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Is science a noun or a verb? How you answer may determine how you teach science. Science as a noun suggests that science is content to be learned: students in seats, teacher with textbook at the front of the room, the guardian of important facts and discoveries. Science as a verb, by contrast, treats science as an activity, the work of scientists: the ongoing pursuit of questions, hypotheses, and investigations to better understanding the natural world.

Certainly there is scientific knowledge that students need to learn and understand, and often lectures and textbooks may be the best way to convey that knowledge. But thinking of science only as a noun misses the excitement of scientific discovery. Thinking of science as a verb creates opportunities for students and teachers to engage the natural world, grapple with the human impact of scientific discoveries, and build thinking skills that will make them better citizens, consumers, and even (just maybe) professional scientists.

Inquiry science, the practice of teaching science through student-centered questioning and discovery, is fundamentally about treating science as a verb. Just as inquiry in science is about asking questions of the natural world and working to answer them, inquiry in the science classroom emerges when teachers encourage students’ curiosity by helping them to ask questions about their encounters with the natural world. Treating science as a verb in the classroom requires active relationships between students, teachers, and science. Building these relationships is a three-step process that involves thinking about inquiry as a process of science, as a pedagogical strategy, and as a set of skills and behaviors to encourage in students.

Inquiry as a process of science

Inquiry as a process of science makes explicit the strategies of the scientific method: questions, hypotheses, tests (and perhaps retests) and conclusions. As defined by the National Science Education Standards,

Inquiry… involves making observations; posing questions; examining books and other sources of information to see what is already known; planning investigations; reviewing what is already known in light of experimental evidence; using tools to gather, analyze, and interpret data; proposing answers, explanations, and predictions; and communicating the results. Inquiry requires identification of assumptions, use of critical and logical thinking, and consideration of alternative explanations. (YEAR, p. 23)

Inquiry is, in short, science itself. By learning science through inquiry, students are learning to think and work like scientists — in effect, to be scientists in their daily lives. What does science look like in daily life? There is a story about the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, near the end of his life, cooking pasta with a friend and spilling the box of dry noodles all over the kitchen. He noted that for some reason all of the noodles broke into exactly three pieces, and the two scientists spent the remainder of the evening testing this observation with additional boxes of spaghetti and trying to find a model that would explain why it happened. It’s a trivial example, perhaps, but that kind of enthusiasm for understanding the world is the basis of all scientific inquiry, from the elementary classroom all the way to billion-dollar laboratories!

Inquiry as a pedagogical strategy

As a pedagogical strategy, inquiry means rethinking classroom practices away from traditional models that present the teacher as purveyor and the student as recipient of knowledge. An inquiry focus asks teachers to think in new ways about processes of connecting, designing, investigating, and constructing meaning in the classroom. The Northwest Regional Education Laboratory (NWREL) offers four key traits that characterize inquiry learning — the “verbs” of science — along with the habits of mind that each trait facilitates.

Trait

Habits of Mind

Connecting new phenomena to students’ prior experience(s), allowing time for exploration and development of background knowledge

  • Curiosity
  • Understanding the types of questions science can and cannot answer

Designing processes for collecting data that will answer student-generated questions

  • Attention to detail
  • Understanding the need to collect fair and adequate data

Investigating the natural world through the collection, organization and display of data

  • Recognizing need for reproducible results
  • Deciding which types of data are of greatest value in answering the questions posed

Constructing Meaning through analysis of patterns and trends in collected data that lead to the formulation of explanations; evaluation of quality of data and its usefulness in answering questions

  • Critical and reflective thinking
  • Communication
  • Respect for evidence
  • Flexibility in thinking

Adding inquiry in the classroom, however, does not mean that teachers have to cede control altogether. As a student-centered model of instruction, inquiry teaching and learning is often juxtaposed in relation to more traditional, content-based models of instruction. Under the umbrella of inquiry are a variety of models that maximize the flexibility and variety possible when including inquiry in the science classroom. NWREL describes an inquiry continuum that provides a useful model for thinking about various ways to integrate inquiry into a science curriculum. The teacher’s goals for learning drive the decision about which level of inquiry is most appropriate. Each point on the continuum incorporates hands-on scientific activity, and each is designed to use and teach scientific ways of thinking and doing. The degree of responsibility for initiating inquiry, however, changes along the continuum. Moving along the continuum, teachers must learn to limit their intervention, for guidance that is too directed (leading hints, pointed questions, and so on) may thwart the process.

Structured Inquiry

Guided Inquiry

Student-Initiated Inquiry

Students follow teacher directions that model and support limited inquiry with a specific focus.

The goal is to practice inquiry and initiate students to the process.

The teacher facilitates greater student responsibility for the process, giving students more responsibility for determining procedures for investigation.

Students have the most responsibility: they generate their own questions and design their own investigations.

(Source: NREL)

Inquiry as a set of skills and behaviors

Inquiry as a set of skills and behaviors to encourage requires helping students think about what makes a good question. Good questions are those that have no obviously easy or “right” answer, push students toward abstract thinking, and also reflect students’ interests. Questions that cannot be answered easily provoke and sustain student interest and also demonstrate the complexity of the discipline. The introduction of any new topic or unit can be devoted to the generation of multiple questions about that topic, which can then be organized to guide short- or long-term lesson planning.

Conclusion

As with any classroom strategy, there is no recipe for the one right way to do inquiry in the science classroom. Our other articles on science inquiry will profile teachers who have successfully integrated inquiry into their science lessons, address ways that teachers can guide students to ask better questions, and offer additional resources on teaching inquiry. Science can be many different verbs, and the challenge for the teacher is finding the right verb for each classroom.