Encyclopedia of Science Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Richard Gunstone

Inquiry as a Teaching Strategy

  • Wayne MelvilleEmail author
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6165-0_191-5


Content, Context, and Practices

Inquiry as a teaching strategy operationalizes the teaching of scientific inquiry as content by providing a context for the teaching and learning of the practices of science. The need for contextualizing the content of science within the practices of science has a long history. In 1910, John Dewey argued that a conceptual, discipline-based form of scientific knowledge could not be learned in isolation from the “intelligent practice” of science. The publication of Joseph Schwab’s The teaching of science as enquiry (1962) proposed that science teachers should provide opportunities for their students to engage in the practices of science as a strategy for the teaching and learning of science. The practices of science have recently been defined by the National Research Council [NRC] (2012) in the United States as:
  1. 1.

    Asking questions

  2. 2.

    Developing and using models

  3. 3.

    Planning and carrying out investigations

  4. 4.

    Analyzing and interpreting data

  5. 5.

    Using mathematics and computational thinking

  6. 6.

    Constructing explanations

  7. 7.

    Engaging in argument from evidence

  8. 8.

    Obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information


Engagement with the practices of science, it was argued, should be built around an increasing student sophistication in developing scientific questions: the gathering of evidence, the manipulation and analysis of that evidence, and the proposal and communication of scientifically justifiable explanations. Major impediments to the broad adoption of Schwab’s ideas have been the resilience of an abstract curriculum that privileges concepts over context and the associated issue of teachers’ cultural reproduction of a traditional view of science education.

Arising from these impediments is a preconception that equates the teaching of inquiry with a single teaching strategy: open-ended activities that are “hands-on” for students and “hands-off” for teachers. This preconception, in turn, justifies many teachers not teaching inquiry. The reasons that are given to support this decision (which is often made subconsciously) include the perceived difficulty of teaching from a constructivist perspective, the added time and energy required, and teachers’ perceived need to meet the expectations of the curriculum. Other concerns include the physical limitations of the classroom, a belief that safety will be compromised, and the capacity of students to engage with the levels of analysis, argumentation, and evaluation described in documents such as the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996). Support from colleagues, the costs of apparatus and consumables, placing material in the proper sequence, and the demand of preparing students for further study are also cited as concerns.

For teachers, to move beyond these reasons and embrace inquiry as a teaching strategy requires the development of an identity that allows for the questioning of contemporary science education. An important component of this transformation is to recognize that inquiry, as a teaching strategy, should simultaneously reflect the practices of science and the development of scientific knowledge about the natural world. The Science Teaching Standards of the National Science Education Standards (NRC 1996, pp. 27–54) provide a number of criteria through which teachers can begin to question and assess their abilities for, and understandings of, the teaching and learning of inquiry:
  1. 1.

    Teachers of science plan an inquiry-based science program for their students.

  2. 2.

    Teachers of science guide and facilitate learning.

  3. 3.

    Teachers of science engage in an ongoing assessment of their teaching and of student learning.

  4. 4.

    Teachers of science design and manage learning environments that provide students with the time, space, and resources needed for learning science.

  5. 5.

    Teachers of science develop communities of science learners that reflect the intellectual rigor of scientific inquiry and the attitudes and social values conducive to science learning.

  6. 6.

    Teachers of science actively participate in the ongoing planning and development of the school science program.

These standards provide teachers with a foundation from which to develop opportunities for using inquiry as a teaching strategy. To build on that foundation, teachers need to understand two other important aspects of the shift in their teaching practice. First, the practices of science can be considered as both learning outcomes and teaching strategies, as they provide both the means and ends of science teaching and learning. As learning outcomes, students should develop the abilities of inquiry through their work with the practices of science, concomitantly coming to an understanding of how scientific knowledge evolves. As teaching strategies, the practices of science open opportunities for learning both core disciplinary concepts (see NRC 2012, pp. 103–200) and the concepts that transcend the disciplinary boundaries, such as cause and effect, structure and function, and stability and change (see NRC 2012, pp. 83–102). Second, there is no evidence that any one teaching approach is more effective than any other in actively involving students in developing the knowledge, understandings, and scientific abilities that constitute inquiry. The selection of the appropriate strategy at the appropriate time is very much the realm of the professional science teacher, hence the importance attached to the collaborative and collegial learning of teachers as they seek to shift their practice. In selecting the appropriate strategy, teachers must be explicit in the learning outcomes that they are seeking, the scaffolding that will be needed if students are to achieve those outcomes, and the links between content and practices. Developing those links through inquiry opens opportunities for students to become proficient in science (Duschl et al. 2007), giving them the capacity to:
  1. 1.

