Encyclopedia of Science Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Richard Gunstone

Inquiry, As a Curriculum Strand

  • Fouad Abd-El-KhalickEmail author
  • Norman G. Lederman
  • Renee Schwartz
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6165-0_190-1


Science Education Science Teacher Science Curriculum National Science Education Standard School Science Education 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


There and Back Again: From Inquiry into Social Problems to Disciplinary Scientific Inquiry

Curriculum has many meanings. Here, it is broadly conceptualized as comprising the domains of, and rationales for, subject matter and intended learning outcomes, nature and organization of instruction and learner experiences, and interactions among students and teachers within the immediate settings of classroom and school, as well as broader societal contexts. The meanings of inquiry, particularly in the context of science education, also are numerous. These include scientific inquiry (how scientists conduct their practice), inquiry teaching (as means, pedagogy, or an instructional approach to facilitate science content learning), inquiry learning (as an active process of learning, which assumes that students construct understandings in ways similar to how scientists develop claims to scientific knowledge), and inquiry as content (as ends, or subject matter to be learned) (Abd-El-Khalick et al. 2004; Anderson 2007). Inquiry as content includes several outcomes related to developing the skills, procedural knowledge, and habits of mind requisite for doing scientific inquiry, as well as learning about scientific inquiry, that is, its underlying epistemological underpinnings. In the context of these broad definitions, this entry discusses inquiry as an organizing theme or strand in science curriculum and focuses on the historical treatment of inquiry as content within such curriculum. For discussions of inquiry teaching and inquiry learning, the reader is referred to the entries Inquiry, as a teaching strategy and Inquiry, learning through, respectively. This entry, it should be noted, mostly is focused on the context of science education in the USA. This country is used as a case study to illuminate some broad historical patterns and trends, patterns which tend to have similarity (if not always shared time frames) with the treatment of inquiry as a curriculum strand in other national contexts.

Deboer (2004) traced the introduction of science into US school curriculum to the middle of the nineteenth century alongside other mainstay subjects of school curriculum, such as mathematics and grammar. Prominent scientists of the time, such as Thomas Huxely, argued that observation and inductive reasoning were the distinctive features of scientific investigation that should characterize science learning, propel student intellectual development, and discipline student minds (as stipulated by the theory mental discipline, which was the contemporary, dominant theory of learning). This view, Deboer continued, compelled other prominent contemporary intellectuals to champion the structuring of science and laboratory instruction as a process of scientific investigation whereby students experience natural phenomena firsthand, “make their own investigations and draw their own inferences” (Herbert Spencer 1864 as cited in Deboer 2004, p. 23). In 1892, the Committee of Ten of the US National Education Association strongly endorsed the use of laboratories in secondary science education. The Committee emphasized the need to abandon the simple memorization of facts in favor of the personal development of students’ reasoning skills and their abilities to inductively acquire scientific understandings.

By the turn of the twentieth century, social issues associated with urbanization, immigration, and other problems brought about by the Western industrial revolution of the previous century were in full swing. Coupled with the influence of John Dewey’s pragmatism, education was now more focused on practical work, which was deemed necessary to solve social and economic problems. The latter focus also aligned with child-centered approaches championed by Dewey and his calls to engage students with investigating questions related to their experiences. As early as 1910, there were calls to include in science curriculum more useful applications to the real world. With the release in 1918 of the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education by the US Department of the Interior, the applied nature of laboratory work in science education was bolstered with an emphasis on scientific reasoning and problem solving abilities needed to address socially significant issues. In 1932, the Thirty-First Yearbook of the US National Society for the Study of Education identified training in the scientific method and the application of this method to solving social issues and students’ own problems to be among the major themes that should be present in the science curriculum.

