Inquiry Learning and Teaching in Science Education
Inquiry teaching is one approach for communicating the knowledge and practices of science to learners. While inquiry approaches to science education offer potential learning opportunities, they also pose constraints on what might be available to learn. Inquiry teaching and learning have a history in science education that warrants analysis from pedagogical and philosophical perspectives. Pedagogical arguments for inquiry approaches are grounded in social epistemology, which makes clear the need for building from extant disciplinary knowledge of a relevant social group in order to learn through inquiry. Establishing a social epistemology in educational settings provides opportunities for students to engage in ways of speaking, listening, and explaining that are part of constructing knowledge claims in science. This perspective on epistemology emphasizes the importance of dialectical processes in science learning. Thus, an inquiry-oriented pedagogy needs to attend to developing norms and practices in educational settings that provide opportunities to learn through and about inquiry. By considering the situated social group as the epistemic subject, inquiry teaching and learning can be viewed as creating opportunities for supporting the conceptual, epistemic, and social goals of science education.
Inquiry in Science Education
Inquiry in science entails conducting an investigation into the natural, social, or designed world and applications of scientific knowledge to societal issues (Kelly 2014). In education, inquiry approaches are often designed around student-centered activities or investigations. Such investigations typically concern a domain for which at least some of the participating inquirers do not know the results prior to the investigation. Inquiry has been characterized as engaging learners in scientifically oriented questions, proposing hypotheses, formulating and evaluating evidence, arriving at agreed explanations, and communicating results (National Research Council 1996). As such, inquiry is derived from views of knowledge, is underwritten by interpretations of knowledge, and instantiates perspectives on knowledge. Thus, inquiry science poses epistemological questions, and with a focus on science education, these questions can be addressed from a philosophy of science point of view.
It is important to recognize the distinction between the aims of scientific research groups, whose task it is to produce new knowledge, and the aims of education, which include acculturating novices into ways of understanding the natural world. Scientific and educational institutions have different purposes, and failing to recognize the differences confounds aspects of inquiry regarding discovery and learning. Inquiry in scientific research may lead to new knowledge. Inquiry in education serves to instruct members how to engage in relevant, specific processes of investigation, use concepts in context, and develop means for understanding community practices. Under some circumstances, inquiry in educational settings generates new knowledge within the local community, thus showing some similarity with scientific communities.
Challenges for Teaching Science as Inquiry
There are a number of important challenges to teaching science as inquiry. First, students are typically unable to induce sophisticated scientific concepts from empirical phenomena, such as those available through inquiry. As some knowledge is required to learn, then inquiry approaches that situate the student at the center of investigation need to recognize that only with sufficient, relevant background knowledge can answerable questions be posed by students. Thus, inquiry approaches to science learning need to consider the importance of learning from more knowledgeable members of a community and the necessity of transmission of knowledge and technique.
A second challenge for inquiry instruction is that learning science entails more than learning the final-form knowledge of scientific communities (Schwab 1960; Duschl 1990). While propositional knowledge (knowing that) is important, knowing how to engage in scientific practices and how to make epistemic judgments ought not be neglected. Therefore, science learning should include conceptual, epistemic, and social goals (Kelly 2008). While much of inquiry has focused on students’ engagement in practical or laboratory activities, pedagogies focused on socioscientific issues and science in social contexts pose important opportunities to learn through investigations in unknown domains. Inquiry can arguably include evaluation of expertise, certainty, and reliability of scientific claims of others. Epistemic criteria must be brought to bear on evaluation of knowledge claims.
A third challenge to learning science as inquiry is the nature of the intended knowledge. Science topics and community practices may be more or less appropriate for an inquiry approach. Some knowledge and practices may be attainable through a student-centered approach, while others require the direction of more knowing others. Clearly, at least some scientific practices can be learned only through intensive effort, which may require extensive participation in a community of learners. Methods of assessment, either formative or summative, need to be carefully chosen to match the learning goals appropriate to the knowledge sought.
Fourth, learning the conceptual knowledge, epistemic criteria, and social practices over time in science domains may require coordination of scope vertically (across grades over time) and horizontally (across subject matter areas at a given grade) across the curriculum. While academics find ways to separate disciplines, and there may be interesting epistemological distinctions, students experience schooling as a whole. Science may not be separate from views and knowledge of history, mathematics, reading, writing, and so forth. Thus, the challenge for teaching science as inquiry includes understanding how such approaches can be supported or undermined by other curricular decisions and pedagogies, both from within and from outside science programs.
Contributions from Philosophy of Science
The philosophy of science offers much potential to inform science teaching and curriculum development. The perspective from the philosophy of science offers at least four contributions to education: methods for posing questions about science, models for serious thinking about science, understandings about aspects of scientific inquiry, and a skeptical orientation regarding ways that science is characterized in curriculum materials and instruction.
