There are five essential components of scientific inquiry teaching that introduce students to many important aspects of science while helping them to develop a clearer and deeper knowledge of some particular science concept and/or process.
Research has demonstrated that student involvement in the inquiry process provides a much needed connection and ownership of scientific investigations that will lead to a deeper conceptual knowledge about the content. Inquiry can be labeled as “partial” or “full” and refers to the proportion of a sequence of learning experiences that is inquiry-based. For example, when a textbook doesn’t engage students with a question, but begins with an experiment, an essential element of inquiry is missing and the inquiry is said to be partial.
Also, inquiry is partial if a teacher chooses to demonstrate how something works rather than have the students explore it on their own and develop questions and explanations. What is important is that at least some of the components of inquiry are present within classroom hands-on experiences and hands-on does not necessarily guarantee inquiry. If all five elements of classroom inquiry are present, the inquiry is said to be full, however each component may vary depending on amount of structure a teacher builds into an activity or the extent to which students initiate and design an investigation.
How does a teacher decide how much guidance to provide in an inquiry-based activity? The key element is in the intended outcomes. Whether the teacher wants the students to learn a particular concept, acquire certain inquiry abilities, or develop understandings about scientific inquiry influences the nature of the inquiry. In some instances partial inquiry may be more appropriate than a full inquiry-based experience. Teachers need to make meaningful decisions about how to best deliver the curriculum.
The Five Essential Components to Inquiry
1. Learners are engaged by scientifically oriented questions. Scientists may pose two types of questions. They may propose “why” questions such as “Why do objects fall toward the Earth?” or “Why do humans have chambered hearts?” Many of these types of questions can’t be addressed by science. Then there are the “how” questions such as “How does sunlight help plant grow?” or “How are crystals formed?” which can. Students may ask “why” questions that can be turned into “how” questions and thus lend themselves to scientific inquiry. The initial question can originate from the learner or the teacher. Purposeful questions can be answered by students’ observations and scientific knowledge they obtain from reliable sources.
Skillful teachers help students focus their questions so that they can experience both interesting and productive investigations. Teachers can provide opportunities that invite student questions by demonstrating a phenomenon or having them engage in an open investigation. Sometimes, questions will develop from students’ observations. Other times, the teacher provides the question. Either way, questions must be able to be investigated in a classroom setting. Teachers will likely have to modify student questions into ones that can be answered by students with the resources available, while being mindful of the curriculum.
2. Learners give priority to evidence, allowing them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically-oriented questions. Science uses empirical evidence as the basis for explanations about how the natural world works. Importance is placed on getting accurate data and from observations. To make observations, scientists take measurements in natural settings, or in laboratories. The accuracy of the evidence collected is verified by checking measurements, repeating the observations, or gathering different kinds of data related to the same phenomenon. Evidence collected is then subject to questioning and further investigations. Within the classroom setting, students should follow similar guidelines during their laboratory experiences.
3. Learners formulate explanations form evidence to address scientifically oriented questions. Scientific explanations should be based on reason. They provide causes for effects and establish relationships based on evidence and logical argument and must be consistent with the observations and evidence collected. Explanations are ways to learn what is unfamiliar by relating what is observed to what is already known. For science, this means building upon the existing knowledge base. For students, this means building new ideas upon their current prior knowledge and understandings.
4. Learners evaluate their explanations in light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflecting scientific understanding. Evaluation, and possible elimination or revision of explanations, is one feature that distinguishes scientific from other forms of inquiry and subsequent explanations. Examples of questions one may ask are: “Does the evidence support the proposed explanations?”, or “Can other reasonable explanations be derived for the evidence?”
An essential component of this characteristic is ensuring that students make the connection between their results and scientific knowledge. 5. Learners communicate and justify their proposed explanations. Scientists communicate their results in such a way that their results can be reproduced. This requires clear articulation of the question, procedures, evidence, proposed explanation, and review of alternative explanations. Having students share their explanations provides others the opportunity to ask questions, examine evidence, identify faulty reasoning, point out statements that go beyond the evidence, and suggest alternative explanations for the same observations. As a result of this communication, students can resolve contradictions and solidify an empirically based argument.