Science is the art of discovery. Without scientists asking questions and seeking answers, many of the knowledge and conveniences we enjoy today would never have been discovered. Science can help students learn about the world around them, and, if approached the right way, can set them up for success. Give your students the gift to ask questions and discover the answers independently—it will prepare them for life after school.
“Science education should not only focus on preparing future scientists and engineers, but [it should] also expose students to the beauty of science and to how scientific knowledge is generated.” This is according to the K–12 Framework for Science Education.
“Many teachers avoid teaching through inquiry in their classrooms or outside their classrooms for many reasons. They struggle… with understanding the nature of inquiry-based learning and with teaching non-prescriptive inquiry to their students,” a 2019 Innovation and Education article by various authors explained.
The article continued, “An underdeveloped view of inquiry…can often lead to…an overemphasis of procedures and technicalities rather than on the intellectual work and the curiosity and creativity that characterize scientific work.” In other words, many teachers focus on specific scientific facts and procedures rather than on the scientific method and learning through discovery.
This needs to change.
“While U.S. students are memorizing science facts in early grades, students in other countries are learning foundational concepts that make complicated processes understandable in later grades,” said Bobbi Hansen and Sandy Buczynski in a 2013 research article in the International Journal of Higher Education. “Science has been taught too much as an accumulation of ready-made material with which students are to be made familiar, not enough as a method of thinking.”
That’s what inquiry-based learning is all about. When implemented in the classroom, inquiry helps students make observations, be curious, ask questions, conduct experiments, and find answers. It makes science more engaging and more fun. “Science education should encourage students to continue to learn about science outside school in their everyday life as well,” said the Innovation and Education article.
Teaching inquiry-based science doesn’t have to be hard. Just follow the scientific method: make an observation, ask a question, then experiment to find the answer. That’s exactly what students should be doing in an inquiry-based classroom.
Tips for Brainstorming Questions
In a 2021 Teaching Channel blog post, Ashleigh Burry and Kristy Mandel gave some tips on how to take students through the initial process of generating questions:
- Create a prompt that elicits student questions.
- Teach students the rules:
- Ask as many questions as you can.
- Do not stop to discuss, judge, or answer the questions.
- Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
- Change any statement into a question.
- Classify and prioritize the questions as a class.
Burry and Mandel then offered additional ideas for how to generate questions:
- The Wonder Wall: Dedicate one wall of the classroom to students’ questions. Give students time to generate as many questions as they can to put on the wall.
- Wonder Wednesday: Every Wednesday hold a “popcorn” question activity. Ask the class a question and have students respond by asking more questions or answering the question.
Using Questions to Learn
Once your students have generated questions, it’s time to answer them! Or rather, it’s time to teach them how to find the answers themselves.
“Generally speaking, integrating inquiry-based learning as a teaching approach requires engaging the students in collaborative tasks that involve reading, asking questions, planning the means to enable answering the questions, collecting and interpreting data, drawing conclusions, and offering new understandings,” said the Innovation and Education research article by various authors.
Hansen and Buczynsky suggested the following steps for teaching students how to answer the questions they’ve created:
- Teach students about investigations including the structure of experiments, the different types of investigations, and which questions can be investigated.
- Help students change their non-investigable questions into investigable ones.
- Tap on students’ prior knowledge and personal interests. Help them to link what they already know to what they would like to find out.
- Create a conducive environment that encourages problem-posing and question-asking.
Step four can be carried out in several different ways. Here are some suggestions from Burry and Mandel:
- A Wonder Bubble/Exploration Hour: Create time for students to research their questions on their own and give them a journal to write their findings in.
- Project-Based Learning: Use what students are learning in a question-based group project. You can even let them choose which question to base their project off of.
Get Students Talking
The important thing to include in your investigations as a class is the need for discussion. Be intentional about stepping back from lecturing at the front of the class, and open the time up for discussion.
John Almarode, Ph.D., an associate professor and executive director of teaching and learning in the College of Education at James Madison University in Virginia, uses a system that captures the essence of inquiry-based learning. He calls it, “Student Talk.”
In a 2021 blog for Education Week by Larry Ferlazzo, Almarode described the benefits of using student-led learning like inquiry learning and “Student Talk:” “Student talk blends key elements of the science of how we learn….[It] can be embedded in so many different approaches to teaching and learning science….[Student Talk allows students to] activate prior knowledge, articulate connections between concepts, and apply their thinking to understand their peers’ thinking.”
Student Talk is another form of student-led learning that allows students to discuss, “concepts, practices, and understandings,” about scientific concepts. Just letting students learn from each other can help them be more engaged in science, and therefore, learn concepts better.
Science is built on inquiry. All our greatest scientific discoveries and developments came from someone asking a question. Then experimenting. Then asking another question. Then making more inquiries until they found an answer. Inquiry-based learning in science allows students to explore, wonder, and discover.
It also boosts students’ cognitive ability.
“Inquiry pedagogy is significant for science educators because it is student-centered and allows time for metacognitive development,” Hansen and Buczynski explained.
Teachers should implement inquiry learning into their curriculum because it helps students be more engaged in their learning and therefore learn better.
Inquiry prepares students for life. Real life isn’t full of multiple-choice questions. To prepare students to ask questions and seek answers in adulthood, educators need to incorporate inquiry learning into the classroom.
“Science education should encourage students to continue to learn about science outside school in their everyday life as well,” Researchers in the 2019 Innovation and Education article said.
Inquiry learning empowers students to keep learning on their own. Plus, it’s an easy way to teach the scientific method.
The scientific method is all about asking questions and seeking the answer. When educators get lost in making their students memorize facts instead of engaging in discovery, students will not know how to conduct a proper experiment to find solutions to problems. Plus, inquiry is a lot more fun.
Inquiry learning helps students enjoy learning about the world around them.