What is Inquiry-Based Science?
Dr. Robyn M. Gillies is a professor in the School of Education at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. For over 20 years, she has researched the effects of cooperative learning on students' learning in science, mathematics, and social science content areas at the elementary and secondary levels. She has researched inquiry-based science in the classroom and has published her findings in many international journals, including the International Journal of Educational Research, Pedagogies: An International Journal, and Teaching Education. The extent of Dr. Gillies work in education is far reaching; she is the author of over 80 journal articles, two books, and nearly 20 book chapters. The SSEC recently contacted Dr. Gillies in hopes that she could provide valuable insight for our LASER i3 teachers. Dr. Gillies graciously agreed. Thank you, Dr. Gillies!
First, can you explain your interest in education and in inquiry-based science, specifically?
For about 20 years I have been researching the effects of cooperative learning on students' learning in science, mathematics, and social science content areas in elementary and secondary schools, and the majority of the findings have indicated that cooperative learning where students work together to investigate a problem or solve a dilemma can be used successfully to promote student engagement, socialization, and learning. Parallel to this research has been my interest in science and my concerns that teachers often seem reluctant to teach it in a way that is problem-based where student have opportunities to work together to investigate a topic. I have also been concerned for some time in the relatively mediocre performances of many students in Australia, the USA, and the UK on standardized international tests such as PISA and TIMMS, particularly when I see how consistently successful Finland, Singapore, the Republic of Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan have been on these same tests. In a sense, I've realized that cooperative learning with its emphasis on group cooperation and investigation can be used as a tool to help teachers teach science in a way that taps into students' natural curiosity to explore their world.
What is inquiry-based science?
Inquiry-based science adopts an investigative approach to teaching and learning where students are provided with opportunities to investigate a problem, search for possible solutions, make observations, ask questions, test out ideas, and think creatively and use their intuition. In this sense, inquiry-based science involves students doing science where they have opportunities to explore possible solutions, develop explanations for the phenomena under investigation, elaborate on concepts and processes, and evaluate or assess their understandings in the light of available evidence. This approach to teaching relies on teachers recognizing the importance of presenting problems to students that will challenge their current conceptual understandings so they are forced to reconcile anomalous thinking and construct new understandings.
How does inquiry-based science help students?
Inquiry-based science challenges students' thinking by engaging them in investigating scientifically orientated questions where they learn to give priority to evidence, evaluate explanations in the light of alternative explanations and learn to communicate and justify their decisions. These are dispositions needed to promote and justify their decisions. In short, "Scientific inquiry requires the use of evidence, logic, and imagination in developing explanations about the natural world" (Newman et al., 2004, p.258).
How does a teacher know if he/she is successfully teaching science using an inquiry-based approach?
Teachers can gauge the success of their teaching through students' level of engagement with the topic and each other, the scientific language they use to communicate their ideas, and the quality of the work they produce. Subtle comments such as "Are we doing science today? I really liked the way we did...." Are typical of the types of comments students will make when they have enjoyed participating in science investigations.
Does inquiry-based science look different in a lower-elementary classroom than in a middle-school classroom?
The principles are the same -- the need to excite and engage students' attention so they want to investigate the topic is critically important at any age. However, the way teachers actually teach it has to be more hands-on, directive or guided, and concrete for younger children.
What are some common misconceptions that teachers have regarding inquiry-based science?
... Teacher[s] often think they are 'doing inquiry' because they are out at the front of the classroom directing the inquiry or investigation or demonstrating how to do it. This is not inquiry science. Inquiry science requires teachers to be able to excite the students' interest in a topic and then provide them with opportunities to undertake the investigation either by themselves or preferably in collaboration with others. The teacher, though, needs to remain active in the lesson, guiding the students and asking questions to help them consolidate their understandings. Providing feedback is critically important to helping students understand how they are progressing.
You have observed many teachers over the years. Can you describe any teachers and/or students who exemplified inquiry-based science?
Good teachers engage students' interest through novelty, something unusual that spurs their curiosity and then they use language that is very dialogic or language that lets the student know that they are interested in what they think or want to say about the topic. Good teachers then carefully guide students as they begin to explore or investigate the topic, being careful not to dominate the conversation but allow student time to develop responses or think about the issue more carefully. In this sense they give students the time to reflect and think more carefully about the issue. However, good teachers are always careful to ensure that the inquiry-based science lesson moves forward and they do this be asking questions that probe and challenge students' thinking as well as giving them feedback that is meaningful and timely. Teachers who do inquiry well tend have a very good understanding of both the content they are teaching and the processes involved. They tend to use language that is very collaborative and friendly and take a genuine interest in what students are doing. They ask questions that challenge students' thinking and they acknowledge students' efforts.
What advice do you have for teachers who do not have a lot of time to teach science?
Recognize your limitations but try to optimize on what time you have. Be well prepared and try to ensure that science activities are interesting -- stimulate students' interest in science. If they are interested, they will continue to be interested even if they have not covered the full curriculum.
Can you provide an example of higher-level thinking and problem-solving questions that you may see with 7 and 8 year-old students?
Children will engage in higher-level thinking if teachers give them time to talk about a topic. Angela O'Donnell (Rutgers University) demonstrated how this can be achieved through her approach to Scripted Cooperation where two students work together on a topic. One then asks the other to recount as much as possible what they have learned while the listener asks the speaker questions. The students then switch roles and again they recount and ask each other questions. Over time, the questions become more complex so the respondent is compelled to provide more elaborate explanations.