Frequently Asked Questions
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Christine Collier - principal of the
Center for Inquiry, a K-8 magnet/option school in the Indianapolis
Public School district
Judith Johnson - associate professor
of science education at the University of Central Florida;
associate director of the Lockheed Martin/University of Central
Florida Academy of Mathematics and Science
Lisa Nyberg - assistant professor in the education
department at California State University, Fresno
Virginia Lockwood - staff developer
and consultant, District 2 New York City
WHAT IS INQUIRY AND WHY DO
1. What is Inquiry teaching?
Inquiry teaching is allowing students questions and
curiosities to drive curriculum. Inquiry begins with gathering
information through applying the human senses seeing,
hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. Inquiry encourages
children to question, conduct research for genuine reasons,
and make discoveries on their own. The practice transforms
the teacher into a learner with students, and students become
teachers with us. Inquiry teaching honors previous experience
and knowledge. It makes use of multiple ways of knowing and
taking on new perspectives when exploring issues, content,
2. How will inquiry teaching help my students learn?
In an inquiry-based classroom, students aren't waiting for
the teacher or someone else to provide an answer instead,
they are actively seeking solutions, designing investigations,
and asking new questions. Students quickly see the cycle of
learning and that learning has cycles. Students learn to think
and problem solve. They learn that there is no one place or
one resource for answers, but that many tools are useful for
exploring problems. Students actively involved in making observations,
collecting and analyzing information, synthesizing information,
and drawing conclusions are developing useful problem-solving
skills. These skills can be applied to future "need to know"
situations that students will encounter both at school and
3. Why is the time dedicated to this teaching methodology
a good investment?
You are spending time supporting thinkers
and helping their minds develop so that they can approach
new learning creatively and energetically. Students are learning
how to learn. You are supporting their quest for knowledge
and their curiosity about their world. In traditional schools,
students learn not to ask too many questions, instead to listen
and repeat the expected answers. Most of our schools focus
on teaching a set of basic skills that do not serve the needs
of modern society. Our modern society is faster paced, globally
networked, technologically oriented, and requires workers
who can problem solve and think critically. Memorizing facts
and information is not the most important skill in today's
world. Facts change, and information multiplies at an incredibly
fast rate what's needed is an understanding of how
to get and make sense of it all. Inquiry teaching and learning
teaches students how to seek appropriate resolutions to questions
SETTING THE STAGE: CREATING
A LEARNING COMMUNITY
4. What is my role in an inquiry classroom?
The success of your inquiry classroom comes from a shift
in your role from the "sage on the stage" to the "guide on
the side." You are the key facilitator of learning in the
inquiry classroom. You are the leader, the coach, the question
asker, the seeker of resources, and the theory builder.
Although there are still many times when you present information
to students, you are not solely responsible to impart all
of the information. Students participate as question askers
and seekers of answers. You thoughtfully orchestrate learning
experiences based on the students' prior knowledge and interests,
and the guidelines of the science standards. In addition you
document the students' progress with ongoing (formative) and
final (summative) types of assessments. You create a rich
variety of assessments for students to "show what they know."
5. How do I begin to build "a classroom community?"
Building a classroom community with your students aligns
with a powerful principle of learning: Maintain clear expectations
within high standards socially and academically. Begin the
year by outlining clear "ground rules" with your
students, making it clear that there is no tolerance for disrespectful
or hurtful actions to others. For inquiry to be successful,
students need to feel safe to take risks, share ideas, and
believe ideas can lead to more ideas and questions, even if
they are not correct. Virginia Lockwood, the first grade teacher
seen in the video program, created a mantra she continually
shares with her students: "Your actions and your words
need to match your head and your heart." She suggests
to address disrespectful behavior in the classroom immediately
without being punitive. For example, you can stop your teaching
if a child giggles at another, and remind students how the
classroom should operate. When students are involved in building
their classroom community, they are empowered that their ideas
countthe foundation for inquiry.
6. How can teachers keep all students involved in an inquiry
Cooperative work groups foster a sense of community and include
all students. Students don't "get lost in the crowd." Small
groups of two work well to begin. The groups are given a task.
Each student is assigned a role. For example, one student
might be the recorder. The other student might be the presenter
to the class. As you develop the interpersonal skills of the
students and the complexity of the project, you may want to
expand the group size to three or four. A few examples of
student roles may include: leader (student who keeps the group
focused on the task); recorder (student who keeps a record
of discussion or findings of the group); facilitator (student
who helps resolve conflicts); graphic designer (student responsible
for art or design of project); and presenter (student responsible
for sharing groups findings with the class).
