Guest Post: Inquiry Based Science In The Classroom

Part 1 of 2: Inquiry Based Science in the Classroom by Guest Blogger Ann Johnson

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Students Discover Scientific Principles through Inquiry Based Science And Learning

“Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson!  THIS is exactly what I was talking about – right here!  See this: D-e-p-o-s-i-t-i-o-n.  This is EXACTLY what  I was talking about…you know when the really fast water moves all those pieces of  rocks and all those little rocks fall out of the water and end up somewhere new…this is EXACTLY IT!  This is EXACTLY what I said!”

I was hooked.  For the first time in my teaching career a student was excited about “deposition,”  “erosion,” and “weathering” - topics that I approached each year with a sense of dread. As amazing as those forces might be, my yearly earth science unit never failed to induce a state of drooling or daydreaming in my 4th and 5th grade students.  I taught with the usual suspects: photos of the Grand Canyon, the standard multi-syllable vocabulary, text passages loaded with main idea and detail, rock and soil samples and those cookbook “experiments” that dominated our curriculum.  It bored my students to death and frustrated me: I love earth science, and that love (not to mention the key science concepts) was not being transmitted to my students.

But this year was different.  Over the summer I’d attended a two week Science Inquiry workshop, headed by Dr. Andrew Elby from the University of Maryland.  The workshop was offered through the Prince George’s County Schools Science Department, and I signed up for it with an optimistic sense of fatalism.  I’d been teaching for many, many years, and badly needed to either find a new source of inspiration, or just retire and admit defeat.  Six years and five summer workshops later, inquiry is the bedrock of all my science teaching. My students and I have never been happier.

This year, I started my earth science unit with a simple question:  Is water a constructive or destructive force on earth?  We’d never used the words constructive or destructive before, and this was day one of earth science.  It was my first go at using inquiry.  My class of 30 some students looked at me blankly.

“What’s constructive mean?”

“And what’s destructive mean?”

“Can we look them up in the dictionary?”
“Can’t we look this up in our textbook?”

I explained that we were trying something different to tackle this topic:  no textbooks, no wisdom from on high (fortunately, this group had a great sense of humor), no Internet…this was all THEM…they had to use all their powers to figure it out, together.  We set up some quick rules for discussion: listen to and look at the speaker, wait for the speaker to finish before jumping in, add to what the previous speaker said, and use evidence to support your thinking.  I waited.  The first fifteen minutes were torture.  The students’ conversation consisted of endless variations on the above four questions.  It took every ounce of restraint I could muster not to jump in with some “hints”. But then something changed.  A couple of the students verbally acknowledged, “She isn’t gonna give us the answer to this”. It felt like a surge of electricity went through the classroom.  Suddenly the kids were jumping all over each other’s comments, deconstructing the words in the question, piping in with ideas: “What about hurricanes?”   “What about tsunamis?”  “What about ocean waves and tides?”  “What about rivers, and waterfalls, and floods?” “What about how funny the sand feels when the ocean pulls the water out from under your feet?”  It WAS a flood – of ideas and excitement, about EROSION, for goodness sake!  For the next three days, the conversation continued.  We had to come up with some more specific rules about how we addressed each other.  I began to chart their ideas on the overhead just to keep track of everywhere we were going.  We had to learn how to agree, disagree, and question each other’s ideas civilly.  We had to learn how to take new arguments and new ideas and apply them to our own.  We had to learn how to admit to ourselves that maybe our ideas were wrong, and start building new ones. We had to connect what we had observed personally, or read about, or heard about, to the question at hand.  We had to truly think.  After 4 days of this, my class was literally begging to read a book about erosion, which brings me back to:

“Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Johnson!  THIS is exactly what I was talking about – right here!

In the course of this four day think-a-thon, the students had described all the processes of geologic change including weathering, erosion, and deposition.  They had categorized the changes to the earth as rapid or slow, and given examples of each: hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes, even meteor impacts!  Of course, they had not used the official scientific vocabulary, but when I finally relented, and “allowed” them to read their science text, they already had the hooks in their brains for this sophisticated vocabulary. Moreover, based on formal assessments, the information stuck.  Did they answer the original question I posed?  Yes, with all the resounding ambiguity that the question deserved!  Sometimes water is destructive, sometimes it’s constructive.  And they arrived at this conclusion based on their own observations and logical thinking.  For many of my students, this was an epiphany: they were capable; their thoughts counted; they could figure things out by observing and thinking; they were scientists.

Girl_Magnifying_GlassThis was the class’ first go at an inquiry based “lesson”.  I was astounded by the results. Inquiry became my default teaching style in science. Usually, I developed an open-ended question to begin the discussion and then the students’ own curiosity guided the rest of the unit. A few months after this initial immersion in inquiry, we began a unit on magnets. The formal curriculum stated that the students should know that “magnetism is a force that creates a push or pull” and that “most objects made of metal are attracted to magnets”. But by now, my class was thoroughly convinced of the validity and importance of their own questions in science.  I basically stepped back and let them lead the way, providing occasional summaries of their thinking and materials to put their thoughts to the test. This class developed a unit on magnets based on their own personal, authentic questions, and used their self-designed experiments to answer those questions. They quickly dispatched the “real” curriculum and traveled light years beyond it, ultimately to questions that even modern day scientists have not answered. Each time one question was answered, another took its place.  True scientists at work – and one happy teacher.

Stay Tuned for Part 2: What exactly is the inquiry method of teaching science? Rules and routines for discussions, challenges along the way, real classroom examples, and amazing results!


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.