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
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.