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The Five Features of Science Inquiry: How do you know?

| Eric Brunsell

Teaching science through science inquiry is the cornerstone of good teaching.

Teaching science through science inquiry is the cornerstone of good teaching. Unfortunately, an inquiry-approach to teaching science is not the norm in schools as "many teachers are still striving to build a shared understanding of what science as inquiry means, and at a more practical level, what it looks like in the classroom (Keeley, 2008)." A good starting point for understanding what science inquiry "means" is to focus on the definition provided by the National Research Council.

The 5 features of science inquiry (emphasis is mine)

  • Learner Engages in Scientifically Oriented Questions
  • Learner Gives Priority to Evidence in Responding to Questions
  • Learner Formulates Explanations from Evidence
  • Learner Connects Explanations to Scientific Knowledge
  • Learner Communicates and Justifies Explanations

Although each component is important, notice how many times the words "evidence" and "explanation" are used. Helping students use evidence to create explanations for natural phenomena is central to science inquiry. In their article, Argument Driven Inquiry, Sampson and Groom write (emphasis mine):

"In America's Lab Report: Investigations in High School Science (200) [http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11311], the National Research Council (NRC) makes several suggestions for how laboratory activities can be changed to improve students' skills and understanding of science: First, laboratory activities need to be more inquiry-based so students can develop practical skills and an understanding of the ambiguity and complexity associated with empirical work in science. Second, students need opportunities to read, write, and engage in critical discussions as they work. Finally, it is important to encourage students to construct or critique arguments (i.e., an explanation supported by one or more reasons) and to embed diagnostic, formative, or educative assessment into the instruction sequence."

There are many ways that you can reinforce the creation and critiquing of arguments in your classroom. "How do you know?" should be one of the most frequently asked questions in your classroom. You should expect that student answers (verbal or written) should include evidence. Additionally, you should look for opportunities for students to critique the use of evidence in science news, reports and other media.

Some practical classroom examples of giving priority to evidence

Mallory Fredrickson, a middle school science teacher at New Richmond middle school in Wisconsin, introduces her students to the concept of making evidence-based explanations by using a story about a mysterious death. Students find evidence in the story to create a theory about how Mr. Brown died. Mallory explains, "They realized how it's [related to] science and how I expect to see them coming up with explanations this way all year."

Chad Janowski and his colleagues at Shawano High School (WI) developed common laboratory expectations for their students that expect students to give priority to evidence by explicitly asking them to provide the evidence that supports their conclusions and to also provide a rationale that connects the evidence to the claim. Chad notes that using evidence isn't automatic, "I gave this [the new laboratory report expectations] out to my students on Friday and watched them struggle to work through it. I cannot wait to see the progress they make as they use it throughout the year."

Brian, a high school teacher working with researchers at the University of Washington, used "evidence buckets" to help students organize data from laboratory experience. Students could easily see connections between different pieces of evidence as they make meaning of class activities. Watch a video at Tools4TeachingScience.org to see evidence buckets in action.

The Evidence Bucket
The Evidence Bucket

Lisa Sullivan, a teacher at McKinley Elementary in Kenosha, Wisconsin, modified evidence buckets to use with her 2nd grade students. She focused her students on the question, "Does air take up space?" as they explored a variety of activities. She then helped them organize their observations using evidence buckets. Lisa commented, "I realized that we couldn't make an evidence bucket until they understood what evidence was. One child said that he knew that they used evidence in court. This was a good example and I told them that evidence was what people observed. It could be used as proof of something or used to help explain an idea." She continued, "After we filled in our evidence bucket I called on a few students to raise their hands and tell me what they would say to someone who asked them: Does air take up space? I told them that the more evidence they used in their answer the more likely it was that the person would believe them. They did a great job of connecting their arguments to the evidence bucket."

--- Don't forget ---

Invite a scientist, engineer or other STEM professional into your classroom and enter the #scichat challenge!

