Inquiry, Learning Through
Inquiry-based learning is part of a family of instructional techniques that situate learning in meaningful problems or questions. Inquiry learning approaches focus on having students learn disciplinary knowledge, reasoning, and epistemic practices as they engage in collaborative investigations (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). Inquiry is organized around the questions that scientists might ask or disciplinary problems that require scientific inquiry to resolve. Inquiry approaches to learning are student centered, meaning that active engagement on the part of the student is required. The teacher’s role is to facilitate learning and engagement in science practice rather than to provide direct instruction. Of central importance to inquiry-based learning are the questions being asked. Pursuing questions situates learners in the epistemic practices that are part and parcel of the science discipline (Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006). The nature of student investigations varies with the particular scientific discipline so that investigations might involve designing and running experiments but could also involve observational or model-based inquiry.
The theoretical basis of inquiry learning builds upon important principles from the learning sciences (Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006). This research has demonstrated that students only learn deeply when they are active agents who engage in meaning making as they interact with the world. Substantial evidence also suggests that it is critical to situate learning in real-world contexts in which learners design their research and participate in scientific practices such as observation, representation, and explanation, as well as the social practices of science. Tools play an important role in inquiry in that they can be used to support and scaffold learners as they engage in complex inquiry practices. These tools may be relatively simple, such as a magnifying glass or a ruler, or they be more complex, such as computer simulations and data visualization instruments (Eberbach and Crowley 2009; Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007; Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006).
Long before students formally learn about scientific inquiry, they have already developed many ways of understanding and reasoning about the natural world (Duschl et al. 2007). Such naive knowledge – developed through direct everyday experiences with phenomena and through cultural transmission – offers both opportunities and challenges for learning to participate in scientific inquiry. These knowledge sources can provide a rich foundation for asking questions, for generating evidence, and even for evaluating claims about evidence. At the same time, a major challenge for students of all ages is to learn to understand and to evaluate sources of knowledge in ways that enable them to distinguish personal beliefs from empirical evidence, to connect evidence to explanations (Duschl et al. 2007), or to connect their observations of everyday phenomena to the development of new knowledge (Eberbach and Crowley 2009).
These challenges affect the development of scientific reasoning and are evident throughout inquiry. To illustrate the challenges of learning through inquiry, we briefly consider observational practice, which can be a powerful means of making sense of the world and which plays a central role in how scientists develop new knowledge (Eberbach and Crowley 2009). Although observation is often treated as a simple skill of noticing surface features, actual systematic observation is a complex practice that coordinates disciplinary knowledge, theory, and certain habits of attention. Observational practice includes asking questions of phenomena. These questions focus attention and filter complexity; questions connect to disciplinary problems and goals throughout the inquiry process. The questions that scientists ask guide their observations and ultimately the data they record and collect. These data are often transformed into inscriptions – diagrams, graphs, and line drawings – that allow new questions to be asked of data. Transforming direct observations into multiple iterations of scientific inscriptions can be useful in shaping shared questions, making evidence explicit, and critiquing each others’ theories (Lehrer and Schauble, cited in Eberbach and Crowley 2009).
There are many successful examples of inquiry-based learning that are being used in a range of primary and secondary school contexts (Duschl et al. 2007; Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). One prominent example comes from the work on project-based science at University of Michigan. PBS, used in several large urban school districts in the United States, begins each inquiry unit with a driving question, such as “Can good friends make me sick?” These questions provide a shared context that anchors inquiry and learning of disciplinary ideas. Because engagement in inquiry practices is challenging, scaffolding is critical to supporting learners. These scaffolds are often distributed across social and material resources. Social resources include teacher guidance and peer collaboration. Material resources can include technology tools that provide guidance and contexts. These scaffolds may embed expert guidance, model disciplinary thinking, and structure complex tasks so as to reduce the cognitive load (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). In PBS, student investigations result in the creation of artifacts, including physical models, computer simulations, or multimedia artifacts (Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006).
There is substantial evidence that inquiry-based learning is effective (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). These outcomes have included effects in a large urban district on state standardized assessments (Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006). Moreover, this effect was cumulative (i.e., more inquiry units led to greater gains) and sustained. In a study of a large and diverse school district, Lynch et al. (2005, cited in Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007) demonstrated that inquiry-based learning environments fostered better engagement and a mastery goal orientation when contrasted with a comparison group that participated in traditional instruction. This effect was equally strong for historically disadvantaged groups as it was for non-disadvantaged groups. In a meta-analysis of teaching strategies on science achievement, Schroeder et al. (2007) found that inquiry strategies were associated with a moderate to large effect on student achievement.
To deal with the challenges of inquiry-based learning and to make complex phenomena accessible to learners, many such learning environments use computer tools to scaffold learning, support inquiry, and make complex phenomena accessible to learners (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). Computer-based tools can be used to provide scaffolding and set contexts for inquiry. For example, in Animal Landlord, students create a chronological sequence of behavioral components in a video clip (Smith and Reiser 1998, cited in Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). The tool highlights the disciplinary strategies for animal behavior. In BGuile, students investigate evolution of the Galapagos finches as the software provides a database and templates to help guide learners in constructing domain-specific explanations (Sandoval and Reiser 2004, cited in Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). In WISE, scaffolds are used to provide expert guidance (Davis and Linn 2000, cited in Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007). Other scaffolds can be used to structure inquiry tasks and decrease cognitive load. In Model-It (Krajcik and Blumenfeld 2006), a computer environment allows learners to build models of natural phenomena. The software allows learners to plan, build, or test models. Learners must engage in planning before they can build their model. Moreover, the software allows students to qualitatively model relationships that express underlying complex mathematical relations, reducing the learners’ cognitive load and placing the task in their zone of proximal development. Technology can also provide contexts for inquiry. These can take the form of computer simulations, visualization tools, or video. In the STELLAR project, videos of classrooms provided a context for preservice teachers to learn about educational psychology. At the same time, scaffolds structured their video analysis around instructional planning (Hmelo-Silver et al. 2007).
Learning through inquiry offers powerful ways in which learners construct content understanding and learn disciplinary practices. This is not without challenges. We demonstrated some of this with our example of observation. Inquiry changes the role of both learner and teacher. It focuses the teacher role on guiding the learning process and learners must take increased responsibility for their learning. This increased responsibility may better prepare scientifically literate citizens who are prepared to be lifelong learners.
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