UNDERSTANDING A DEFINITION OF INQUIRY IN SCIENCE CLASSROOMS AS A PATH TO CHANGE IN TEACHING PRACTICES.

 

Susan K. Courson, Clarion University of PA

 

Abstract

A design for a series of workshops and discussions was developed for cooperating teachers and their student teachers using research in science learning as a framework to support conceptual change in teachers’ ideas about teaching inquiry-based science.

 

Introduction

What is meant by the term science as inquiry? What does inquiry-based instruction look like? How can teachers reasonably change their current practice to incorporate more inquiry-based learning experiences for their students? 

These are questions that science teacher educators encounter daily.  Much is expected of teachers in today’s culture of high stakes testing and accountability. There is constant pressure to change from traditional transmissionist teaching of science as a collection of facts and formulas to engaging students in a variety of activities designed to simulate the work of scientists and foster a deeper understanding of scientific concepts as well as the nature of science as an endeavor.  An introduction to the nature of science, learning science as inquiry, and effective strategies for teaching science as inquiry are included in the methods course taken by all secondary science prospective teachers at Clarion University.  Unfortunately, there is all too often a lack of opportunities for the prospective teacher to implement these immature understandings if their assigned cooperating teacher uses other methods.

Experiences working with practicing teachers as a supervisor of student teachers as well as a professor of graduate courses in science education have shown me that there is widespread confusion among inservice teachers when defining scientific inquiry and many misconceptions surrounding the idea of teaching science as inquiry. How can teachers be expected to implement inquiry-based science teaching in their classrooms if they do not have a clear vision of what it is and how it differs from their current practice? In other words – what does it look like in action?

This paper describes a set of activities implemented over several months in the context of a series of professional development workshops, supported by the CETP-PA grant from the National Science Foundation, for secondary science teachers and their student teachers. The general goals for these workshops were to increase the cooperating teachers’ pedagogical content knowledge in inquiry-based science teaching, to foster the development of skills in the use of available tools to analyze and adapt their own lessons for higher levels of inquiry, to assist them as they implemented their newly adapted lessons and evaluated the success of the lesson, and to improve the student teaching experience for the teacher candidate. 

 

Theoretical Framework

Since teachers are known to have varying belief structures that influence their curriculum planning and implementation of various instructional strategies (Nespor, 1987; Richardson, 1996; Wallace & Kang, 2004), it is important to allow for the examination of beliefs in designing professional development.  Without eliciting the prior knowledge and beliefs of the teachers and addressing these ideas in the design of the workshops, teachers will not have a reason or impetus to change their current practice or implement any new lessons developed during the session (Hewson & Hewson, 1987).

Following the suggestions of Hewson and Hewson (1987), the series of workshops was designed using the framework of conceptual change theory (Posner, Strike, Hewson, & Gertzog, 1982). According to conceptual change theory, change in existing knowledge structures can be elicited by engaging the learner in experiences that examine their current explanations and ideas and challenge the validity and accuracy of these ideas by a comparison to evidence gained through new experiences. 

 

Workshop Design

The National Research Council recognized the problem of lack of guidance in implementing the National Science Education Standards (Council, 1996) and published a very useful book: Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (Council, 2000). This book offers a clear definition of science inquiry by describing what students do who are engaged in science inquiries. The NRC (2000, p. 25) describes five essential features of effective science inquiry activity in the classroom:

  • Students are engaged with scientifically oriented questions.
  • Students give priority to evidence when answering questions.
  • Students formulate evidence-based explanations.
  • Students compare and evaluate explanations.
  • Students communicate and justify their explanations.

A series of activities, discussions and interviews was aligned with the stages of conceptual change as theorized by Posner, et al (1982). According to conceptual change theory, to foster a change in understanding the learner should experience 1) dissatisfaction with current understandings (cognitive dissonance), 2) understand the new explanation (intelligible), 3) find the new ideas possible for them (plausible), and 4) discover that the new ideas are useful in practice (fruitful). Table 1 outlines the alignment of the series of activities with the stages of conceptual change.

