Teaching Science: The Inquiry Approach

Efforts to improve the teaching of science are making significant progress across the country. The goal at all levels of instruction focuses on content selection and an inquiry approach to teaching that develops deep understanding of content and the ability to think critically. The National Science Education Standards (NSES), developed by scientists and science educators under the leadership of the National Research Council, address both of these dimensions (NRC 1996). One of the main objectives of these standards and subsequent state standards is to identify the most significant science subject matter that future citizens will need in the 21st century.

The NSES "Science as Inquiry" standards (see box) include the development of student abilities to conduct inquiry as well as an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. The standards also call for inquiry-based teaching aimed at understanding subject matter as well as understanding and being able to conduct scientific inquiry.

Although inquiry is basic to quality science teaching, it has a variety of meanings and roles in the classroom. It might be as simple as finding the answer to a question like, "How many different kinds of fish are in the aquarium?" Or it might be as comprehensive as understanding the nature of science. The following scenario about Carla and her second-grade students demonstrates how the inquiry process is used in teaching science.

EXPLORING LIGHT AND SHADOWS Carla and her second graders were ready to begin their unit on Light and Shadows. With the children gathered around her, Carla reads aloud Robert Louis Stevenson's poem, "My Shadow," which begins:

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me, And what can be the use of him is more than I can see. He's very, very like me from the heels up to the head, And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed. The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow; For he sometimes shoots up taller like an India-rubber ball, And sometimes gets so little that there's none of him at all.

Carla then orchestrates a lively discussion by asking a number of questions: "What does it mean when the poem says that sometimes my shadow is very tall and sometimes there is none at all? What makes your shadow get long? What makes it very small? When don't you have a shadow? What do you need to make a shadow?"

After finding out what her second graders know about shadows, Carla asks, "What other questions do you have about shadows? Let's make a list and see if we can figure out how to answer them."

The following day, Carla asks the children, "How could we make shadows and then make them change? Let's see if we can answer some of our questions about shadows." Using flashlights, lumps of clay, a short piece of drinking straw, and a large sheet of craft paper, they begin to explore. "How can you make a long shadow? How can you make it short? How can you make a shadow that points to the right? Left? What can you do so there is no shadow?"

The students draw pictures of their experiments in their learning logs and talk about the results. Later, Carla gives them a problem: "Have your partner turn off the flashlight and point it at the straw. Draw where and how long you think the shadow will be." The children conduct similar activities with their own shadows and those of other objects.

Next, Carla reads relevant passages from other books, and the class compares the readings with their earlier experiences with the flashlights and straws. During the next few days, the students work outside, make predictions, keep records of how shadows change throughout the day, and talk together about what had happened and why. To conclude the unit, each child writes and illustrates a story, "Why My Shadow Shrinks and Grows."

AN INQUIRY INTO AN INQUIRY If you observed the teaching of the Light and Shadows unit and had to evaluate the extent to which the lessons were aligned with the NSES "Science as Inquiry" standards, here are some questions you would have to consider: * Did the students have opportunities to develop their abilities to do scientific inquiry? In what ways?

* Did they have chances to develop specific understandings of scientific inquiry, of how and why it is used?

* What aspects of inquiry are implied in the scenario and what aspects are not present?

* What suggestions would you propose to make the lesson more congruent with the "Science as Inquiry" standards.?

In encouraging her students to come up with their own questions about light and shadows, and giving them chances to design simple investigations, Carla offered them numerous opportunities to develop skills such as observing, measuring, inferring, using simple tools to gather and analyze data, and constructing explanations.

One important question remains: Where in this vignette did students develop an understanding of scientific inquiry? Granted, they seemed to have ample opportunity to use inquiry abilities to understand the cause-and-effect relationships of the sun's movement and shadows. But will it help them understand such things as the role of evidence in forming explanations, and the importance of communicating and defending their results and conclusions? Many are quick to point out that hands-on activities do not guarantee an understanding of science concepts.

That being the case, how can Carla or any classroom teacher provide opportunities for students to develop understanding of scientific inquiry? She can accomplish this by providing specific strategies for students to compare their answers to what scientists already know about light and shadows, to discuss how tools and instruments provide more information than they can obtain using only their senses, to understand that good explanations are always based on the evidence of investigations, and that they must be able to communicate and defend their findings.

ASSESSING INQUIRY OUTCOMES Let's suppose that Carla has become quite proficient at using inquiry methods and strategies in teaching science, consistently providing opportunities for her students to develop both their abilities and understanding of scientific inquiry. How will she know what progress they have made in meeting the outcomes prescribed by the NSES "Science as Inquiry" standards?

Carla could assess her students' understanding of the science of light and shadows by setting up a new lighting situation (for example, using two lights at the same time in different positions) and asking the students to draw a diagram of the resulting shadow. She could assess their inquiry abilities by observing how they proceed with a new investigation, such as asking them, "Does the shortest shadow made by the sun always come at the same time of day?" To assess the students' understanding of scientific inquiry, Carla could listen to small groups of students discuss how their experiments helped them learn about light and shadows.

A skillful teacher like Carla, who is aware that scientific inquiry is both an end (outcomes) and a means (instructional strategy) will blend them in most lessons. At the same time, she will be explicit in discussing with students what they are expected to learn. As the lessons proceed, she also will be formally and informally assessing student progress toward each desired outcome. Do they understand the science content? Do they demonstrate inquiry abilities? Do they have some understanding of the process they are following and how it is similar to what scientists do?

If science is to have a meaningful place in the basic elementary school curriculum, this is the way it must be taught.


Lowery, Lawrence F., et. al. NSTA Pathways to the Standards, Elementary School Edition. Arlington, Va.: National Science Teachers Association, 1997: 35-43.

National Research Council. National Science Education Standards. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1996.

THE SCIENCE ASINQUIRY STANDARDS 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.

CONTENT STANDARD All K-4 students should develop:

* Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry. (Ask relevant questions about their environment, plan and conduct simple investigations, employ simple equipment and tools to gather data, construct reasonable explanations from data, and communicate investigations and explanations.)

* Understandings about scientific inquiry. (Understand how to communicate about their own and their peers' investigations and explanations, and be able to compare their own understandings about inquiry with those of scientists.)

TEACHING STANDARD In guiding and facilitating science instruction, teachers should:

* Focus and support inquiries while interacting with students;

* Orchestrate discourse among students about scientific ideas;

* Challenge students to accept and share responsibility for their own learning;

* Recognize and respond to student diversity and encourage all students to participate fully in science learning;

* Encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry, as well as the curiosity, openness to new ideas and data, and skepticism that characterize science.


Harold Pratt is director of science projects for the National Research Council's Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education in Washington, D.C. Jay Hackett is a consultant with the Center for Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education. Marilyn Nolt

SOURCE: Principal (Reston, Va.) 78 no2 20-2 N '98 The magazine publisher is the copyright holder of this article and it is reproduced with permission.