THE PROCESS BEGINS: LAUNCHING
THE INQUIRY EXPLORATION
7. How can I begin to build techniques of inquiry into
my existing lessons?
A key technique to encourage inquiry in your existing lessons
is to focus on the nature of conversation in your classroom.
In a traditional teacher-centered classroom, notice how all
eyes are always on the teacher, who presents information.
For inquiry to be successful, the classroom needs to shift
from a teacher-centered to a student-centered environment,
whereby students contribute to the questioning and generating
hypotheses. If you have a specific lesson plan with dictated
outcomes, take time to let students linger in their conversations,
encouraging them to wonder and think. Ask them questions,
such as "Why do you think that?" and "What
does it make you wonder?" Steer away from "popcorn"
conversation, that is, undeveloped student responses, such
as "I think this" and "I think that."
Encourage students to build on each others ideas by
probing, "How do we know that?" This process helps
students develop the habits of mind or attitudes of scientific
8. What resources are available to support my science content
There are a variety of search engines
on the Internet to support your teaching and the development
of background knowledge. One very "kid- and teacher-
friendly" Web site is Yahooligans http://www.yahooligans.com.
This site may be used as a search engine to explore a specific
topic. In addition, suggested science categories are provided
under the Science and Nature link. Another valuable Web site
has been developed by the American Association for the Advancement
of Science Netlinks http://www.sciencenetlinks.com/,
which has aligned the science benchmarks with web links that
have been reviewed by educators. Also, seek out resources
from local nature centers, botanical gardens, zoos, and other
outside science organizations. These agencies provide educational
outreach and support to schools. In addition, there is a wide
assortment of non-fiction books available on science topics.
The Childrens Book Council and National Science Teachers
Association offer a list of award-winning non-fiction science
titles each year, which you can inquire about at your local
9. How can science kits that are not specifically designed
for inquiry be extended to encourage inquiry?
science kits are full of excellent materials. Try to engage
students in conversation about these materials before you
engage in activities with designated outcomes. Kits that are
not designed for an inquiry approach to teaching and
learning tend to encourage pre-determined "hands-on"
projects, whereas inquiry requires students to generate questions
and more questions before they look for the answers.
For example, in a traditional classroom, students might look
at a diagram and then listen to a lecture about a topic. To
encourage inquiry, you can give students an opportunity to
ask their own questions about phenomena students then
act as problem-solvers rather than fact-finders.
FOCUS THE INQUIRY: DESIGNING
10. How is inquiry science teaching different than "hands-on"
"Hands-on" doesn't always mean "minds on." In a "hands-on"
situation, the teacher might be conducting the investigation,
with students following along, as they would with a recipe.
In inquiry teaching and learning, students are thinking and
questioning. They are coming up with the questions to investigate.
Students devise these investigations that in fact are hands-on,
but not prescribed by the teacher. Inquiry teaching and learning
naturally follows the students learning path, as they
design, problem-solve, and collaborate.
11. Why shouldn't I just tell the students the "facts"?
Besides boring students, they often won't believe you anyway.
They may hear you and even regurgitate the facts, if that
is what you're asking them to do, but they only come to know
something when they make it their own. Students need to work
out discrepancies in previously held ideas and new observations
they are making about their world and environment. An old
adage states: "Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember,
involve me and I understand." The last part of this statement
is the essence of inquiry-based learning.
THE INQUIRY CONTINUES: COLLECTING
DATA AND DRAWING UPON RESOURCES
12. Why is it important for students to learn how to access
information and find their own resources?
We are living in an information age where available information
is expanding at a remarkable rate. If students dont
learn how to access and process information, they will be
at an incredible disadvantage. Learning "just the facts"
isnt enough anymore because the "facts" are
changing. If students only learn how to memorize, when they
leave school they have the knowledge base that is the equivalent
of an outdated encyclopedia.
Students need to learn how to ask and answer new questions
that arise. To answer the questions, they will need to learn
how to filter the vast resources to find the information that
they need. They will need to evaluate the resources for accuracy.
Finally, they need to learn how to process sources of information
to make thoughtful decisions in the future.
BRING IT ALL TOGETHER: PROCESSING
FOR MEANING DURING INQUIRY
13. What kinds of questions can I ask to facilitate an
Questions are at the heart of inquiry learning and teaching.
While questions are often part of the traditional classroom,
the sources and purposes are quite different. In the traditional
classroom, the teacher often uses questions to provoke feedback
about a reading or an activity. In the inquiry classroom,
the teacher asks questions that are more open ended and reflective
in nature, such as "What are you thinking, and why do
you think that? "What do you notice, and what does it
make you wonder? "How is this helping us as scientists?"
