What is Inquiry Science?

The Iowa Science standards, with their foundation in the Next Generation Science Standards, bring not only new standards but also require teachers begin to utilize an inquiry-based approach to science education.  Many teachers will cite inquiry science is nothing new – pointing out that teachers have been engaging in hands-on science for years now. In fact, science as inquiry was a facet of our Iowa Core standards of the past.  Yet, even with the expectation from both old and new standards, there are teachers that struggle to bring that approach into their own program.

The confusion appears to be on how a teacher is defining “inquiry science.”  Many teachers have always equated hands-on science to being inquiry-based science.  However, it is quite possible, and quite common, to utilize hands-on science but NOT scientific inquiry.  Having a student follow step by step instructions to come to a result they already expect (thanks in part to prior direct instruction) is not inquiry-based science.

So, what is inquiry science?  I feel one of the best definitions can be found at Just Science Now.  In the site’s discussion of “What is Inquiry?” it defines it as follows:

“Inquiry means that students are handling science; they are manipulating it, working it into new shapes and formats, integrating it into every corner of their world, and playing with it in unknown ways. Inquiry implies that students are in control of an important part of their own learning where they can manipulate ideas to increase understanding.”

By reading the definition, it becomes more clear that to be inquiry, the science needs to be in the hands of the students through their own decisions and actions.  Science that is hands-on, but is directed by the teacher or by text, would not be inquiry.

In an article by Alan Colburn entitled An Inquiry Primer, a variety of levels of inquiry are discussed.  Colburn discusses an inquiry approach called “structured inquiry” in which the teacher provides students with the problem and procedure, but stops short of telling students what data to collect and what to observe.  While the article was written prior to the release of the Next Generation Science Standards, the emphasis on inquiry science is still relevant today.

What are some small changes you could make now to move your students from simple hands-on science to a more inquiry-based approach?  Start by removing the pre-constructed data tables on your student’s lab sheets.  Let students determine the data they will collect and the manner in which they will organize the data.  Start with the inquiry instead of the direct instruction.  Allow the students to generate conclusions from their investigations first, prior to any large group lecture.  Once you have implemented these small changes, you can then move your program into even deeper levels of inquiry.  

After reading the Colburn article, consider what inquiry approaches you might be comfortable with, and then consider how you and your students could benefit from the variety of inquiry approaches.  Consider your own classroom and how you can move beyond the “cookbook” hands-on science to a inquiry-based approach.