Guest Post: Exploring How Inquiry Based Science Works

Guest Blog by Teacher Ann Johnson Part 2: Inquiring Minds Want to Know-- What is Inquiry Based Science?

Dragonfly being held during a hands-on science inquiry class (Photo: Karen McDonald)

An Exploration of the Characteristics of Inquiry Based Science

If you didn't read Part 1 of Ann's series  you may want to start by reading her first article about Inquiry Based learning, otherwise, read on!

Picture the following scenarios.....

In a classroom discussion about magnets, one student wonders, “Will magnets work under water?”  Over the next few days, the class debates the question and designs and executes an experiment to get some answers.  Okay, yes, they will work underwater. But then they continue, “What about this statement in our text that says some materials WILL block magnets?”  If water won’t do it, what about plastic, or glass, or wood, or rubber, or cloth, or another magnet?  And they are back to the drawing board, designing more experiments to test these materials, wondering if magnets work through gases and liquids, but not solids, trying ice in place of water and on, and on, and on.  Finally, as a class we cry uncle – we can’t find anything that will block our magnets, and a very eager class is finally given permission to do a little research on the topic.

Another class is looking at a chart in our science text which illustrates the classification of animals by using the example of a wolf.  It starts at the kingdom level and works its way down, gradually dropping all the organisms that don’t cut it as a wolf. After a few levels, we’re left with the cats and the wolf, the dog, and the fox.  The cats get dumped in the next round.  Makes sense.  But in the next level, the fox is dropped with the explanation that this level contains only “dog like” animals. Now we’ve used this chart for years and years, and most of the time, the students smile and nod, and we move on.  But this class is different – they’ve been “inquiring” all year long, and are used to questioning their text, their teacher, and themselves!  When it seems like the fox has just been ousted from the club randomly, they start to wonder. “What is it about the fox that makes it less doggy than the wolf?”  “If it’s not a cat, and not a dog, what is it?  Where does the fox fit in?”   For the next several days the class passionately debates the issue and delves deeply into the process of scientific classification. What specific traits make a dog a dog, and a cat a cat?  Where does the fox fit in with these other animals?  What traits make the cut into “dogginess” or “catness” and who decided all these rules?  It is a fascinating journey

Yet another class is just starting a unit on space, and brainstorming what we know and want to know.  One student asks, “Are we in space?”  The unit is off and running and so is the debate.  This question triggers some strong responses. “Of course we’re not in space.  If we were, we’d be floating around and we’d be dead.”  “Of course we’re in space!  The earth is in space, and we’re on the earth!”  “We might be in space, but we have this force field around us to protect us.”  “Yeah, we’re in a bubble that keeps in air and keeps us stuck to the ground.” Through this discussion the class hits on every major standard included in our curriculum on space: the parts of our solar system, the comparison of planets, the conditions on earth that make life possible.  And while they may not be using the correct vocabulary (yet!) the class is discussing gravity, atmosphere, rotation, revolution:  all the big guns of space science.

Each of these scenarios took place in my classroom in the years after I attended an Inquiry Based Science workshop headed by Dr. Andy Elby of the University of Maryland.  I took the workshop on a whim to rejuvenate my teaching and instead it revolutionized it.  In the five years since, my classroom has become a home for passionate, curious, and confidant students and scientists.  So what is inquiry based science?  There are numerous books and resources on the topic.  My favorite explanation in a nutshell can be found at

But in my heart, these are the most important characteristics:

