So Frank tweeted out a post by Paul. Now, coming from Frank, I was expecting a link to some amazing new teacher with some great idea I could steal and implement into my classroom. This is, after all, why I have twitter. So I was quite surprised* to find an article comparing scientific inquiry to reform math (whatever that is). My first reaction was not favorable, so I looked around to see if I could find out more about Paul. His page says he is a middle school science teacher, but I couldn't seem to find much of anything that lets me see inside his classroom. Maybe that isn't the point of his blog, and that is fine, but he doesn't seem to like science education all that much.
But that isn't really my point. I'm not really into bashing other people, but this post bothered me because it seems to reflect what a lot of science teachers (and administrators and parents and others) think inquiry really is.
Go ahead. Ask someone what an inquiry based classroom should look like. For the most part, you will get an answer along the lines of "kids are exploring whatever they want and calling it science." This misconception is why some science teachers "don't do inquiry."
I'm not sure how this perception of inquiry became so mainstream, however, if you actually read The 5 Essential Features of Inquiry described by the National Research Council (2000), you will find an explanation that it probably strays quite a bit from your definition.
1. The learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.
This does not mean they have to come up with their own questions. I can give them a question. I can even give them the procedure. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. The important part is that the activity is focused on a specific idea that I want kids to understand.
2. The learner gives priority evidence in responding to questions.
The key word here is "evidence." It is vital that we are using data to formulate the answer to our question. So we take data. Then we decide whether or not it is good data. If it's not, then we get back in the lab and figure out what we did that doesn't allow us to draw a conclusion.
3. The learner formulates explanations based on evidence.
This is the hard part. In most science classes, the data doesn't mean squat. We did a lab. It was fun, but I can answer all those conclusion questions by reading my textbook. Being able to truly explain what the data means and drawing those relationships is tough for a lot of kids. And adults.
4. The learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.
So we have made it through the lab and have a conclusion based on our results. Now the big question is whether or not our conclusion stands up against what we already know. Does our data support the accepted theory or not? When you think about it, this is the whole point of science. Using new data to corroborate or not on a given theory and building our knowledge base allows us to question even more.
5. The learner communicates and justifies explanations.
Oh that communication piece. In my classroom, not only do students have to write conclusions that incorporate at least three different representations of their data, but they also have to present their results to the class. This is why I love the whiteboarding. Kids get up and explain to their peers what their data means and what their conclusions are. They have to really understand the ideas and be able to articulate them in a way that can be understood by others. Then they get to answer any questions that might get thrown their way and justify their conclusions.
A student-centered, inquiry-based classroom does NOT mean the students get free reign and control over their learning experience. If that were true, they wouldn't need me. Student centered means that those kids are not just writing down everything I say, filling out a worksheet and parroting it back to me on a test. That isn't learning. Plus, that is boring.
I teach in an inquiry-based classroom and let me tell you, it takes a lot of work and careful construction to get kids where I need them to go. Even Shawn, whose kids go off in the most amazing of directions, gives kids a lot more support than you might think. Again, inquiry is NOT about sending kids off on their own, hoping they come up with the "right" answer. It is about helping construct their own knowledge and make sense of the world around them. Without a textbook. Yes, it can be done.
I will also tell you that teaching using inquiry does NOT "lower the...bar for success." If all you are doing is having kids "do" science with out them learning any science, maybe science (or teaching in general) is not for you. I have mentioned before how good this way has been for "those" kids in my classes and I believe you have heard me talk about how some of those "upper-level" kids really struggle when it comes to actually thinking about the material.
Inquiry is an entire process that encompasses a whole lot more than just the procedure. When done correctly, it is a rich learning environment that involves active, student centered learning, communication and critical thinking.
Really, you should try it.
*Frank was really on a roll today with way out of character recommendations.