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  • What is Inquiry-based science teaching ?
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This page sets out to answer the most obvious and important question about S-TEAM: what is it that we are trying to spread across the world of science teaching? The immediate answer is "Inquiry based science teaching & Education" but this is not a simple or unproblematic concept. If it was, then the perceived problem of low motivation towards science might not exist. For S-TEAM, the problem of proving the effectiveness of IBST is put on hold to some extent, as we are tasked with using methods which are already proven, or at least accepted. From time to time, however, the question of proven effectiveness will arise.

There are, of course, many different opinions about what constitutes 'inquiry' and whether any of its manifestations in teaching are effective in promoting pupil learning or increasing pupil motivation.  The two are not necessarily correlated and some researchers (e.g. Kirschner et al, 2006) suggest that 'liking' and 'learning' are not synonymous.  We also have to think about 'learning' in relation to a body of scientific knowledge which is too large for any individual pupil, teacher or curriculum to grasp as a whole.  This leads to the idea of teaching about scientific thinking, processes or methods rather than scientific knowledge itself.

The Kirschner et al paper was controversial even within Educational psychology. Some responses can be found in Hmelo-Silver et al (2007) and Schmidt et al (2007),  and in  Sweller, Kirschner & Chinn (2007),  a reply to their critics.  An up to date review paper on the effectiveness of IBST  is Minner et al (2009).

There were some interesting responses from S-TEAM participants when the Kirschner paper was circulated. Jim NcNally comments:

The paper makes a good case, though it is polarised and lacking in understanding of practice (such as Sinclair's?), but of course we are not promoting inquiry over conventional instruction or good traditional teaching - only responding to its rather pervasive absence within a wider and potentially more sophisticated (advanced) pedagogy. The naive embrace of inquiry without an adequate knowledge base (of teachers and their pupils) is destined to fail (in Science at least) in all hands but those of the most inspired and dedicated of teachers. Given the conditions of confidence in that knowledge and some other teacherly instincts, would the writers advocate that teachers ignore the legitimate questions of children arising from their work, or the small, feasible challenges that teachers themselves might pose, secure in their own knowledge, achievement and status?
Is there to be no risk at all, no fun?

Costas comments that This is a very misguided paper partly because it confuses IBSE with discovery learning. Cindy Hmelo-Silver wrote a rebuttal which is both interesting and useful... this discussion is productive

...whereas Pascal Bressoux says

I already know this paper, which is excellent. It relies on psychological theory (of memory) and empirical studies that produce evidence on the lack of effectiveness of problem-based teaching (at least for those students who do not have enough knowledge stored in long-term memory). It also shows that the Rocard report is probably mistaken...

Bob Evans sent this:

[The Kirscher, et al article] caused a few ripples when it first came out; among many other reasons, due to its broad and provocative trashing of almost every established contemporary method of science teaching (including IBST). It's actually interesting to follow the reactions to Kirschner, et al and in turn, their response to those. I am attaching some of the most significant responses (see links above).

My general personal take when reading the original article is that the authors have inferred quite incorrectly that modern IBST methods advocate 'minimal guidance'. That concept, which is a tthe heart of their concerns, is antithetical to everything we do in IBST. We teach in our courses and incorporate in our workshops continuous and thoughtful guidance and scaffolding of learning...inquiry doesn't work without that. For example, even the videos we are accumulating for S-Team show teachers continuously and creatively guiding students as groups, individuals and whole classes. I think the author's reading of some early versions of 'discovery' learning has led them to believe hands-off teaching is a part of modern methods. Of course, as we all know, it's rote, transmissive force-feeding that is off-the agenda for successful learning, being replaced by crafted, motivating guided constructivism. We tell our students that their job is to imagine each student/group as a 'top' that needs to be kept perpetually spinning (thinking, constructing) and that when any top in their class begins to slow down, their role is to give it a spin to keep it going on its own for as long as possible. This vision is of course quite different from one of 'minimal guidance' and so this article does not speak to our methodological reality. But, this is just my general take and not a specific detailed refutation of the points in the article. 