  1. The students are engaged in authentic, meaningful discussions about science. I am happiest when the discussion is initiated by actual student questions as in the magnet investigation.  But alternatively, we’ve had amazing inquiries based on comments in our text or in questions from the teacher (me!)  One year, to initiate our unit on electricity I just gave the class batteries, wires, switches and bulbs and asked, “Can you light up this bulb?”  It was phenomenal.   The students worked in self-chosen groups, mostly all girls or all boys.  When the girls managed to light up the bulb, and then moved on to make parallel circuits (with NO hints or prior discussion about electricity!) the boys were nonplussed and absolutely determined to get it right.  After several extremely frustrating days, they DID – and that is one group of students who will never forget that electricity travels in circles!
  2. Students’ ideas are all treated as valid.  In order for inquiry to “work” in a classroom, the teacher must develop an atmosphere of respect for ALL ideas expressed in discussions. And this is relatively easy. The teacher sets the tone by showing respect herself by listening closely to what each student has to say, sometimes paraphrasing, sometimes questioning further, sometimes summarizing, sometimes jotting down ideas on the overhead, and sometimes asking for reactions.  The students will follow where the teacher leads.  And if not, the teacher has to step in and address any dismissive or disrespectful conversation.

    A student conducting insect exploration and data collection (Photo: Karen McDonald)
  3. Students are searching for the “whys” of science and gain experience in insisting on evidence to support their views.  Dr. Elby referred to these as “causal stories” – the struggle to understand why something is happening and how it connects to what else we know.
  4. Students gain confidence in the validity of their own observations while also becoming more willing to modify their ideas when evidence presents itself.  One of my favorite inquiry discussions was based on the question “What kind of biome do we live in?” asked of a class of 5th graders after a standard review of the worlds’ biomes.  One student insisted we lived in the grasslands and when asked for evidence, indignantly said, “Look out the window.  What do you see?  Grass!”   It was THE coolest discussion that eventually led far beyond our curriculum to ecological succession and human manipulation of the environment.  By the end, my student grudgingly suggested we MAY live in the temperate forest, but NEVER have I heard such a spirited debate about biomes.
  5. And lastly, students develop a LOVE for science and respect for their own curiosity. I have always loved science.  My degrees are in conservation and environmental education.  Kayaking, hiking, bird watching, stargazing – I love it all. And before I became an inquiry fanatic, I was always frustrated that this love was not contagious – my students enjoyed our occasional cookbook experiments, but thought of science as “too hard” and “boring”.  Post inquiry – the world has turned on its head – not only do my students love and eagerly anticipate science, they carry this inquiry attitude in all their classes.  One of my co-teachers laughingly told me that she warned her math class that, “This isn’t science – in here we aren’t gonna discuss if 2 + 2 really equals 4!”

Inquiry based teaching is demanding.  The teacher has to really, truly LISTEN to each and every student - no daydreaming or coasting allowed!  It is useful to keep a running summary of the ideas we’re tackling on the overhead – both for myself and the students.  But I also try to keep track of it all mentally for it does wonders for a child’s confidence when you can say, “Remember when Lashae said that magnets might resemble electricity?”  And the teacher has to be an inquirer herself – admitting when she doesn’t know something, or when her ideas are wrong, or when she’d really like to know more. Inquiry is above all, about talking: discussing ideas, rehashing arguments, and interpreting the results of experiments or research.  The teacher has to listen to it all and resist the urge to jump in and correct misconceptions or give quick answers.  Before my experience with inquiry, I used to see that little quip, “Engage brain before starting mouth” and think – they got that right.  But now I see it as all wrong.  Humans use talk as a means of sorting out their ideas, testing them out.  How many times have all of us begun to spout off an opinion or idea, then caught ourselves and said, “Wait, no, that can’t be right!”  Children need the opportunity to test out their ideas in an accepting but questioning atmosphere and a solid inquiry classroom is just that.

Inquiry has brought out the scientist in all my students.  And it has made my last years of teaching my absolute best.  I always wanted my teaching to be about transmitting that sense of wonder, that cosmic curiosity, that great adventure that is science, and now, it is.


Ann Johnson has been teaching elementary school for more years than she cares to admit. For the last five of them she has been an eager participant in the Minority Pipeline Science Inquiry Program, jointly sponsored by the University of Maryland and Prince George's County Schools. The goal of this program is to con innocent students to sign up for those advanced science classes the rest of their peers avoid like the proverbial plague.