By the 1950s, criticisms of the science curriculum’s emphases on addressing student personal interest, practical applications, and societal problems were mounting. Concerns were directed at the lack of academic and disciplinary rigor, and training in scientific methods and processes. The Soviet Union launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 exacerbated these concerns – which now were directly linked with US national security, interests, and economic competitiveness – and precipitated unprecedented US federal funding for developing new science curricula, the now dubbed Alphabet Curricula or First Generation Projects. These curricula were academically rigorous, focused on disciplinary content knowledge and scientific processes, and aimed toward developing the next generation of practicing scientists. The term “inquiry” was now formalized as describing a major theme in the science curricula of the 1960s and 1970s. These curricula were particularly influenced by Joseph Schwab’s writings, which stressed the need to address both the substantive and syntactical structures of science, the latter specifically referring to the application of cannons of evidence toward developing claims to scientific knowledge. Schwab believed that “scientific content and processes were intimately connected and inseparable … [and that] content should be taught in relation to the methods that generated that knowledge” (Deboer 2004, p. 28). Schwab did not argue that students should be able to conduct scientific inquiries themselves, but rather understand the nature of such inquiry. Thus, learning about scientific inquiry became part and parcel of science curricula. Science educators now were explicitly distinguishing between two meanings of inquiry in the context of science education, namely, learning about “inquiry as content,” that is, “as it appears in the scientific enterprise,” and “inquiry as pedagogic technique,” that is, “using the method of scientific inquiry to learn some science” (Rutherford 1964, p. 80).

Somewhat parallel projects in England began about 5 years after the first of the US projects, and impacted in major ways on that country and the large number of former British colonies around the globe. These were collectively known as the “Nuffield Projects,” now often termed the second-generation projects. They were much more strongly shaped by expert school science teachers. To a considerable extent, these projects focused much more on “inquiry as pedagogic technique” and, for some projects such as the Schools Council Integrated Science Project (SCISP), embedded this inquiry in “real” contexts and linked it closely with problem solving. These uses of and contexts for inquiry were early (1970s) forms of Science-Technology-Society curricula.

Difficulties for US students and science teachers associated with the academic rigor of the early Alphabet curricula, coupled with the debates of the 1980s regarding the effectiveness of the 1960s and 1970s inquiry-oriented curricula, shepherded in the USA a return to a focus on “inquiry” that enables students to address broader societal issues in an increasingly scientific and technologically laden world. These efforts first took the form of the Science-Technology-Society curricula of the 1980s and 1990s, a perspective also emphasized in the major Canadian report of the early 1980s Science for Every Student: Educating Canadians for Tomorrows World. This turn or return came into full swing during the last decade of the twentieth century, which witnessed the release of several US reform documents that also had some impact internationally, most notably the 1989/1990 Science for All Americans and 1993 Benchmarks for Science Literacy (Benchmarks) by the US American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the 1996 National Science Education Standards (Standards) by the US National Research Council (NRC). Similar documents included the 1997 Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education Pan-Canadian Science Project and the 1998 report, Beyond 2000: Science Education for the Future, in the UK.

These documents solidified the construct of scientific literacy as the major focus of school science education in the USA and in some other parts of the world. This focus chiefly aimed at preparing citizens able to make informed decisions regarding science-related personal and social issues and engage meaningfully in democratic societies that were becoming increasingly dependent on the enterprise of science. Interestingly, the Benchmarks included understandings about scientific inquiry as a subset of the more overarching construct of nature of science. These included an understanding of the role of evidence, logic, and imagination in scientific inquiry (lack of a universal scientific method), as well as the aims of generating verifiable predictions and explanations in which scientists’ biases and idiosyncrasies are diminished. In comparison, the Standards included separate learning outcomes for students’ understandings of nature of science, students’ understandings about scientific inquiry, and their ability to do scientific inquiry. The latter included abilities related to questioning; designing and conducting investigations; formulating explanations, models, and predictions; and communicating and defending explanations. The Standards emphasized understandings about inquiry including that investigations and methods are guided by questions and that scientific explanations are developed from evidence and current scientific knowledge.

Scientific inquiry, in the sense of capturing what scientists do, has been a fixture in school science curricula over the past century and a half, that is, for what is essentially the history of school science education. Nonetheless, as Deboer (2004) concluded, there emerges – at least in the US context – a pattern related to the function and intended outcomes of inquiry as content in such curriculum. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, scientific inquiry was intended to develop in students what was deemed the pinnacle of scientific method of the time, that is, inductive reasoning. The first half of the twentieth century emphasized inquiry as means to address applied issues and to enable students to solve social problems beyond the realm of disciplinary science. This emphasis gave way in the curricula of the 1960s and 1970s to a renewed focus on scientific disciplines and inquiry as scientific method, with the aim of preparing future scientists. Next, the theme of scientific literacy in the reform efforts of the 1980s and 1990s revived the focus on inquiry as a crucial component for addressing, and making decisions about, science-related personal and social issues. These reforms delineated goals for learning to do scientific inquiry – now represented as a varied set of integrated abilities and skills as compared to a universal scientific method – and learning about scientific inquiry.

