches include Structured Inquiry, Guided Inquiry, Open Inquiry, and Learning Cycle.

  • Structured Inquiry

    The teacher establishes parameters and procedures for inquiry. Students are provided with a hands-on problem to investigate as well as the procedures and materials necessary to complete the investigation. Students discover relationships between variables or generalize from data collected, which in essence leads to the discovery of expected outcomes. The value in using structured inquiry is it allows the instructor to teach students the basics of investigating as well as techniques of using various equipment and procedures that can be used in later more complicated investigations. In other words, structured inquiries provide students with common learning experiences that can be used in guided or open inquiry.

  • Guided Inquiry

    The teacher provides the problem for investigation as well as the necessary materials. Students are expected to devise their own procedure to solve the problem.

  • Open Inquiry

    Open Inquiry has been defined as student-driven. Similar to Guided Inquiry, students formulate their own problem to solve as well as the procedure. Open Inquiry is analogous to doing science. Science fair projects are often examples of Open Inquiry.

  • Learning Cycle

    Students are involved in an activity that introduces a new concept. Afterwards, the teacher informs the students of the formal name of the concept. Students transfer knowledge of the concept through application in a different context.

Colburn's Inquiry Approaches in Action

The figure below provides a comparison of Colburn's four approaches to inquiry-based instruction as applied to one of Florida's Sunshine State Standards that addresses motion (SS.C.1.2.1 The student understands that the motion of an object can be described and measured).

Approaches to Inquiry-Based Instruction
Structured Inquiry

Students are given a step-by-step procedure, including visual displays and diagrams for constructing an exhibit demonstrating different kinds of motion (for example, straight, circular, back and forth). Questions prompt students to measure and describe motion of various objects.
Guided Inquiry

Students are provided with various objects, measuring tools, and other materials. Procedures instruct them to demonstrate different kinds of motion using the provided materials. Later, they are required to demonstrate two kinds of motion using objects not yet used. Finally, students make record of their observations.
Open Inquiry

Students are given various objects, tools for measuring, and other necessary materials. They are instructed to investigate different kinds of motion.
Learning Cycle

Students follow guided inquiry procedures followed by teacher-led discussion of their findings. Concepts such as force and other variables are introduced. The idea is that students are exposed to the concepts prior to their introduction. The students eventually return to the inquiry setting and apply the newly acquired knowledge to a new situation. For example, they could be given additional objects to observe and measure the motion of and be asked to analyze the variables that influence the motion.

Adapted from an example provided by Alan Colburn, An Inquiry Primer, March 2000.

The IDEAL Model

Bransford and Stein (1984) suggest using the IDEAL model for solving problems in science. This approach to inquiry-based learning employs logical sequencing of procedures that begin with problem identification and concluding with a reflection of an attempted plan of action.

  • 'I' for Identify the problem
  • 'D' for Define and represent the problem
  • 'E' for Explore alternative approaches
  • 'A' for Act on a plan
  • 'L' for Look at the effects

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