Philosophy of science provides methods for posing questions about science, scientific activity, and values entailed in such inquiry (Machamer 1998). Philosophy of science steps back from the details of specific scientific investigations, debates, and controversies and seeks to examine the rational basis for theory choice. Over time, the characterization of theory change as depicted in philosophy of science has changed, and the debates continue. For example, certain early versions of logical empiricism sought to understand the logic of theory choice. This perspective attempted to view theories as predicting devices and focused on the cognitive content (often viewed as the empirical consequences) of particular theories.
Alternatives of various sorts to this depiction emerged after Kuhn’s (1962/1996) influential view of theories as connected to overarching paradigms that influence the nature of observation. Recognizing the importance of theories, beyond their empirical consequences, led to a number of developments in empiricism and scientific realism, also to various social constructionist views of science. Across the perspectives, philosophy of science continues to investigate the inquiry processes of science.
Philosophy of science may identify educational perspectives on science that are not readily available through causal observation or even participation. Careful analysis of theory change, induction, and explanation in the field of philosophy of science can lead to understandings about the nature of science. Furthermore, increasingly philosophy of science is being influenced by the empirical study of scientific practice. The disunity of science and the range of the many fields that can properly be called science require that understandings such as the nature of science, and disciplinary inquiry such as the philosophy of science, look at specific ways the actual work of science is accomplished. In each of these ways, philosophy of science informs inquiry approaches to teaching science.
Philosophy of science identifies both cognitive and ethical values undergirding scientific inquiry. Such values are relevant to inquiry in science education. For example, Longino’s (2002) social epistemology articulates ways that productive discourse can be accomplished in scientific communities. Such discourse provides a normative account about the ways that differences in theory and orientation can be adjudicated through public discourse in a manner that invites publicly recognized standards, equality of intellectual authority, and fair criticism.
Philosophy of science can help educators promote a healthy skepticism regarding how science is characterized in curriculum materials and instruction. As philosophy of science is a discipline dedicated to the study of the history and structure of inquiry (Machamer 1998), it can provide insights in the ways that science is portrayed in educational settings. Such insights identify aspects of the ways that disciplinary knowledge is constructed, assessed, used, and communicated and can inform curricula.
Social Epistemology and Inquiry
Scholarship in philosophy of science, particularly those areas informed by the empirical study of scientific practice, has made the case for a shift of the epistemic subject from the individual learner to the relevant social group (Kuhn 1962/1996; Longino 2002). Such a shift provides the basis for a thoroughly social view of knowledge and practice in science and science education (Kelly 2008). There are clear curricular implications for a social epistemology. These include creating practical experiences that take into account the extant knowledge of the students, designing investigations that acknowledge the interpretative flexibility of empirical evidence, and situating decisions about experimental results and socioscientific issues in dialogical processes.
The importance of the sociocultural basis of scientific progress is illustrated in three ways: the sociohistorical contexts of scientific discovery, the acculturation of new members to a community, and the relevance of epistemic criteria and evaluation of knowledge claims.
Advances in science emerge from sociohistorical contexts where relevant groups of inquirers draw from extant knowledge, design and execute ways of collecting evidence, and propose solutions and evaluate solutions to outstanding, communally recognized problems. The history of science shows examples of the cultural context and fundamental assumptions of the participants at the time need to be taken into consideration to make sense of the development of ideas through inquiry (Kelly 2014).
A second example of the epistemic shift relevant to inquiry for education is the manner that newcomers are acculturated into particular ways of seeing, communicating, and being. This realization about the substantive and important socialization into the ways of being in science counters forms of positivism that based scientific progress on logic and objective experimental facts. These ways of being are dependent on the social practices of a relevant community. Coming to know the scientific ways of seeing, communicating, and being entails active participation in the practices of a relevant community; it requires a form of apprenticeship. Learning to participate and become a member involves collective action. Understanding the ways that the language of a group operates, the nuances in meaning, and the path to modification in such meaning involves use of discourse in contexts. Furthermore, the completion of such an apprenticeship may be critical to being taken seriously by peers.
A third example of social processes involved in scientific progress concerns the epistemic criteria for the evaluation of knowledge claims. Rather than viewing reasoning in science as a logical process of hypothesis testing, contemporary philosophy of science recognizes the dialectical processes of persuasion, debate, and critique. Indeed, scientific knowledge is social knowledge to the extent that knowledge claims are judged in relevant disciplinary communities.
Longino (2002) and Habermas (1990) each have proposed norms for productive conversations in communities that respect alternatives, but focus clearly on the strength of marshaling evidence. This leads to implications for inquiry centered on the social basis for decisions and the importance of using evidence in science. A dialectic approach to the construction of knowledge claims has plausible relevance to education. Nevertheless, such an approach needs to consider the local context and participants. Interesting questions about inquiry can be raised about students’ developmental ages and abilities and variations regarding the science topic at hand.