    Know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world

  2. 2.

    Generate and evaluate scientific evidence and explanations

  3. 3.

    Understand the nature and development of scientific knowledge

  4. 4.

    Participate productively in scientific practices and discourse

Central to the use of inquiry as a teaching strategy is the active engagement of students in investigations in which students answer scientific questions through the practices of science. The use of the word “practices” is a reflection of the evolution of thinking around inquiry as a teaching strategy. Following the US publication of Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC 2000), the essential features of investigations were seen to be the extent to which a:
  1. 1.

    Learner engages in scientifically oriented questions.

  2. 2.

    Learner gives priority to evidence in responding to questions.

  3. 3.

    Learner formulates explanations from evidence.

  4. 4.

    Learner connects explanations to scientific knowledge.

  5. 5.

    Learner communicates and justifies explanations.


With the publication in the United States of A Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC 2012), the emphasis was been broadened and deepened to incorporate the practices of science. If students are to develop proficiency in science, such a progression through investigations must link and reiterate the practices of science to both the appropriate core disciplinary concepts and the concepts that transcend the disciplinary boundaries. Investigations are a foundation on which students can “learn about experiments, data and evidence, social discourse, models and tools, and mathematics and for developing the ability to evaluate knowledge claims, conduct empirical investigations, and develop explanations” (Bybee 2011, p. 38). This emphasis recognizes that the abilities and understandings that students develop, and display, will demonstrate a progression over time. Students require substantial scaffolding in the practices of science if they are to become proficient, and a well-designed progression will guide students through a number of graduated steps. Important aspects of this guiding include giving meaning to the investigation in terms of other student learning and allocating adequate time for the investigation.

Within the literature, the graduated steps of inquiry are generally viewed as a continuum, with the level of complexity being influenced by factors such as the amount of information given to the student, the level of teacher guidance that is offered, and the sophistication of the students’ abilities. The least complex level of inquiry is generally known as a confirmation (or verification) inquiry. Students are generally provided with the question and procedure, and the results are generally expected. This level has value in verifying concepts and training in the safe and correct use of apparatus. The next level of complexity, the structured inquiry, investigates a research question using a prescribed procedure. Confirmation and structured inquiries make up the majority of textbook investigations, but for students to become proficient in science, they must have opportunities to carry out investigations of greater complexity. Moving further along the inquiry continuum, the guided inquiry gives students the opportunity to develop their own investigation in response to a question. The most complex investigation, or open inquiry, requires students to develop their own topic-related research question and strategies for gathering, analyzing, and reporting their data. It is unreasonable and counterproductive to expect students to conduct complex investigations without having experienced some success in less complex investigations. Similarly, to limit students to less complex investigations is to stifle student interest and success. A well-designed progression to increasingly complex investigations is crucial for student learning and success.



  1. Bybee RW (2011) Scientific and engineering practices in K-12 classrooms: understanding a framework for K-12 science education. Sci Teach 78(9):34–40Google Scholar
  2. Duschl RA, Schweingruber H, Shouse A (eds) (2007) Taking science to school: learning and teaching science in grades K-8. National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  3. National Research Council (1996) National science education standards. National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  4. National Research Council (2000) Inquiry and the national science education standards: a guide for teaching and learning. National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar
  5. National Research Council (2012) A framework for K-12 science education: practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. The National Academies Press, Washington, DCGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of EducationLakehead UniversityThunder BayCanada