Using Inquiry-Based Activities to Teach Science
from EE Research Bulletin
THE RESEARCH: Tan, A.-L. & Wong, H.-M (2012) ‘Didn’t get expected answer, rectify it’ — Teaching science content in an elementary science classroom using hands-on activities. International Journal of Science Education, 34(2), 197-222.
A conflict inherent in teaching canonical science concepts in an inquiry-based framework exists. Can students be asked to explore for themselves, while also being taught testable scientific concepts? In this scenario, tension forms around how much guidance a teacher gives to foster authentic discovery and understanding of the scientific process, while still teaching important scientific information. This study asks: What happens when we use an inquiry-based model for teaching science?
The study analyzed the speech between teachers and students to understand how this tension manifests in classrooms in Singapore. Video and audio recordings of 10 science teachers were taken in two phases, first as a baseline, and, second, after a teaching strategy intervention. During the baseline, classrooms typically used a traditional teaching model in which the teacher led the class.
The lesson examined by the study taught transfer of energy from elastic potential energy to kinetic energy, using rubber-band group experiments and class discussion of energy concepts. The intervention asked teachers to plan an inquiry-based lesson, which included the five features of inquiry: questions, evidence, explanation, connections, and communication. Also, the 5E model of inquiry was used by the teacher examined in the case study, with the goal of having students engage, explore, explain, elaborate, and evaluate. Both of these inquiry models aimed to teach students the scientific process by carrying it out themselves
The researchers transcribed and studied the lessons, specifically observing how teachers moved between a dialogic and authoritative role in the classroom. Dialogic conversation is where the talk moves between the teacher and students (two-way conversation), and authoritative is where the talk moves only from teacher to student (one-way conversation). The paper closely followed one case study, in which the teacher moved between dialogic and authoritarian communication strategies, successfully engaging students in discussion while maintaining authority on the subject. By keeping this control, she was able to meet content teaching goals. However, by emphasizing the correct results of the activity, she may have decreased the degree to which the students explored and discovered concepts on their own — a pillar of inquiry-based learning. Specifically, during class discussion, strong guidance from the teacher led students to give “correct” answers or passively wait for her to tell them the “correct” answer. This undermined exploration by the students and an authentic understanding of the scientific process, and may have given the students the impression that science is fixed.
The researchers concluded that teachers must “reexamine their roles in classroom discussion or talk and learn to promote learning by exploring ways to make their classroom discussion more participatory and learning-centered for students.” When teachers have greater awareness of learning goals and execution of their teaching strategy, they will be more effective in balancing inquiry and factual content in their lessons
THE BOTTOM LINE: This study examined the tension between inquiry-based science education and the pressure to teach the “right” answer when teaching scientific content. By following 10 science teachers and using one as an in-depth case study, the researchers closely observed the use of one-way conversation (teacher to students) versus two-way conversation (dialogue between teacher and students) in the classroom. They found that when too much guidance is given by the teacher, students are not free to explore authentically. Instead, the students simply seek out or wait for the correct answer, rather than gain experience in scientific inquiry. The authors suggested that using an inquiry-based method while maintaining authority may be an effective mix to meet teaching goals and still have students explore the scientific process.