Evidence Based Science Education

This blog will examine research and evidence as it relates to science education and science education issues. It is an attempt to bring together the science of education and the practice of education.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Guided Inquiry

Most science content standards are written to be neutral about pedagogy. The standards simply state the what, not the how for learning. The National Science Education Standards do go further with standards for science teaching and science assessment, but unfortunately these too often seem to be the least looked at portion of the standards. Many state standards don’t address the how of learning at all, only the what. The unfortunate result are standards that promote and encourage direct teaching of science material by the teacher instead of making sure student’s have a rich experience in science. The Revised Colorado Academic Standards attempted to bring the how of science teaching back into the state standards by embedding science process and 21st century skills into the standards, but even more importantly writing student outcomes that require active learning on the part of the student by having statements written at higher levels of blooms taxonomy.

This is where Guided Inquiry comes into play. To get a wide range of students to think at higher levels of blooms taxonomy classrooms will have to employ more of the strategies described in the National Science Education Standards such as guiding and facilitating learning and planning an inquiry based science class. Unfortunately too many people associate inquiry based learning and constructivist learning models as meaning that students have to figure everything out for themselves. While this does represent the extreme of inquiry and constructivist learning, like most other things in life, inquiry and constructivist based learning really represents a continuum from all direct instruction toward having students figure everything out for themselves.

Guided inquiry represents a wide range of this continuum. According to Kuhlthau, Manites, and Caspari in their book Guided Inquiry guided inquiry is built around six principles: Students learn by being actively engaged and reflecting upon their experiences; Children learn by building on what they already know; Children develop higher-order thinking through guidance at critical points in the learning process; Children have different ways and modes of learning; Children learn through social interaction with others, and; Children learn through instruction and experience in accord with their cognitive development. Unfortunately merely having content standards and the direct instruction model that they support doesn’t recognize many of these principles.

The good news at the new Colorado Academic Standards in Science supports these principles of student learning. For example the Colorado Academic Standards in Science represent a learning a progression, thus acknowledging that students need to build on what they already know. This is not to say that all teachers can assume that all their students come in having the proper background, but it does move toward a model where each teacher at each level isn’t expected to start over with the basics and teach it all. This learning progression also recognizes higher levels of cognitive development in the later grades.

As expressed earlier in this blog, the standards were designed to support the active engagement of students with wording such as “Students will develop, justify, and communicate an evidenced based scientific explanation of…” This wording, that students will develop, justify, and communicate, assumes active engagement of the students. But even beyond this the standards support reflection by the students through inquiry questions, for example “What are the most common forms of energy in our physical world?” Questions like this prompt and support student reflection of what they have learned.

The standards also support student collaboration. One of the things about learning we know from multiple sources including constructivist thought and studies of how the brain learns is that deep learning happens in a social setting. The more students talk, process, and problem solve with their peers the richer the learning is. The Revised Colorado standards support these kinds collaboration, for example “Share experimental data, and respectfully discuss conflicting results” or “Work in groups using the writing process to effectively communicate an understanding of the particle model of matter”.

While it is out of the scope of standards to specify when and where guidance should be provided to students to build higher order thinking, the Revised Colorado Standards support higher order thinking skills having students analyze, develop, and evaluate not just identify and know.

Of course there is a lot more to guided inquiry than I can write about in a blog, but there are many excellent resources, books and professional development opportunities, on guided inquiry for teachers who want to know more.