Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What is Inquiry?

Defining Inquiry 

Since I've already discussed What Inquiry is NOT, let's talk about the the characteristics of inquiry. In a nutshell, the process of inquiry is when learning is focused on using data and information in context to find answers to curious questions that a child may have.  

"Inquiry" is defined as "a seeking for truth, information, or knowledge -- seeking information by questioning. The process of inquiring begins with gathering information and data through applying the human senses -- seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. 
Effective inquiry is more than just asking questions. A complex process is involved when individuals attempt to convert information and data into useful knowledge. Useful application of inquiry learning involves several factors: a context for questions, a framework for questions, a focus for questions, and different levels of questions. " - Quoted from Thirteen Ed Online 
There are several models that help us determine whether an activity is inquiry, and then at which  inquiry level it may fall. But it all comes down to asking yourself three essential questions; see the first column: Who poses the question? Who plans the procedure? And who formulates the results? 

Inquiry (0)
Demo (nstration)
Inquiry (3)
Inquiry (4)
Poses the
Plans the procedure?
Formulates the Results?

From: D. Llewellyn. 2002. Inquire within: Implementing inquiry-based science standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. pg. 12

I want to mention upfront here that there is a time and a place...
for all of these inquiry levels. By no means, should you feel guilty if your lessons don't reach up into the third and fourth levels even monthly. [And, as you might guess, being the author of the STEM Student Research Handbook, I promote reaching level 4 inquiry by engaging students in long-term research of their own!] The purpose of the inquiry table is to provide a comparison for our activities/labs so that we can deliberately choose levels of experiences, and help us so we don't default into one category too long!    

Examples of Inquiry

The best way to help define inquiry is to describe a few examples. I'll describe one high school-level lab, and one early childhood. 

High School Inquiry Example

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, I designed a thematic unit about natural disasters. One of the flood activities I did with my students was a level 3 inquiry lab, based on an idea from the CDC website First I did a demo, putting various items into a beaker of water to represent flood water. I really ramped up the drama, adding items and having them help me determine why that is a good representative of that flood water ingredient; Here's a few of the items: rice crispies (organic material), vegetable oil (gasoline), pennies (cars & other metallic trash), flour (germs/bacteria), and food coloring (other chemicals). This is great for the "gross" factor which works for ANY age. After the demo, I looked at the students and said, "Fix it! Do you best to remove all of the pollution!" They had the rest of the class time to come up with a procedure and a materials list. The next day, I would have the supplies they needed to get to work. Honestly, at first students were stunned. They didn't have a procedure to follow, and were confused when I refused to give them a materials list from which to pick their items. They'd been in science for almost 12 years, they should be able to think about what they needed to get the job done. Once they knew I was serious, they got to work. And it was 3 days of pure science fun! This was a level 3 inquiry because I posed the question but they did everything else.

Kindergarten High Level Inquiry Example

The kindergarten example I'd like to share is on the topic of growing seeds. Before I launch into the high inquiry example, let's think about how a plant/seeds unit might traditionally be taught. Many teachers will add hands-on components by encouraging students to touch and observe the seeds, soil, and containers. Along side of this might be some diagrams of seed, seedling, and plants with structures labeled. In a class discussion students might learn about what seeds need to grow into plants and then they get to plant a seed and watch it grow. Taught this way, the activity is an inquiry level of 0. Students are simply doing a hands-on activity that reinforces what they've learned about seeds and plants.

However, research shows that kindergartners are fully capable of conducting level 3 (and 4) inquiry research! In an article published in the 2009 September issue of "Science & Children" they describe the results of a program titled, "Growing Seeds and Scientists." There were many activities in this unit, but students were the ones who developed experiments to determine what was true about seeds and plants. In one activity, the students were given a variety of small roundish items and asked to determine which were seeds and then to explain their thinking. The class couldn't come to an agreement, so they conducted experiments to determine which items changed once they were watered. Can you see the power in this? Instead of telling kids, "Seeds need water to grow, and when they do, they will look like this..." they are figuring it out on their own. In this study, the kids kept lab notebooks of what they were learning and the conclusion they were coming to! For me, this is a wonderful reminder to not "tell" kids about stuff, but ask them more questions!   


Alberts, Bruce. "Teaching Real Science." Science. 335.6067 (2012): 380. [Available online http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6067/380.full]

I hope these examples helped solidify your understanding of the levels of inquiry. What inquiry labs have you done that went well? Please share with us! 

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