Table 1

Alignment of Workshop Activities with Conceptual Change Theory

______________________________________________________________________________

Stage of

Conceptual Change      Set                   Activity Descriptions

Cognitive Dissonance    A         Define inquiry in their own words

Give examples of current lessons that are examples of inquiry

Comparing these current definitions and lessons to NRC definition

Intelligible                     B          List questions about teaching science as inquiry

Group discussions using FAQ about Inquiry

Group discussions after watching video of classroom activity

Plausible                       C         Analysis of common cookbook labs

Adaptation of participants’ current labs

Fruitful              D         Implementation of newly adapted lessons

Analysis of student learning

 


Activity Set A. 

It is critically important to begin with activities and discussions that ask teachers to examine their ideas and beliefs about science as inquiry.  Workshop participants were first asked to define scientific inquiry in their own words.  They were also asked to briefly describe a lesson that they currently teach that is a good example of engaging students in science as inquiry. Next, the teachers were introduced to the book Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 2000) and asked to compare their definitions of inquiry to those offered by the National Research Council. As a visual aid, a Table 2 was offered as a tool to aid in the analysis of their inquiry lesson descriptions. This chart was adapted by the author from page 29 of that book by adding the column that describes teacher centered activity at a 0 level of inquiry.

 

Table 2

Description of Various Levels of the Essential Features of Classroom Inquiry

 

 

Highest level of classroom inquiry                                                   No inquiry
More student centered                                                                      Teacher centered

 

 

Elements of Inquiry

4

3

2

1

0

A.

Student engages in scientifically oriented questions

Student poses the question

Student selects from a list of questions

Student clarifies or modifies a given question

Teacher provides the question

Teacher provides information. No questions are given or encouraged.

B.

Student gives priority to evidence in responding to questions

Student designs the investigation and collects evidence

Student is directed to collect specific data

Student is provided data and asked to analyze it

Student is given data and told how to analyze it

No data or evidence is used to support given information

C.

Student formulates explanations from evidence

Student constructs an explanation after summarizing evidence

Student is given guidance in formulating explanations from evidence

Student is given examples of ways to form explanations

Student is shown data and given an explanation

No data or evidence is provided or used to support an explanation

D.

Student connects explanations to scientific knowledge

Students independently examines other resources and forms links to explanations

Students are directed toward sources of scientific knowledge

Teacher provides  connections to outside sources

Teacher and textbook are the only sources of scientific information

Textbook is the only source of information

E.

Student communicates and justifies explanations

Student forms reasonable and logical argument to communicate explanations

Student coached in development of argument

Student is provided with broad guidelines to develop arguments

Teacher provides steps and procedures for communication

No communication of student ideas

 

Activity Set B.

The next activity asked workshop participants to list their questions about teaching through inquiry.  Another useful tool from Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards (NRC, 2000) is Chapter 7 – Frequently Asked Questions about Inquiry. The NRC addressed many common misunderstandings about classroom inquiry in this very useful chapter. Some of the questions discussed in this chapter are:

  • In inquiry-based teaching, is it ever okay to tell students the answers to their questions?
  • Is it more important for students to learn the abilities of scientific inquiry or scientific concepts and principles?
  • How can students do a science investigation before they have learned the vocabulary words with which to describe the results?
  • Do the Standards imply that teachers should use inquiry in every lesson?
  • How can teachers cover everything in the curriculum if they use inquiry-oriented materials and teaching methods?
  • How can teachers use inquiry and maintain control of their students?

In small groups, the teachers were asked to compare their questions to those in the chapter and discuss the answers offered by the NRC.  Did they understand and believe the answers? Did they still have unanswered questions? 

Teachers and student teachers then watched a video of a classroom where student and teacher activities aligned with the NRC’s definition of inquiry. The video used was from the set “Teaching High School Science as Inquiry” (Annenberg/PBC, 2000).  Following discussions about episodes in the video allowed teachers to find more answers to their questions and begin to form new understandings about teaching inquiry-based science.

 

Activity Set C

The next set of activities utilizes a set of procedures for adapting popular, familiar, traditional ‘cookbook’ labs by the analysis of procedures and student activities in the lesson design and comparison to the essential features of inquiry chart introduced in Activity Set A  Sometimes referred to as ‘uncookbooking’(Courson, 2003; Volkmann & Abell, 2003), this activity uses a series of questions constructed from the features of inquiry chart to guide teacher thinking as they examine the current structure of the lab activity and make changes to incorporate missing elements of inquiry. Cooperating teachers work with their student teachers, who are familiar with the ‘uncookbooking’ procedure from experience in their university methods course.  The workshop participants deepen their understandings of the usefulness of the essential features of inquiry as a working definition by first making changes in a given lab lesson, and next adapting one of their own favorite lessons.  Adapting a familiar lab lesson greatly increases the odds that the new lesson will actually be taught in the participants’ classrooms. The last activity in this set is the group design of a short survey to gauge their students’ attitudes and levels of learning from the activity, to be administered to their students after the lesson is taught. Typical survey questions are “What did you think of this lab activity compared to the ___________ lab?” and “What did you learn about _____________ that you didn’t know before?” 

