Busting the Myths Surrounding the Inquiry-Based Science Classroom
Although Inquiry-Based Learning has been around since the 1960’s there is still an apprehension on the part of many teachers in implementing it in the classroom and making it commonplace. Wilcox, Kruse and Clough argue that this is due to the fact that there are still many misconceptions that surround this pedagogical approach to learning and teaching (Wilcox, Kruse and Clough 2015). This article does an excellent job at diving into some of these misconceptions and dispelling them. By missing the boat on this, I feel, that most teachers do not fully approach science in a way that acknowledges the true nature of the subject. This article addresses this and promotes inquiry as a route to allow students to fully become immersed in real science by encouraging them to ask testable questions, create and carry out investigations, analyze and interpret data, draw warranted conclusions, and construct explanations that promote a deep conceptual understanding of fundamental science ideas. The authors further argue that these qualities of inquiry actually address many of the practices required to to be taught in the 21st century classroom.
I personally agree with this. In my experience, science teachers sometimes don’t give their students enough experience practicing real science. I see this primarily through the fact that students are not truly “experimenting” in science class and are just following prescribed steps given to them in a worksheet. Inquiry allows for real science to happen and makes room for student autonomy in approaching a particular challenge. This inevitably results in students building on skills that help them navigate all of the aspects of science listed in the paragraph above.
One of these aspects that stood out for me is the ability to ask testable questions. In my experience working with teachers and students, this is a tough one to get the hang of but is especially important around Science Fair season. When we are working with testable questions we are moving away from simple yes or no questions and toward ones that involve a deeper understanding of how a particular system works. For example, a student could ask the following question prior to their experiment:
“Will my plant grow taller if I add a nutrient solution to the soil?”
This question is not very testable because it will basically result in a yes or no answer. In the subsequent experiment based on this question, the student would basically come to a conclusion and be done with the exercise. In addition, with a question like this, the student sometimes is already starting out knowing the answer which results in the activity really only being about them proving something that they already know.
If we were to reword the question by saying:
“How much taller will my plant grow if I add 10 ml of nutrient solution to the soil every night?”
With the question being worded this way, the student is challenged to actually create an experiment and solve a problem that they do not know the answer to. Moreover, this form of question results in a deeper understanding of the mechanics of this system. The student begins to not only observe the overall relationship these variables but can begin to interpret trends in this relationship and predict outcomes if they were to manipulate the variables further.
Through this article, the authors describe a number of myths that stand in the way of teachers adopting this approach to science learning. They dissect each of these misconceptions and clearly articulate their shortcomings and how this influences teacher adoption.
Myth 1: Teaching science through inquiry means students discover science ideas on their own
The overall misconception here is that Inquiry-based learning is equivalent to discovery learning. The key distinction here is that inquiry is scaffolded and discovery is not. With discovery learning, students are not guided through the process by teachers whereas the scaffolding of the inquiry process allows the teacher to facilitate a gradual progression from guided inquiry all the way to open inquiry. This process through this scaffolded structure allows the teacher to slowly work the class toward more and more independence based on the group’s skills and experience levels.
Myth 2: Teaching science through inquiry is achieved merely through hands-on activities
Although Inquiry does involve hands-on learning, it is important to ensure that it is also minds-on learning as well. The key difference here is that minds-on learning speaks to the importance of ensuring that students are actively engaged in science. Hands-on science can still be prescribed, where students are following step by step recipes whereas with inquiry, students are immersed in truly experimenting with the content and developing their own understanding to the experiment.
Myth 3: Teaching science through inquiry is chaotic
Although an inquiry classroom may seem disorganized. In reality though, with effective inquiry, it is the complete opposite. This myth comes down to a concern relating to classroom management and the fact that the teacher’s concern with releasing some of the control in the classroom. Inquiry-based learning is full of many forms of formative assessment that happen throughout the entire learning process. These are in the form of constant check-ins, one on one discussions and observations as groups are working collaboratively. When the teacher assumes the role of facilitator in this process, they can tailor the scaffolding to account for every student’s or group’s level of understanding thus increasing individual student engagement.
Myth 4: Teaching science through inquiry is not an efficient use of time
It is true that inquiry does take longer than traditional lecture based learning. However, the authors argue that lecture based lessons are counterintuitive to the goals of the science curriculum. They elaborate by reinforcing the idea that we, as science teachers, are responsible for delivering the content in a more meaningful and impactful way. If students are not engaged in the content then they are not going to connect with it and understand its applications in the real world. Essentially this is saying that, by focusing on lecture-based lessons, teachers are missing a large piece of the learning and not exposing students to the true scientific process.
Myth 5: Teaching science through inquiry is only for some students
The foundations of this myth are rooted in the idea that only exceptional students have the capability of truly
engaging in critical thinking. In the end however, it is these students that struggle with science that need the concrete experiences and increased teacher interactions that only come from inquiry-based learning. Because inquiry is scaffolded at many levels, the teacher has more ability to meet students at their level and account for these differences. This gives the teacher the capability to accommodate everyone in their classroom, from the struggling to the excelling.
Myth 6: Teaching science through inquiry does not promote college and career readiness
There is more and more of a focus by post-secondary institutions on the importance of learning that mirrors the real world. These institutions are putting more of an emphasis on critical thinking and inquiry to develop essential 21st century skills in their graduates. In other words, it is even more essential that students who are approaching this important transition are prepared for what is expected of them. In many ways, the traditional lecture style lessons are not preparing students for this next level and may set them up for even more of a struggle in the long run.
Wilcox, Krause and Clough do an excellent job at not only examining a number of misconceptions relating to inquiry-based learning but at debunking them as well. As always, the main focus for us, as teachers, is on the learning that takes place in the classroom and beyond. If we consider what this means in the context of the science classroom, I feel it is essential for us to first define what “science learning” encompasses. If we consider the current idea that science learning refers to a more critical approach to real world problems then inquiry is an essential piece of the puzzle. Inquiry not only allows students to learn about the real world in a more engaging way, but it exposes them to real science and better prepares them for life beyond school.
Wilcox, J., Kruse, J., & Clough, M. (2015). Teaching Science Through Inquiry. The Science Teacher, 082(06). doi:10.2505/4/tst15_082_06_62