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Best Teaching Practices

Inquiry Approaches

The National Science Education Standards mandate that science teachers "plan an inquiry-based program", "focus and support inquiries", and "encourage and model the skills of scientific inquiry." Inquiry is an approach to teaching that involves a process of exploring the natural world, that leads to asking questions and making discoveries in the search of new understandings. Inquiry is a method of approaching problems that is used by professional scientists but is helpful to anyone who scientifically addresses matters encountered in everyday life. Inquiry is based on the formation of hypotheses and theories and on the collection of relevant evidence. There is no set order to the steps involved in inquiry, but children need to use logic to devise their research questions, analyze their data, and make predictions. When using the inquiry methods of investigation, children learn that authorities can be wrong and that any question is reasonable.

The most abstract component of inquiry is imagination. Both students and professional scientists have to be able to look at scientific information and data in a creative way. This unconventional vision allows them to see patterns that might not otherwise be obvious.

Teachers can incorporate inquiry approaches to learning, for example, by allowing small groups of students to explore a particular natural phenomenon that might exhibit certain trends or patterns. The children can then reconvene as a class, discuss their observations, and compile a list of several different hypotheses from this discussion. Each group can choose a hypothesis to investigate. Several groups might choose to replicate the same study to reduce the bias effects of any one group's techniques. Depending on their age, children might design their own experimental apparatus, use probes attached to computers, or employ sophisticated software to analyze data or create charts and graphs. Data based predictions can be the foundation for further investigation.

Inquiry-based learning need not always be a hands-on experience. In fact, doing hands-on science with step-by-step procedures can stifle students' own inquiry, distorts what science is all about, and may impede students' learning. Reading, discussion, and research can allow students to inquire into scientific questions. Teacher can facilitate inquiry in the classroom by:

  • Acting as facilitators rather than directors of students' learning
  • Providing a variety of materials and resources to facilitate students' investigations
  • Modeling inquiry behaviors and skills
  • Posing thoughtful, open-ended questions and helping students do the same
  • Encouraging dialogue among students and with the teacher
  • Keeping children's natural curiosity alive and as a teacher, remaining a curious, life-long learner


Many people might say, "Gee, those sound like buzzwords to me. Do they have any substance?" The answer is yes. If children are generating their own ideas in a student-centered classroom, they need the freedom to be physically active in their search for scientific knowledge. How can children begin to understand the nature of the world in which they live if they experience it vicariously? For this reason, the majority of the activities that students perform should be physical explorations. Physical explorations not only make the concepts more tangible but also appeal to children's diverse learning styles and take advantage of their multi-sensory strengths. If children are physically involved, they are more apt to be mentally engaged.

Children spontaneously try to explain things that they experience, and feeding their curiosity with the raw materials of potential scientific discoveries promotes this natural theory building. By itself, however, it does not lead to a mature understanding of scientific concepts. The authors of the National Science Education Standards maintain that hands-on activities can increase the probability that students will be engaged in rich inquiry, but do not guarantee that they are learning as intended. Similarly, teaching children abstract concepts without engaging their interest and facilitating their understanding via concrete, experiential examples leads to "shallow" knowledge (or, in many cases, no knowledge at all, as such lessons are quickly forgotten).

Scientific concept building is thus a two-way street. Highly abstract concepts are rarely developed spontaneously; such development requires instruction. Nor can in-depth understanding be gained without knowledge of concrete examples to fill out the skeleton of an abstract concept.

An inquiry-oriented, "hands on" approach to science instruction stimulates the natural curiosity and theory-building inclination of students while providing a solid conceptual framework for supporting the development of accurate concepts. Such experiences provide the raw material from which mature scientific theories are constructed. To increase a "minds-on" factor to a "hands-on" approach, teachers should decrease the "cookbook" nature of whatever labs they conduct and sequence the hand-s on activities before any readings or lectures so that students can explore topics before learning the terms. (See Learning Cycle for additional information.)