You might have students use folders where they can keep their
lists of questions and ways to find answers.
For further resources, see:
"The Art of Questioning" by Dennis Palmer Wolf
Academic Connections pp. 1-7, Winter 1987
14. How do I assess the students' prior knowledge and
Many teachers find the use of a KWL chart a rich source of
indicators of students' prior knowledge and interests. On
a piece of chart paper the teacher writes: "K: What do we
know about (selected science topic)?" When the students
are providing "facts" on the topic, the teacher writes down
comments without judgement or correction. (Example: "What
you're saying is. . .") If the students are corrected at this
stage, they will stop contributing for fear of embarrassment,
and the teacher's ability to assess prior knowledge will be
diminished. Student areas of interest are assessed with "W:
What do we want to know about (selected science topic)?"
In a similar fashion, the teacher writes the question on the
paper and students offer questions on the topic. The teacher
can watch for nonverbal student reactions to the question.
If several students turn their heads toward the questioner,
look up, etc., this may be an area of wide appeal. If only
the questioner seems interested, this student may need assistance
to conduct an independent study investigation. Progress may
be witnessed through the "L: What we have learned about
(selected science topic)?" Findings on the topic may
be recorded on this chart paper. Additional questions that
arise during investigations may be included.
15. What are some examples of performance assessment?
Performance assessment has numerous definitions but here
are the most common. Performance assessments can be based
either on observations of the process while skills are being
demonstrated, or on the evaluation of products created. It
is the "doing" that counts, and the index of achievement
typically is a performance rating or profile of ratings reflecting
levels of quality in the performance. Many teachers involve
the students in designing "quality indicators" prior to the
In the case of product evaluations, the student creates a
complex achievement-related product that is intended to meet
certain standards of quality (determined by the teacher-based
on his/her learning goals). Clearly it is important for you
to have well-defined learning goals for the students. These
goals constitute the essence of the kinds and substance of
the assessments. Performance assessment is designed to find
out if the student can use the information in new and/or different
ways. .An example might be to design an investigation that
answers a question (posed either by the student or teacher).
The level of performance is assessed using a rubric, and might
for example, assess problem-solving, science process skills,
communication, or a combination of these. Performance is less
about right answers and more about process and thinking.
16. Why are both formative and summative evaluations
Formative assessment is ongoing and helps inform teachers
of students process and acquisition of understanding.
Formative assessment holds students accountable through the
learning process. As you facilitate learning, you monitor
the progress of the learner. Learning and assessing learning
outcomes go hand-in-hand. Effective teachers are alert to
the needs of particular students and the needs of the whole
class. Formative assessment in the form of observation or
note-taking can help you identify if there is an individual
need, so you can work with that student one-on-one. If the
whole class is experiencing a similar problem, you can provide
a whole class mediation. The essential point is that formative
assessment informs important instructional changes. The focus
of summative assessment considers the student outcomes from
an inquiry learning experience, such as the degree to which
the processing of learning skills has been developed; the
degree to which the habits of mind or "ground rules"
of science have been mastered; and the degree to which students
have developed the content knowledge. An effective summative
evaluation is a narrative assessment narrative provides
a report for the student, family, and teacher, describing
the way a student demonstrates what he/she knows and how it
relates to his/her other knowledge and ways of analyzing ideas.
17. How do I "grade" an inquiry lesson?
A rubric can easily be translated into grades. Its
best if it is only one aspect of the grade in other
words there can be a number of performances and other assessments
that would figure into a grade. Usually, in inquiry, the teacher
has multiple goals. If one of the goals is to learn content,
then you can use the traditional assessments like tests, quizzes,
diagrams, etc. If a goal is to learn process skills, you will
probably have a rubric that specifies the process skills that
would be evident in the investigation, and the written product
that goes with their investigation. If the intention is for
the students to apply information they have already learned,
then the criteria in the rubric might focus on the accuracy
of information, and the correlations between the data and
the conclusions, etc. In an integrated curriculum, you might
also use the written product to assess writing, spelling,
and grammar. You should also consider involving students in
the creation of the rubrics.
CONNECTING OTHER SUBJECTS
18. Is it possible to integrate other subject areas into
science inquiry lessons?
It is imperative to integrate other subjects into science
inquiry, yet it is important to use these subjects as a tool
to facilitate inquiry investigations and not to dispense with
other subject curricula. That is, you should follow your reading,
writing, and mathematics curricula to build solid skills,
so students can use reading, writing, and mathematical skills
fluidly and with comfort when performing scientific inquiry.