Unit 1 Introduction


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Learning Objectives of this unit

By the end of this unit, you should be able to:

  • Understand the concept of Science Inquiry;
  • Understand the five characteristics and the distinguished features of Science Inquiry;
  • Choose to learn more about Science Inquiry.

Scenario: Look at these science classrooms

  • Imagine science classrooms in which:
    • The teacher pushes a steel needle through a balloon and the balloon does not burst. The teacher asks the students to find out why the balloon didn't burst.
    • Students are dropping objects into jars containing liquids with different densities and recording the time it takes each object to reach the bottom of the jar. They are trying to find out about viscosity.
    • Students are using probes connected to a microcomputer to measure the heart rates of students before and after doing five minutes of exercise. They are investigating the effect of exercise on pulse rate.
    • Students are reading newspaper articles on the topic "toxic waste dumps" in order to form opinions about a proposed dump being established in their community.
  • Discuss topic: How do you think about these science classes? Are they different with your classes? Do these classed have similarities? Discuss these topics with your colleagues and write down your thoughts in the part of "comments" on this page.
  • Some Thoughts from other teachers:
    • In each case students are actively involved in measuring, recording data, and proposing alternative ideas in order to solve problems, find meaning, and acquire information.
    • In these situations students were involved in the process of inquiry. The greatest challenge to those who advocate inquiry teaching is the threat to the traditional and dominant role of the teacher in secondary education. By taking a stand in favor of inquiry teaching, the teacher is saying, "I believe students are capable of learning how to learn; they have within their repotoire the abilities as well as the motivation to question, to find out about and seek knowledge; they are persons, and therefore learners in their own right, not incomplete adults."
    • The philosophy of inquiry implies that the teacher views the learner as a thinking, acting, responsible person.

What is Inquiry?

  • "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."
    ---National Research Council
  • The National Science Education Standards (NSES), published in 1996, recognizes the importance of the topic and lists both abilities and understandings of inquiry (see the NSES, Inquiry and Educational Research section).The purpose of doing this is to expose students to approaches that emphasize different elements of scientific inquiry. These approaches include:
    • developing the understandings and abilities of inquiry;
    • formulating and testing a hypothesis;
    • collecting data and constructing and defending an explanation;
    • developing, using, and analyzing models; and
    • analyzing historical case studies.
  • Some of the findings from the NRC report that are relevant to inquiry:
    • Understanding science is more than knowing facts.
    • Students build new knowledge and understanding based on what they already know and believe.
    • Students formulate new knowledge by modifying and refining their current concepts and by adding new concepts to what they already know.
    • Learning is mediated by the social environment in which learners interact with others.
    • Effective learning requires that students take control of their own learning.
    • The ability to apply knowledge to novel situations (that is, to transfer learning) is affected by the degree to which students learn with understanding

Five Characteristics of the Inquiry Process

Many science educators have advocated that science teaching should emphasize inquiry. Wayne Welch, a science educator at the University of Minnesota argues the techniques needed for effective science teaching are the same as those used for effective scientific investigation. Thus the methods used by scientists should be an integral part of the methods used in science classrooms. We might think of the method of scientific investigation as the inquiry process. Welch identifies five characteristics of the inquiry process as follows:

  • Observation: Science begins with the observation of matter or phenomena. It is is the starting place for inquiry. However, as Welch points out, asking the right questions that will guide the observer is a crucial aspect of the process of observation.
  • Measurement: Quantitative description of objects and phenomena is an accepted practice of science, and desirable because of the value in science on precision and accurate description.
  • Experimentation: Experiments are designed to test questions and ideas, and as such are the cornerstone of science. Experiments involve questions, observations and measurements.
  • Communication: Communicating results to the scientific community and the public is an obligation of the scientist, and is an essential part of the inquiry process. The values of independent thinking and truthfulness in reporting the results of observations and measurements are essential in this regard. As pointed out earlier in the section on the nature of science, the "republic of science" is dependent on the communication of all its members. Generally is this done by articles published in journals, and discussions at professional meetings and seminars.
  • Mental Processes:There are several thinking processes that are integral to scientific inquiry: inductive reasoning, formulating hypotheses and theories, deductive reasoning, as well as analogy, extrapolation, synthesis and evaluation. The mental processes of scientific inquiry may also include other processes such as the use of imagination and intuition.

Inquiry teaching is a method of instruction, yet not the only method that secondary science teachers employ. However, because of the philosophical orientation of this book towards an inquiry approach to teaching, I will explore it first, but also highlight three other methods (direct/interactive teaching, cooperative learning, and conceptual change teaching) that contemporary science teachers use in their classrooms.

Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards

The National Science Education Standards place science inquiry at the top of the list of standards. In this view, science inquiry goes beyond the teaching of science process skills (e.g. observing, classifying, inferring, etc.) and requires students to integrate process and science content to develop an understanding of science.

Click here to get to know the details about the The National Science Education Standards.

Distinguishing Features of Inquiry-oriented Science Instruction

Inquiry-oriented science instruction has been characterized in a variety of ways over the years (Collins, 1986; DeBoer, 1991; Rakow, 1986) and promoted from a variety of perspectives.

  • From a science perspective, inquiry-oriented instruction engages students in the investigative nature of science. As Novak suggested some time ago (1964), "Inquiry is the [ETAP6235694:set] of behaviors involved in the struggle of human beings for reasonable explanations of phenomena about which they are curious." So, inquiry involves activity and skills, but the focus is on the active search for knowledge or understanding to satisfy a curiosity.
  • From a pedagogical perspective, inquiry-oriented teaching is often contrasted with more traditional expository methods and reflects the constructivist model of learning, often referred to as active learning, so strongly held among science educators today. According to constructivist models, learning is the result of ongoing changes in our mental frameworks as we attempt to make meaning out of our experiences (Osborne & Freyberg, 1985). In classrooms where students are encouraged to make meaning, they are generally involved in "developing and restructuring [ETAP6235694:their] knowledge schemes through experiences with phenomena, through exploratory talk and teacher intervention" (Driver, 1989). Indeed, research findings indicate that, "students are likely to begin to understand the natural world if they work directly with natural phenomena, using their senses to observe and using instruments to extend the power of their senses" (National Science Board, 1991, p. 27).
  • In its essence, then, inquiry-oriented teaching engages students in investigations to satisfy curiosities, with curiosities being satisfied when individuals have constructed mental frameworks that adequately explain their experiences. One implication is that inquiry-oriented teaching begins or at least involves stimulating curiosity or provoking wonder. There is no authentic investigation or meaningful learning if there is no inquiring mind seeking an answer, solution, explanation, or decision.



  • The diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work;
  • 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.

Five characteristics of the inquiry process: Observation, Measurement, Experimentation, Communication, Mental Processes.


Please write your reactions to the concepts of Inquiry-oriented Teaching in Science. Did you ever used inquiry-oriented instruction in your teaching? How can you tell that you are using it? If not, can you find other teacher's teaching as an example? Please support your ideas with examples.

Preparation for next unit

Unit Two - Before moving onto Unit Two, please think about why do we need to use the method of Inquiry-orented Teaching. Write down your thoughts - you'll use these later.

Click here to go to Unit 2.