Inquiry as Our Form of Instruction

Inquiry as Our Form of Instruction

It takes years to develop the analytical thinking skills and the skeptical intuition of a scientist. This process can begin in early grades, harnessing the natural curiosity of children and their free ability to ask radical questions that adults are sometimes too hesitant to ask. Our curriculum borrows upon research-based curricula (Goldberg 2007 and Goldberg 2008), which encourages that kind of questioning and thinking.

 

At the same time, our curriculum encourages another hallmark skill of scientists: evidence-based reasoning. While many content-heavy courses fall prey to direct instruction (lecture) of scientific concepts in order to cover large amounts of material, such an approach encourages children to become memorizers of facts, and to experience science as an unrelated series of facts lacking synthesis. Instead, our curriculum is structured around the central principle that it is better to discover new phenomena and to learn the art of constructing models, which account for these phenomena.

 

In so doing, we encourage students to cite evidence in support of ideas, and we encourage teachers to think of instruction not as the articulation of facts, but rather the process of leading children through experiments that will allow them to construct the big ideas in the sciences. In our courses and our workshops, participants collaborate in teams to develop a scientifically rigorous model that explains energy in the world around us. Each participant is required to bring her own ideas to the table, to test those ideas with real measurements, and work together as a group toward an understanding of what we learned. In the end, we will, like scientists, used evidence-based reasoning to formulate a consensus on the lesson of the day.

 

To facilitate these goals, the class is structured in the following way:

Purpose. Each day will begin with a central question posed to the class. For example, “Why do objects fall?” “How do we generate electrical energy in our homes?” and so on. There is no work to be done here, just an introduction, a statement of the problem to be addressed.

 

Initial IdeasIn this section of a workshop or class, participants will be asked a couple questions for individuals to consider and groups to discuss at their group tables. In some cases, we will share our responses as a class. The purpose of this time is not to “get the right answer.”  Rather, the intention is to brainstorm as to what’s going on, put our ideas on the table, and have in our minds what are other people's explanations for a given concept. There may be some class confusion at this stage, and the instructor, acting as moderator, will highlight the ideas presented with the hope that the remainder of the day’s activities will provide the evidence to support one group’s idea over another’s.

 

Collecting Evidence. Participants conduct two or three experiments each class or workshop. Each experiment will hopefully challenge you to ask questions about what is going on, and also give you some experimental evidence for you to use when you develop a model of the phenomenon we’re studying. Along the way, while you are conducting these experiments, you will be asked some guiding questions to help you think your way through the activities. These questions are of three types, which are listed on the next page.

 

 

Summarizing Questions. At the end of each activity, we have prepared a set of 4–8 questions for participants to work through in their small groups. The questions range from testing understanding of various key points encountered in the experiments to helping develop a scientific model that explains all the data we just took in our groups. After groups have discussed their ideas on these questions, each group prepares diagrams or explanations on white boards to share with the rest of the class. Each group is encouraged to copy data, graphs, etc. to help them make their point and provide more convincing evidence in support of their explanation to the questions or models of the big idea of the day. The discussion that ensues should clarify some of the points raised at the beginning of class in the Initial Ideas section. Ideally, the participants will have discovered the big idea for the day, relying on the instructor only to moderate the class discussion.