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Comments (17)

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You're Talking Kindergarten Science

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I love teaching science in kindergarten. For instance, a couple weeks back we went to the vernal pool behind the school for our first visit of the year. First we shared a book on the senses. Then I asked questions about what they thought they would see there (just to get the swimming pool idea out of their heads =)Next we hiked back, stopping in the woods along the way to use our senses and shared thinking. Finally we arrived at the site and the students explored. I asked guiding questions to get them thinking in new directions and we shared all we learned. The whole thing took 35 minutes including the book as we had to get to lunch. They now have a foundation of knowledge to add to as the year and visits continue. Here's a post on the visit.

Consultant for inquiry, problem solving, critical thinking.

The "inquiry" in Inquiry-Based Science

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Very interesting comments, but what I do not see in all of these comments is the role of students' inquiry within inquiry-based science. Where and when do we present students with complex, intriguing situations and challenge them to Observe, Think and Question what they have in front of them.

So much inquiry-based science seems entirely teacher-driven. Yes, it is very important to teach students about gathering evidence, perhaps in "buckets," but when do we challenge them to raise important questions about content we have designed, analyze those questions and conduct purposeful investigations?

We know from research that when students make choices about content they become more engaged and their achievement levels improve. (See Davies, 2010) When students raise their own good questions and can pursue answers and think critically ("How do we know?") about findings, we're going to have, it seems to me, much improved science and humanities learning experiences.

What we're talking about in science applies equally to all other subjects.

DSI is fantastic! What are

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DSI is fantastic! What are you going to do when you run out of $50 bills?

Developing serious, educational games; our future depends on educ of kids

Joy in Science Learning

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It is concerns for the difficulty in teaching inquiry that led us to develop a game that teaches inquiry and evidence-based reasoning. With NIH support and input from teachers, scientists, students, and other experts, we developed a Web-based, online game: DSI:Drug Scene Investigators. The game is based on a virtual library and involves reading comprehension, distinguishing what is important, discovering possibilities, and ruling out alternatives. Our initial evaluation involved 357 students ages 12-17 in 29 different classrooms with 11 teachers in 10 schools. Results showed highly significant gains in learning, a highly significant gain in desire to work with or become a scientist, and a enthusiastic welcome by students and teachers. Importantly, a subset of the students with the fewest resources and the lowest reported grades did the most work and learned the most! We are now recruiting schools to participate in the next evaluation. The game is more than free: participating research partners will receive $50 per qualified class. For more info: http://dsihome.org.

Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

I think there are two aspects

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I think there are two aspects to this - first, the NRC definition specifically states that students need to connect their work to what others have said / done. It is important to do inquiry in context.

The second aspect is the type of knowledge that students access before the inquiry. It is OK to set the context (including using the textbook). If they make a hypothesis, it should not be an uninformed guess. However, it is important that inquiry activities do not turn into confirmation activities. Scientists generally do not know the answer before they start an investigation...if they did, they probably wouldn't do it!


What's missing from this picture is scholarship, the habit of finding out what is known about a phenomenon and how what is known became known. Before a scientist begins an inquiry, she knows how that inquiry fits with existing scientific knowledge and she has mastered the methods needed to investigate the phenomenon of interest. How many inquiry-based programs send students to the textbook before they are sent to the lab?

I think that we confuse how

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I think that we confuse how scientists approach a problem with how kids learn science. We cannot front load all the knowledge. They have to have an active part in deconstructing some preconceptions and constructing more accurate ideas about the world. Does it take more time tan simply trying to let the absorb info...yes. The pay off is that we uncover the misconceptions kids hold on to and we create knowledge that has "legs". By that I mean it can be used to help understand other concepts and solve problems. Some base knowledge is necessary but a lot of inquiry is a carefully supervised conctruction of knowledge project. SO, the blog was right on target and the bucket idea is golden.

What About Scholarship?

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What's missing from this picture is scholarship, the habit of finding out what is known about a phenomenon and how what is known became known. Before a scientist begins an inquiry, she knows how that inquiry fits with existing scientific knowledge and she has mastered the methods needed to investigate the phenomenon of interest. How many inquiry-based programs send students to the textbook before they are sent to the lab?

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Eric Brunsell Asst Professor of Science Education @ UW-Oshkosh

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