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​How Inquiry Based Science Lessons Help Children to Think Like Scientists

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If you have taught science to children in a formal way in a classroom or even just tried explaining science to your own children, then the chances are that you have used inquiry based techniques, maybe without even realizing it.

So, what it is? Put very simply, inquiry based learning is where a child seeks answers to their own questions. Importantly, this is exactly how a scientist works: coming up with questions and looking for ways to answer them. Therefore, teaching children using this technique not only teaches them the scientific concepts, but enables them to practise the skills needed to be good scientists.

Some common misconceptions that people have about inquiry based learning is that it is a relatively new technique, that it is all about carrying out practical procedures and that it is difficult to use in the classroom.

It is by new means not a new technique. In fact, the first philosopher of education to propose teaching science as a process and way of thinking rather than a set of facts to be memorized was John Dewey over 100 years ago. Since then there have been many studies carried out comparing inquiry based lessons to the rote-learning alternative, and time and time again the results have shown that it has a positive effect on achievement, cognitive development, skills and improved attitude of students.

Inquiry based lessons are not all about practicals and experiments. They can cover a variety of approaches, including case studies, research projects and field-work. The central idea that turns these tasks into inquiry based ones is that in doing them the students ask probing questions and investigate to find the answers; they actively participate in the lesson. Whole lessons or indeed a series of lessons can be taught following an inquiry based method. Take a look at this diagram which explains the process in more detail and choose a lesson that you routinely carry out in your classroom, can you think how you might change it to be more inquiry based?

A flow-chart for an inquiry based lesson

You can clearly see from this that inquiry based learning follows the same thought processes and skills involved with solving problems using the scientific method. In inquiry, students are presented with a problem to solve, plan an approach and analyze their findings. They are encouraged to collaborate with others in order to succeed and if they fail on the first attempt they can rethink their ideas and try again with a new approach.

When asked to think about inquiry based lessons, many automatically assume that they comprise completely of open-ended tasks where the students are given free rein to choose a problem, plan an approach and carry it out. Although it is true that the open-ended approach is the most authentic form of inquiry, it is by no means they only method and should only be used with classes that are experts in the inquiry style of teaching. Giving this much freedom to most classes would result in little learning taking place and one very stressed teacher!

There are many levels to inquiry. At the simplest one, the teacher works with the class to develop a question and then presents a suitable procedure to investigate it. This is suitable for even the youngest of students. The method has already been chosen and it is used to teach the students about how to follow procedures, collect and record data. The many SciTT Kits contain experiments that would be ideal for this style of inquiry lesson.

With older students, the teacher can hand over more of the tasks to the students, one at a time. At the next level the teacher would again provide the problem and an outline of the procedure but allow students to analyze the data themselves and come to their own answers. Again, many of the tasks provided in SciTT Kits would be suitable for this. For example, in a lesson on floating and sinking you could present students with the puzzling question of why a huge lump of steel will sink but a ship made out of the same mass of iron will float. They can go through the first stage of discussing ideas, using their previous knowledge of forces. You could then ask them to complete the tasks in the SciTT Kit 'Boats Afloat - Buoyancy' which will allow them to investigate the science of floating and come up with answers themselves.

Guided inquiry is the next stage, where students are presented with a question and have to plan their own approach. Only when students are comfortable with this are they ready to tackle true open-ended inquiry.

So, what is your role as the teacher in inquiry based learning? Firstly, as we have discussed, you should choose well-constructed learning tasks that allow your students to enter the task at the correct point depending on the stage they are cognitively ready for. The problem must spark interest and the approach used should be challenging but not too difficult to ensure advancement takes place as well as keeping the students engaged. It should be an authentic learning task, so set in the real world, and also encourage students to think like a scientist.

During the lesson your role is as a facilitator; asking questions and probing understanding. This will allow you to plan suitable follow up activities to aid progression, assess understanding and correct misconceptions. Inquiry based science requires a lot of time, effort, and expertise from the teacher. However, if you want to teach your students how to think like a scientist, rather than just learning facts, then this approach is essential.

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