Philosophy of Science and Learning
The relationship of philosophy of science and learning has been a central part of numerous developments in science education. One intersection occurred during a focus on constructivist learning in science education. Constructivism entered science education through a focus on students’ ideas and understandings. These learning theories brought a welcomed focus on students’ conceptions. Through careful attention to how students made sense of science phenomena, researchers were able to examine learning from the learners’ point of view. This had a significant impact on science education and brought in philosophy of science. For example, the development of the alternative conceptions movement and conceptual change theory both used the work of Kuhn (1962/1996) and others to consider how students’ constellation of conceptions served as framework for sense making. These foci led to pedagogy attending to students’ sense making and provided opportunities for students to be actively involved in knowledge construction. These constructivist perspectives were criticized as focusing too heavily on the mind of the individual learner and thus were ill equipped to integrate discourse and consider the value of social practice.
A serious competitor to constructivist theories of learning emerged in the form of sociocultural theory. This view of learning conceptualizes the problem of learning as one of participation and appropriation of knowledge and practices of some relevant group. Central to this view is the important role of discourse processes through which everyday events are constructed. By viewing learning as acculturation, the role of social processes and cultural practices are emphasized. From this point of view, as groups affiliate over time they form particular ways of speaking, acting, and being that are defined by the group membership and evolve as the group changes (Kelly 2008). Discourse practices established by the group become cultural tools for members to construct knowledge. These cultural tools, signs, and symbols mediate social interaction, which forms the basis for learning (Vygotsky 1978). This view of learning entails more than changes in the internalized cognitive structure of individual minds; in addition, participants learn to be members of a group with common knowledge, identity, and affiliation through shared cultural practices that constitute membership in a community.
Sociocultural psychology and philosophy of science share some important central tenets and premises about science, knowledge, and inquiry. Both represent a shift in the epistemic subject from the individual learner or scientist to the relevant epistemic community, the relevance of agency within the potential created by a social language, and the value of dialectical processes for proposing, evaluating, and testing knowledge claims. Perspectives from Vygotsky (1978) evince the importance of considering how interpsychological processes can be internalized by individual learners. Much like the social epistemology in the philosophy of science (Longino 2002), the individual has agency and plays a key role in the development of knowledge, but does so within the social languages of a relevant community. This suggests that instructional design for inquiry should consider how social practices are established and used to communicate ways of inquiring into the natural world. Such communication occurs across events leading to the development of knowledge, including the problem-posing phase of inquiry, the sense-making talk around investigations, deliberation around meaning of results, and evaluation of the epistemic criteria for assessing proposed ideas, models, and theories.
Philosophical Considerations for Inquiry Teaching and Learning
Science education has considered inquiry as a goal for reform a number of times across decades (DeBoer 1991). Whether or not inquiry was in the foreground, we have seen proposed educational change in the form of goals, standards, and frameworks. Reform is a process that can include participants as part of a vibrant democracy where agency and identity are formed through active engagement in educational decision-making. Philosophy has a role in developing the minds of citizens.
Philosophy has the potential to inform educational practice and ways of thinking about reform in educational policy. First, philosophy offers ways of posing questions. Posing questions and examining implications represent a contribution of such philosophical considerations. Posing questions and examining in detail any proposed reform offers a contribution to the overall debate in educational reform. Second, philosophy can contribute through conceptual sorting. Through philosophical analysis of the conceptual content of educational texts (policy, curriculum, frameworks, standards) and of education events (research, teaching), philosophy can bring clarity or identify areas of ambiguity. Developing understandings about the nature of knowing, inquiry, and meaning are central to reform that progresses and advances thinking about education. While such meanings can be informed by empirical study, understanding the meaning of inquiry requires careful thought and analysis. Normative decisions about directions for science education cannot be answered by empirical study alone – a balance must be struck between careful, descriptive studies and philosophical considerations of meaning. Third, philosophy of science can inform our field by scrutinizing the nature of education research, including the important work of understanding ways to develop productive conversations across theoretical traditions. Science and education are human endeavors that require ideas to be generated and assessed through dialectic processes. The field of educational research should consider ways to enhance discourse around educational practice.
To meet the conceptual, epistemic, and social goals of science education, educators require critical analysis and discussions about the nature of inquiry. This approach can be reflexive about inquiry into inquiry. Work in science studies and the philosophy of education may be helpful for understanding how inquiry can be conceptualized in science education. The field of science education can be informed by both descriptive, empirical studies of science and science education, as well as for the importance of the normative or moral arguments for reason, science, and education. Inquiry most broadly construed entails learning and self-actualization. The educational goal of inquiry should not only be to meet specific standards, concepts, or procedures but rather to develop the capacity for further learning. Through engagement in the sociocultural resources of other people and through interaction with the natural, designed, or social world, learners can develop an enhanced capacity to learn and develop new ideas. Education from inquiry should develop the ability to engage in more inquiry.
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