On Keeping Sight of Inquiry
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(1 of 4)
Author: RF

I have thoroughly enjoyed my re-introduction to the model of inquiry and process. I have observed students in my class who's eyes light up as they gain insight, formulate a prediction, or find evidence to support their findings.

With all this in mind, I can't help think about the teacher's role and process that leads to the success of this method. I believe there is a process leading to the implementation of this method of teaching. Perhaps I feel this way because I feel there are still so many students who come to me in 4th grade with little experience in hands-on learning in science.

The concept of alternative ideas, and not finding a correct or incorrect answer is in itself monumental. The interesting thing is it seems to get more difficult with increased knowledge. Is that what we want to teach our students? I believe applied early this method could be the safety valve to broader more open minds.


(2 of 4)
Author: Harlen, Wynne

RF, Your comments are most perceptive and indicate years of reflection on students’ learning. I’m intrigued that you refer to re-introduction of inquiry and being re-acquainted with its value. This suggests that it has somehow been lost. Can you say why? We might be able to guard against losing sight of it again if we answer this question.

I can only agree with you on the matter of the development of ideas. Just to reinforce this I would add that it’s useful to see three dimensions in the development of ideas:

1. From description to explanation
The ideas of the younger students are closely related to gathering information, finding out what is there, what is happening, as opposed to explaining why. There is the beginning of explanation in terms of what the habitat provides for the living things in it. The ideas of the older students are clearly much more related to explanation. This is an important dimension because, as Hubert Dyasi puts it (NSF Foundations 2 Inquiry, 1999 p10) "An explanation is the result of combining intellectual activity with discrete facts gathered through inquiry. The development of explanations is an essential component of science inquiry activity."

2. From ‘small’ to ‘big’ ideas
Each experience leads to a small idea that helps to make sense of specific observations. ‘Worms can live in soil because they can slither through small spaces and can eat things that are in the soil’ is an idea that applies to worms only. It is transformed to a bigger idea when it is linked to other ideas, such as ‘fish can live in water because they can breathe through their gills and find food there’, to form an idea that can apply to all animals. Eventually this idea may be linked to ideas about the habitats of plants, to become an even bigger idea about living organisms in general. This is an important dimension of progress since the formation of widely applicable ideas, or concepts, is essential if we are to make sense of new experience. It is important to remember, however, that how concepts are called into play when we need to solve problems or understand new phenomena depends on process skills as well as.

3. From personal to shared ideas
It is characteristic of young students to look at things form one point of view, their own, and this is reflected in their ideas. These are based on their personal experience and their interpretation of it. As students become older and willing to share how they see and how they explain things, their ideas are influenced by those of others, including their teachers and other adults. Thus ideas are constructed on the basis of social and educational interactions as well as their own thinking. Through becoming aware of others’ ideas and sharing their own, students negotiate meaning for their experiences and for the words that are used to communicate them (such as ‘habitat’). In this way students derive assurance that others share their understanding.

It is central to learning in science that students have access to the views of others and to the scientific view, but at the same time retain ownership of their own developing understanding. These overall dimensions of progress are the kind of changes that it is helpful to have in mind and to encourage in students whatever the content of their activities.

Thanks for your input.

(3 of 4)
Author: LT

Dear Dr. Harlen,
You made excellent points linking prior knowledge and experience to developing process skills.
Students need to acquire good process skills in order to achieve success in any subject area and life. Just like a cycle, the students will learn and gain more knowledge. My question is, do you have any suggestions on how to move a classroom towards an inquiry approach?


(4 of 4)
Author: Wynne Harlen

LT, What perceptive and fundamental questions! And all so difficult to answer. To the first, about how to move a class towards inquiry I am tempted to answer ‘gradually’!

In a little more detail the important thing is planning. A second point is to begin with rather more structure than you hope to end up with but it’s necessary if the students are to feel comfortable and you are to maintain ordered and thoughtful investigations.

In the small book from which Why this Way of Working was taken there is a chapter on Starting Points. This suggests an activity that can be used as a way of introducing students to an investigative way of working. It identifies four phases: setting up the problem; preliminary exploration, investigating; concluding discussion.

Setting up the problem might involve presenting the children with a problem (‘which fabric would you choose for making a rain coat?’) which can be done in various ways. It will also involve establishing a reason for gathering evidence (‘to see if what we think is right’). Since the materials for this particular problem are not difficult to find and are familiar to children it is a useful way of making a move toward inquiry with the whole class together working in groups – but it has many parallels of the ‘which is best…?’ kind so it can be fitted into a number of different topics. The teacher might gather ideas from the children as to what they could do to find out ‘which is best?’ or (s)he might just let them explore and try different things for some time. At this point their work is not likely to be systematic and ‘scientific’ but they will get a ‘feel’ for what they can do and what it might be useful to do.

Then discuss the possibilities that have arisen and point out what it is necessary to be careful about if they are ‘to be sure of their results’. So it moves into a more controlled investigation, with ‘fair testing’. Towards the end of their investigation, give the groups warning that they have to report to others on what they have done as a preliminary to holding a whole class discussion (I’ve written more about this to MA). Emphasise the importance of having evidence to back up the claims they make, so that in future investigations they will focus on this.

Thanks for you comments and questions.



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