 

Activity Set D

After completion of the third set of activities, the teachers and student teachers return to their classrooms and implement the lesson that they have restructured using the ‘uncookbooking’ procedure. They are asked to collect data on their student’s learning via completed lab reports and answers to the student survey. Participants are also asked to record anecdotal comments from their students during the activity that indicate both attitude and learning.  An electronic discussion board via a Blackboard® site is made available to the participants to facilitate continued questions and discussions and sharing of their experiences as they prepare and after teaching the lesson.  Student teachers include reflective essays in their journals on the experience of designing and teaching the lesson with their cooperating teacher, and on the workshop experience in general. 

Results

The first cohort of four teachers and student teachers completed this series of workshops during fall 2005 semester.  Analysis of data gathered from discussions, student teacher journals and analysis of lesson plans is very encouraging.  Four areas of impact are positive implementation results, new understandings of inquiry, better communication between the cooperating teacher and the student teacher, and new comfort levels identifying inquiry-based lessons.

Both student teachers in the group reported positive implementation results.  Some representative statements were: “The lesson went better than I had hoped after we fine-tuned the lab and wrote new questions”; “Students enjoyed the activities and did better than I expected on the quiz,” and “I was much more confident that my cooperating teacher understood my 5E lesson plan and supported the changes in the lab questions.” 

Both cooperating teachers reported a new understanding of inquiry:  Some of their comments on the workshop evaluations are “This chart makes so much sense,” “I now realize that I have been doing better than I thought,” and “I thought inquiry had to be open-ended, student designed labs. Now I know it can be so much more.” 

The student teachers had experienced designing inquiry-based lessons in their university methods course, and now every cooperating teacher reported a new comfort level with designing inquiry-based lessons. “I am more confident that my teaching aligns with the standards, and that my students will be prepared for the inquiry questions on the state science test,” “It will take some practice to learn to ask these type of questions, but at least I have a guide now,” and “I will ask for more student teachers in the future! I was reluctant in the past as I was afraid the university was always critical and judgmental.” 

Both student teachers described the positive aspect of better communication with their cooperating teacher.  “Now I don’t worry about whether I should do it her way or try what I learned in methods,” “The tension is much less and I am more confident,” and “Now I can ask better questions of Mr. B and he understands what I am trying to learn to do --get students to look at evidence and build their own definitions.”  

The series of workshops will be repeated with a new set of volunteer teachers and their student teachers in spring 2006.

 

This work was supported by CETP-PA: Collaboration for Excellence in Teacher Preparation in Pennsylvania, funded by NSF grant # 9986753 and the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

 

References

Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting. (2000). Teaching High School Science:

Thinking Like Scientists. Video. Boston, WGBH.

Courson, S. K. (2003). A framework for inquiry: Don't throw out those old favorite labs. Paper presented March 2003, at the National Science Teachers Association., Philadelphia, PA.

Hewson, P. W., & Hewson, M. G. (1987). Science teachers' conceptions of teaching: Implications for teacher education. International Journal of Science Education, 9, 425-440.

National Research Council. (1996). The national science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the national science education standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Nespor, J. (1987). The role of beliefs in the practice of teaching. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 19, 317-328.

Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. N., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accomodation of a scientific conception: Towards a theory of conceptual change. Science Education, 66, 211-227.

Richardson, V. (1996). The role of attitudes and beliefs in learning to teach. In J. Sikula (Ed.), Handbook of research on teacher education (pp. 102-119). New York: Macmillan.

Volkmann, M. J., & Abell, S. K. (2003). Rethinking laboratories: Tools for converting cookbook labs into inquiry. The Science Teacher, 9, 38-41.

Wallace, C. S., & Kang, N. (2004). An investigation of experienced secondary science teachers' beliefs about inquiry: An examination of competing belief sets. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 41(9), 936-960.