Finally, Colin Smith's response:

I agree with Jim that the paper is polarised and I would add that the polarisation seems false or artificial. The argument begins with the assumption that there are only two forms of practice - that involving no or minimal guidance and that involving direct guidance fully explaining the concepts and procedures involved. It may be true that educational psychology categorizes practice in that way, and the authors certainly provide references representing each position. Accept the authors' initial premise and all else in their paper follows. However, even a rudimentary reflection on actual practice quickly shows it up as too simplistic and all our reflections and discussions (at Trondheim, Nottingham, airports, National Workshop, formal and informal, and so on) have grappled with problems far more subtle than this simple distinction implies. Questions of how to build in support for teachers in overcoming the constraints they face, how to deal with misconceptions, what support do the pupils need, what knowledge does the teacher need, how meaningful is the investigation in terms of supporting scientific thinking and/or supporting meaningful scientific understanding (not necessarily the same thing as suggested by myself in the Thinking pedagogically paper but one might choose the former as the only outcome because of other reasons - for example, engagement of the pupils), how do teachers see investigations, and so on have been 'batted backwards and forwards' in these discussions. We have moved into, or were there already, more sophisticated viewpoints that make me, at least, reluctant to say that a) any form of practice is necessarily better than any other, b) that we should imply that investigations are defiantly a better form of learning for everything. As Jim says:
 
we are not promoting inquiry over conventional instruction or good traditional teaching - only responding to its rather pervasive absence within a wider and potentially more sophisticated (advanced) pedagogy. The naive embrace of inquiry without an adequate knowledge base (of teachers and their pupils) is destined to fail (in Science at least) in all hands but those of the most inspired and dedicated of teachers. Given the conditions of confidence in that knowledge and some other teacherly instincts, would the writers advocate that teachers ignore the legitimate questions of children arising from their work, or thesmall, feasible challenges that teachers themselves might pose, secure in their own knowledge, achievement and status?

In fact, it is this sort of complex thinking in, and about, practice that the model of investigations I came up with tries to begin to  deal with, both as a conceptual model and, perhaps more importantly, as an aid to teachers in thinking about the aims of what they are doing and choosing, if necessary, between sometimes conflicting goals. Also, as my example of my class with the 'Superman theory of Vision" showed, the only way that some misconceptions seem to be eradicable is to challenge them to design an investigation that would show their theories to be convincing to their teachers.Perhaps, fortunately for me, the one they came up with supported the 'official theory of vision' better than theirs. However, the point is that eradicating this misconception was not a predicted goal and would have been invisible in a classroom less open to pupil's views. Remember, although they were engaged in what might be called investigative learning, it was, in terms of Krischner et al, very guided with a structure to work through and carefully controlled resources that would, one expected, guide them to the 'official viewpoint'. It seems likely to me that the same misconception would have prevailed, at least among those pupils who initially held it (they were good at recruiting others to it, and that is, perhaps, a risk the teacher will always be taking in investigations, even carefully directed ones and is why it features in the investigation model), if they had had exposition from me on the eye, along with demonstrations of vision experiments and either handed a work sheet to complete or given some sort of ready made notes. And I would never have known of its existence.
 
I am also not convinced by these authors' distinction between learning about a discipline and learning/researching in a discipline. A discipline comprises both a set of concepts, theories, explanations, descriptions, and so on (knowledge or, perhaps better, a form of understanding), and procedures (scientific thinking?) for creating, testing and further utilising that knowledge or understanding. Obviously, our pupils have less (if that is the right word) of both scientific knowledge/understanding and scientific thinking but it does not follow that our teaching should not be about immersing them as novices in science, rather, than as these authors seem to argue, teaching them in some detached way about it. Of course, this may take more careful planning than we have utilised in the past.
 
What reading Kirschner et al does suggest to me is that, both as researchers and practitioners, we will continue to go round in the circles that we have been doing since discovery learning (and other synonyms) was introduced following Piaget and Bruner in ...whenever it was, but before I even started teaching, unless we come up with a new justification. I think I have the beginning of an answer in suggesting that we think about what aspects of scientific thinking different educational strategies support our pupils in developing, while not losing sight of the aim to help our pupils also to develop accepted forms of scientific knowledge understanding. Sometimes one form of investigation may be the answer, sometimes, teacher exposition, and sometimes a combination of these. Sometimes, if we get their preparation right, we might be able to really let pupils loose on investigations that are really scientific and generate genuinely new knowledge. Or am I too ambitious and do you disagree?

The following paragraph gives the official version from the S-TEAM proposal:

S-TEAM recognises that inquiry-based teaching is complex and that specialist aspects such as argumentation skills or disciplinary differences need to be taken into account. Inquiry based learning methods allow scientific knowledge, processes and contexts to interact in the science classroom to promote scientific literacy. These methods are very demanding of teachers, requiring skills which are not necessarily addressed in current teacher education practices.  Teachers also need to be able to manage debate and argumentation in the classroom to achieve learning objectives whilst allowing the kind of curiosity and intellectual freedom characteristic of genuine scientific inquiry.
Generally, inquiry-based science teaching and education engages students in:
(info) authentic, problem-based learning activities where there may not be a correct answer
(ii) experimental procedures, experiments and "hands on" activities, including searching for information
(iii) self-regulated learning sequences where student autonomy is emphasised
(iv) discursive argumentation and communication with peers ("talking science")

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