Journal Articles - To access most of these Journal Articles, you must be a student, faculty or staff member at an OhioLINK affiliated institution. Access to OhioLINK may be available to Ohioans through their local, public, or school libraries. Contact OPLIN, INFOhio, or your local library for more information.

Constructivist Science Teaching: Intellectual and Strategic Teaching Acts
Interchange, Vol. 34, Issue: 1, 2003. pp. 63-87
Seatter, Carol Scarff

This paper attempts to provide some productive starting points for discussion in the context of science teaching. Embedded in the current practice of methodologies such as "messing about," hands-on, minds-on activities, science-technology-society related approaches, and inquiry-based learning, is often a sense of confusion and frustration. Such current methodologies in elementary science teaching are founded on constructivist learning theory. This paper attempts to pinpoint possible ways in.

Teaching the Nature of Inquiry: Further Developments in a High School Genetics Curriculum
Science Education, Vol. 9, Issue: 3, May 2000. pp. 247-267
Cartier, Jennifer L.; Stewart, Jim

In order for students to truly understand science, we feel that they must be familiar with select subject matter and also understand how that subject matter knowledge was generated and justified through the process of inquiry. Here we describe a high school biology curriculum designed to give students opportunities to learn about genetic inquiry in part by providing them with authentic experiences doing inquiry in the discipline. Since a primary goal of practicing scientists is to construct...

An Investigation of Experienced Secondary Science Teachers' Beliefs About Inquiry: An Examination of Competing Belief Sets
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 41, Issue: 9, November 2004. pp. 936 - 960
Wallace, Carolyn S.; Kang, Nam-Hwa

The purpose of this study was to investigate the beliefs of six experienced high school science teachers about (1) what is successful science learning; (2) what are the purposes of laboratory in science teaching; and (3) how inquiry is implemented in the classroom. An interpretive multiple case study with an ethnographic orientation was used. The teachers' beliefs about successful science learning were substantively linked to their beliefs about laboratory and inquiry implementation. For...

Fifth Graders' Science Inquiry Abilities: A Comparative Study of Students in Hands-on and Textbook Curricula
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 43, Issue: 5, May 2006. pp. 467 - 484
Pine, Jerome; Aschbacher, Pamela; Roth, Ellen; Jones, Melanie; McPhee, Cameron; Martin, Catherine; Phelps, Scott; Kyle, Tara et. al.

A large number of American elementary school students are now studying science using the hands-on inquiry curricula developed in the 1990s: Insights; Full Option Science System (FOSS); and Science and Technology for Children (STC). A goal of these programs, echoed in the National Science Education Standards, is that children should gain "abilities to do scientific inquiry" and "understanding about scientific inquiry." We have studied the degree to which students can do inquiries by using four...

The Problem with Answers: An Exploration of Guided Scientific Inquiry Teaching
Science Education, Vol. 90, Issue: 3, May 2006. pp. 453 - 467
Furtak, Erin Marie

Guided scientific inquiry investigations are designed to have students reach particular answers through the thinking processes and activities of scientists. This presents a difficult challenge for teachers who must selectively hold back answers from students to maintain an atmosphere that encourages student-directed inquiry. The present study explores the different ways that three teachers describe and manage this problem with answers in a middle school physical science investigation. While...

Urban African-American Middle School Science Students: Does Standards-based Teaching Make a Difference?
Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Vol. 37, Issue: 9, November 2000. pp. 1019 - 1041
Kahle, Jane Butler; Meece, Judith; Scantlebury, Kathryn

The current reform movement in science education promotes standards-based teaching, including the use of inquiry, problem solving, and open-ended questioning, to improve student achievement. This study examines the influence of standards-based teaching practices on the achievement of urban, African-American, middle school science students. Science classes of teachers who had participated in the professional development (n = 8) of Ohio's statewide systemic initiative (SSI) were matched with...


Inquiry-based instruction in secondary agricultural education: problem solving revisited. Contains many references that discuss the various aspects of inquiry-based instruction; a good summary of the major concepts.