Inquiry and the Heterogeneous Classroom
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(1 of 2)
Author: MA

Dear Dr. Harlen:
My questions focus primarily on implementation. What does a teacher do when the experiences of the students in the classroom are varied or non-existent? I agree that discussion does foster learning but how does one facilitate "good" discussion with 27 or more students?

Thank you

(2 of 2)
Author: Wynne Harlen

MA, Your belief in the importance of students learning through inquiry is essential to providing opportunities for them to learn this way. If you unpack the meaning of inquiry you can begin to answer the first question you posed. Inquiry in this context means children ‘building their understanding through direct experience with materials and through consulting books, other resources, experts and through argument and debate among themselves’.

So if they do not have relevant experience then it has to be supplied. Give lots of opportunity at the start of a new topic for exploration of materials so that the students begin to raise questions and form ideas. It often pays to put things in the classroom for investigation in odd moments several days or even weeks before starting the topic. Then the children who may not previously have had chance to touch and interact with the materials have opportunity to do so.

I’m thinking of a display of mirrors and lenses, coloured gelatines, etc before a topic on light; or different fabrics before discussing ‘which is best for…’ leading to some investigations of how the properties different fabrics make them more suitable for a particular use. You may well find that indeed they do have some previous experience, since after all they all wear clothes and will have seen lenses in spectacles and mirrors in their homes.

But this may not be the case for all topics so providing some chance for free exploration before you begin to ask them questions or pose a problem to be investigated will be important for those who come with less experience of these things. What about helping students to make predictions? As with all process skills, the important ways of encouraging development include providing opportunity, which includes time to do this and to think about what they are doing, being prompted by questions and encouragement, and being helped to reflect on what they are doing.

Predicting has to be distinguished from guessing and so the student must have some basis on which to make a prediction. So the starting point is really the students’ ideas. Predictions can be based on hypotheses or on patterns in observations. In either case, using hypotheses or patterns predictively is important to testing them. The question 'does this idea really explain what is happening?' is answered in science by first predicting a so far unknown event from the explanation and then seeing whether there is evidence of the predicted event taking place.

For children the explanation may be in terms of associated circumstances rather than mechanisms, but the same applies. For example, the appearance of a misty patch after breathing on a window pane may be explained 'because my breath is warm and the window is cold'. Although there is much more to the explanation than this, it is still possible to use this idea to make a prediction about what will happen if the window is warm and not cold. Investigation of 'breathing' on surfaces of difference temperatures would test predictions based on this hypothesis.

It is not easy to encourage children to make genuine predictions, as opposed to guesses, on the one hand, or a mere statement of what is already known, on the other. At first it is useful to scaffold the process by taking the children through the reasoning which connects the making of a prediction to the testing of an idea: 'according to our idea, what will happen if ... ?' and so 'if that happens, then we'll know our idea is working so far. Let's see.' It is also important to check whether 'we already know what will happen'; only if the answer is not already known is it a real prediction and a genuine test of the hypothesis or pattern.

As you can see, this kind of interaction is only possible when the children are engaged on activities where they can generate hypotheses to test or observe patterns. Such activities include those where an explanation can arise from the observations, as in why twanging a tight string gives a higher note than a slack string, or why footsteps echo in some places but not others, or why moisture forms on the outside of cold containers taken from the fridge into a warm room. These can be part of a wider set of investigations but are particularly rich in encouraging prediction. Once the children begin to make predictions then it helps to make them conscious of it and so to recognise what a prediction is and is not. You are already aware of the value of discussion so I don’t need to make a case for this.

Whole class discussion requires preparation. Take a suitable opportunity when children are working in groups and tell them that they have to make a report of what they have done and found to the whole class. Help them to prepare for this and then give plenty of time for it. Establish some ‘ground rules’ for each group listening to the others and then asking questions or making positive comments. On the first one or two occasions the teacher might act as a chairperson to ensure an orderly exchange. Invite children to make suggestions to each other and to give different ideas.

After a while the discussions may need less structure when children have become used to listening to each other and accepting different ideas. Then sum up, as a chairperson would do so that children become conscious of the new ideas and ways of investigating that have come up through the discussion. Of course this requires a positive and sharing ethos (including the trust that MC talks about in her posting this week), but it also helps to sustain this.

Hope this is of some help.


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