The Challenge of Inquiry Learning

Drayton and Falk outline conditions and signs of an inquiry-based classroom in their article, “Tell-Tale Signs of the Inquiry-Oriented Classroom” (2001). The article presents both a challenge and a validation for teachers wanting to use a constructivist style in teaching their classes. As I reflect on the work being done in my classroom and the indicators of an inquiry-oriented classroom, I am disappointed in the distance between the ideal classroom and my real classroom. I am challenged to provide more opportunities for my classroom to approach this ideal. I am also validated in my continuing quest to develop this inquiry culture and move away from the silent rows which seem to be signs of a well-managed classroom.

I am beginning to recognize the need to re-shape the questions which guide the thinking in my classroom. Element one in Drayton and Falk’s article is “learners are engaged by scientifically oriented questions”. This week I am wanting to design a lesson for developing student understanding of food webs. The lesson could easily become a search for the facts – read and learn lesson. I think there are two ways in which I can move this lesson in the direction of an inquiry-orientation. I can provide an activity which asks them to construct a food web given a certain set of animals and plants. If I provide just the animals and plants from a single habitat then the thinking required is more basic but if I provide them with animals and plants from a number of habitats and ask them to decide which belong and which do not as they construct the web, then I am getting to some higher level thinking. If I make one more extension of the task, I can begin to approach a more inquiry-oriented lesson. I can ask them to consider what happens to the food web they constructed when one of the animal or plants is removed from the habitat. Re-shaping the questions which guide the building of my lessons can help me to address becoming an inquiry classroom.

Falk and Drayton identify the second element of an inquiry-oriented classroom as, “Learners give priority to evidence, which allows them to develop and evaluate explanations that address scientifically oriented questions”. In my food web inquiry, we can look for evidence of the impacts on ecosystems and habitats when an element in the habitat is changed. Once each group has a web constructed and has some speculations as to what would change in that habitat if the web was altered, we can look for evidence to support our speculations. I know of a good video which would allow them to compare their speculations to a given scenario. We could talk about how scientist can use analogies and comparisons to make predictions and develop theories.

Element three in the Drayton and Falk article states “Learners formulate explanations from evidence to address scientifically oriented questions”. Each group could formulate an explanation as to the necessary parts of the web in their habitat and how the different creatures interact within the system.

Drayton and Falk suggest in element four “Learners evaluate their explanations in the light of alternative explanations, particularly those reflecting scientific understanding” and element five “Learners communicate and justify their proposed explanations”. The conclusion of the lesson could ask the students to share their explanations and then look to see which explanation seemed the most convincing and comprehensive.

When I approach the challenge of developing a more inquiry-oriented classroom by changing one lesson at a time, I find I am less overwhelmed by the task and more enthusiastic about its possibilities. Each time my class gets the opportunity to engage in real questions, they are developing their innate curiosity and enthusiasm. I know if I approached this topic through the language arts text book series, which has an excellent language arts lesson about food webs that the students will not be asked to engage in this kind of speculative thinking. It is my hope that as we engage in inquiry we can develop the thinking skills, social skills and communication skills to be avid life-long learners.



Filed under classroom, curriculum, education

5 responses to “The Challenge of Inquiry Learning

  1. Susan, you’ve done a great job of working yourself through this and applying it to your class. As we all know, things appear easy until you actually add the students! Your plans look very good and you’ve made a wise choice in taking small steps. Keep at it and update us as to how things work out for this unit.

  2. Time will tell. Students do mix it up!

  3. I find inquiry based learning great for students but many of them find it difficult to justify their opinion. I find working in small groups helps the less capable students sometimes but often the more capable student will take over and just get the work done so it is done to their standards. Sounds like many adults and teachers …..

  4. iowasciencegal

    Wonderful job transitioning this unit into a more inquiry based experience for your students. I have a couple of suggestions for engaging your students in EF #3 and 4. The key to Essential Feature #3 is to give both parts of the statement equal treament: Learners formulate explanations from evidence. Ask students to write or share their conclusions about the food web and include the evidence they used to come to that conclusion. You could even have them group the evidence into evidence that is their own prior knowledge, evidence they found in the body of scientific knowledge (data from other scientists/sources) and data they collected themselves.

    Including this information in the explaination will help the students with EF #4: Learner evaluating explainations. For this part of the lesson the students can discuss these types of questions: How confident are we in our explainations? Which evidence was the most helpful? Did any of the evidence conflict? Did we have enough evidence/What additional evidence would we like to have?

    • Susan Ens Funk

      Wow. I think this is one of the most complete comments ever on my blog. I’ll have to look back at my unit to fully digest your recommendations. Thanks for dropping in.

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