ecoinquiryA Guide to Ecological Learning Experiences for Upper Elementary/Middle Grades

Reviewed by Fletcher Brown

Author Kathleen Hogan
Publisher: Kendal/Hunt Publishing Company
Pgs: 392

Over the last two decades the educational reform movement has been pitching a variety of methodologies to get educators to be more student-centered and inquiry minded. Curriculum and textbooks have been slowly adapting, most often offering supplements to existing materials that incorporate these methods and approaches. Eco-Inquiry: A Guide to Ecological Learning Experiences for Upper Elementary/Middle Grades is one of the few guides that truly incorporates these reform measures beautifully embedding inquiry teaching strategies and alternative assessment measures into the activities.

Eco-Inquiry in composed of three ecology modules for upper elementary or middle grades. The modules last from four to seven weeks and examine food webs, decomposition, and nutrient cycling. Important features in this guide include:
• Each module organizes students’ inquiries around a real-world problem or challenge.
• Students form research teams that do peer reviews, share ideas and findings.
• The focus of the activities are on the local schoolyard or neighborhood environment.
• Both the staff and students use a variety of alternative assessment measures.
• Units address student misconceptions about ecology through learning concepts using a learning cycle approach.
• The guide includes extensive background information for teachers about schoolyard habitats and the flora and fauna found in them.

Upon opening the book you will immediately identify that this is not like most other curriculum guides. The introduction sets the stage for things to come making sure the teachers understand that their role is one of a collaborator who will be involved in a classroom that they call a “collaboratory”.  To create this colaboratory learning environment they structure each module around an inquiry approach to learning. Each module has four sections; activating ideas, investigations, processing understanding, and applying/assessing. Embedded in these four sections lie seven to ten lessons which have embedded in them four central learning processes; building a framework, developing knowledge, inquiring, and applying.

Central to the guide is the current of building a community of inquiry minds. This is accomplished in the curriculum through the use of student writing that they hope will promote interaction and reflection. Most of the writing is accomplished through journaling, which is a major part of what students do on a daily basis while being involved in the modules. A variety of different types of journaling formats are used including reflections, quick writes, learning logs, and persuasive writing to name a few. One particularly interesting journal format that they implement which models current communication patterns in the science world is the use of what they term “C-mail”. Here students are able to send notes to friends using set formats to quickly communicate ideas and thoughts. Be it C-mail or other journaling formats students are expected to be writing on a daily bases aimed at sharing their thoughts, ideas, and impressions about what they learn and observe.

There are two additional pieces to the guide that make it shine among other ecology curriculum guides. The first are the activities they have selected for the students to use. Each module has a variety of hands-on and minds-on activities that are based on students’ misconceptions in ecology. A good example of this is a unit entitled, A Challenge to GROW. Here students begin by examining prior ideas about what plants need to grow.  This is followed by students observing soil samples, talking about where soil nutrients come from, they receive a letter from a company that wants to know if dead plants can be used as fertilizer and end with the development of research questions that lead extended study projects. The modules are clearly multi-faceted keeping students engaged and busy. While they have given structure to the activities to help guide students and teachers, there is also flexibility for students to go their own direction with investigations.

The second area that is done exceptionally well is assessment. Throughout the guide students are asked to reflect on their learning and relate what they learn to the real world. The main vehicle for studentsí summative assessment is the portfolio. Here students select samples of their work after each module and turn in an end of the year final portfolio project that is formally graded. Individual assignments, whether they are part of the portfolio or not, are assessed using a set of proficiency standards. Indicators used in the proficiency standards include; novice, proficient, proficient +, and advanced. Be it a journal product, concept map, or experimental write-up, one of the proficiency standards are applied to student work. For the teacher guidance and examples are given so first time user of alternative assessment measures feels more comfortable and confident in using them. Whether it is journaling, concept mapping or portfolios the assessment is an integral part of the modules.  By choosing to do the modules you will have to use the assessment measures. They cannot be easily separated.

One thing that Eco-Inquiry is not is a complete curriculum for all content included in middle and high school ecology classes. The authors have chosen to take a few main ideas and go in-depth in these areas. If you are looking to cover all the major concepts in ecology using this guide you will not succeed. What this curriculum guide does is develop in-depth learning, communication skills, and inquiry learning skills through the science topics of food webs, cycles and decomposition. If you do not already have this guide on your bookshelf you should add it now. If for nothing what this guide provides is an outstanding example of how to embed science education reform methods effectively into your teaching of ecology.

Fletcher Brown is on the faculty of the education department at the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana.