Using Levels of Inquiry in the Classroom

Using Levels of Inquiry in the Classroom

Jeffrey Rylander (Glenbrook South High School, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-0068-3.ch001


The development of major concepts in a science classroom is explored through the instructional framework of varying the level of student inquiry. An exploration experience, interactive demonstration, discovery experiment, and application challenge serve as this framework for increasing the level in which the students ask questions, devise methods to answer these questions, and develop answers to the questions. Instructional technology tools such as classroom response systems, Google Docs, the use of blogs, and WebAssign are integrated into the inquiry experience to support the learning process. This inquiry model shifts the locus of control from the teacher to the student, as the student’s familiarity with new concepts deepens.
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What Does Inquiry Look Like?

To begin our level of inquiry discussion, let’s evaluate the familiar Chinese proverb:

I hear…I forget; I see…I remember; I do…I understand.

Few can argue against the idea that a student’s retention level is a function of both the level of student engagement and the number of learning modalities that are present in the learning experience (Archer, 2011). However, while hands-on experiences are valuable, there is a danger in accepting the third statement in the above proverb unless we clarify what is being done and how it is being done (Wheeler, 2000). Understanding may come as a result of doing, but it may not. Perhaps you have experienced students doing something in the laboratory that led not to a clarity of understanding, but to frustration and a sense for some students that, “Science is not my thing.” When my own students have told me, “I learn it better when you just tell us or show us,” I know that ‘doing’ does not always lead to understanding.

In the same sense, ‘doing’ does not necessarily equal inquiry. As an example, consider a class following a prescribed set of instructions:

  • 1.

    Determine the mass of an empty graduated cylinder.

  • 2.

    Pour 50 mL of water into the graduated cylinder.

  • 3.

    Determine the mass of the graduated cylinder with the water inside.

  • 4.

    Subtract the two masses to determine the mass of the water alone.

  • 5.

    Use Density=Mass/Volume to determine the density of water.

While the procedure described above is hands-on, and while students may be able to follow this procedure step-by-step with great success, it does not necessarily lead to an understanding of what density is or why one would need to understand this concept. Nor does it offer an inquiry-filled experience. As Benchmarks for Scientific Literacy, the landmark publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, comments, “Hands-on experience is important but does not guarantee meaningfulness” (1993, p. 319).

If the above activity provides an example of what inquiry does not look like, then what does it look like? Table 1 offers a helpful picture of inquiry through a juxtaposition of ‘cookbook’ experiences with that of authentic inquiry-oriented activities.

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