(1 of 4)
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
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
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)
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.