The next wave of reforms in the USA, which was initiated with the NRC’s 2012, A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Framework), fits nicely within the above pattern. The construct of scientific literacy and goal of enabling students to address broad social problems hardly receive any mention in the Framework. While the Framework highlights the role of science in informing citizens’ decision making, the two major goals for K-12 science education are identified as “(1) educating all students in science and engineering and (2) providing the foundational knowledge for those who will become the scientists, engineers, technologists, and technicians of the future” (NRC 2012, p. 12). School science education would deepen students’ “understanding of the core ideas of … [scientific] fields,” and enable them “to engage in public discussions on science-related issues, to be critical consumers of scientific information related to their everyday lives, and to continue to learn about science throughout their lives” (NRC 2012, pp. 8–9). There clearly is a return to a disciplinary focus in science curriculum (albeit coupled, for the first time, with engineering) along with strong Schwabian undertones of intertwining the learning of core disciplinary ideas with scientific processes. Scientific inquiry persists under the label of scientific (and engineering) practices, which include engaging students with and learning about: asking questions, developing and using models, planning and conducting investigations, analyzing and interpreting data, using mathematical and computational reasoning, constructing explanations and arguments, and handling information (NRC 2012, p. 1).

Pendulum swings between emphasizing inquiry-related curricular outcomes that prepare students to either engage in disciplinary scientific inquiry or address broader social problems seem to derive from a one-dimensional approach. Such an approach to inquiry as a curriculum strand or inquiry as content will, in all likelihood, fail to capture or serve the complex and nuanced agenda of precollege science education required to address the needs of students, future citizens, and future scientists in the twenty-first century. Abd-El-Khalick (in Abd-El-Khalick et al. 2004) argued for a multidimensional heuristic that defines a space of inquiry-related outcomes, whereby subsets of these outcomes are brought to the forefront – and others pushed to the background – of curriculum, teaching, and learning along the horizontal and vertical dimensions of school science education. One dimension would include a set of target knowledge domains and understandings, including conceptual/disciplinary, epistemic, and social, to be learned with inquiry. A second dimension would include a range of inquiry-related abilities and skills, such as problem-posing; designing investigations; gathering and interpreting data; generating, testing, and refining models and explanations; and building arguments, negotiating assertions, and communicating ideas. A third dimension could comprise a range of foundational mathematical, linguistic, manipulative, and cognitive and metacognitive skills needed to meaningfully engage in inquiry at one level or another. A fourth dimension would comprise the spheres, including disciplinary, personal, social, and cultural with which any of the aforementioned outcomes could interface, as either a context for learning about or a domain for applying inquiry. When educators – ranging from curriculum theorists to science teachers – navigate this four-dimensional space, they would consider the elements on each dimension either as possible outcomes of, or as prerequisites for meaningful engagement in, inquiry-based science education. “The former would help conceive and place more emphasis on inquiry as means (inquiry as teaching approach), while the latter thinking would help gauge the level at which students could engage in inquiry and help emphasize inquiry as ends (inquiry as an instructional outcome)” (Abd-El-Khalick et al. 2004, p. 415).



  1. Abd-El-Khalick F, BouJaoude S, Duschl RA, Hofstein A, Lederman NG, Mamlok R, Niaz M, Treagust D, Tuan H (2004) Inquiry in science education: international perspectives. Sci Educ 88(3):397–419CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Fouad Abd-El-Khalick
    • 1
    Email author
  • Norman G. Lederman
    • 2
  • Renee Schwartz
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Curriculum and InstructionUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignChampaignUSA
  2. 2.Department of Mathematics and Science EducationIllinois Institute of TechnologyChicagoUSA
  3. 3.Department of Biological Sciences/Science EducationWestern Michigan UniversityKalamazooUSA