Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Science Inquisition

Memory of your time in K-12 classrooms probably conjures up visions of memorizing facts and regurgitating them for exams.

In particular, science labs often consisted of a box of equipment, a set of instructions, and the correct conclusion. Wrong answers resulted in error analyses and feelings of shame.

Upon venturing into the science education world, I’ve repeatedly heard the words “inquiry” and “inquiry-based learning” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inquiry-based_learning).

Inquiry-based learning is very opposite to traditional learning, and science is the subject most conducive to inquiry-based inquiry or open learning. In this type of classroom, there are no right or wrong answers. Students are given the box of equipment with no instructions. They spend class time exploring and then develop questions and theories based on their observations.

One awesome source is the Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium (IFI, http://www.exploratorium.edu/ifi/). They describe the inquiry process as beginning with an observation, followed by action: a question arises, a theory is created or more observations are taken. This process yo-yos back and forth as the learner develops a framework for the world around them.

Pros of Open Learning:
1. Students develop analytical and creative skills.

2. Learning proceeds based on the students’ interests rather than a prescribed curriculum.

3. Students are more engaged and often find the process more fun.

4. This provides excellent training for future scientists.

Cons of Open Learning:
1. Evaluation of students is extremely difficult.

2. Inquiry-based learning is really difficult to teach and most teachers have no training in it.

3. Open learning requires a great deal of planning; you can’t just turn your classroom into an open learning classroom in one day.

4. If students need to know certain facts or reach a certain conclusion, inquiry-based learning might not work.

Open learning has received a lot of hype in recent years, and I think it’s amazing that people are thinking about pedagogy. One future question is whether this type of learning is scalable for public school systems or if open learning is only feasible in private or charter schools.

I personally think this is a great teaching method, and I think it provides an excellent way for students to learn about how science actually works. Feeling inquisitive, yet?

Try inquiry-based learning at home: One example from IFI is called ice balloons (balloons filled with water that are subsequently frozen, see http://www.exploratorium.edu/IFI/activities/iceballoons/iceballoons.html). Study properties of ice through questions such as “What happens if I submerge it in water?” or “What happens if I shine a flashlight on it?”

Fun-fact: In Great Britain, they spell “inquiry” as “enquiry”!

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