Book study! Starting with Science: Chapter 1, Understanding Inquiry-Based Science

Book Study Teach Run Eat I am so excited to start this book study! The concept of teaching inquiry-based science is a really tough one, and thinking about teaching it with K-2 students is even more challenging! So this book seems like it'll be the perfect place to start. For the next 7 weeks, I'll be posting a summary and relevant resources from each chapter of the book Starting with Science: Strategies for Introducing Young Children to Inquiry by Marcia Talhelm Edson. I'll also add a few of my thoughts in there as well!

Chapter 1: Understanding Inquiry-Based Science

My biggest take away from this chapter is that inquiry-based science is less of a thing to do as you teach, and more of a way of thinking as you teach. Teachers who use inquiry-based learning practices believe that "children learn by exploring, by raising questions, and by actively constructing knowledge" (Edson, 2013, p. 5). Before I launch a science unit, I want to make sure I answer those questions:

  • Will this allow my students time to explore, or will I give them specific directions that they can't stray from?
  • Will it help them raise questions, or will they just look to me for answers?
  • Will they be actively constructing their own knowledge, or will I require them all to follow the same steps to get to the answer?

The book gave a great example of a lesson in which a teacher read a book about shadows, then turned off the lights (exciting!) and made shadows with shapes on the overhead projector. The kids were excited, and seemed engaged, but they weren't actually doing science. Science was being done to them. Alternatively, the teacher could have handed out multiple flashlights and let the children explore making shadows on their own. While they may not have been able to explicitly state the objectives at the end ("Light blocked by an object will make a shadow"), most kids would have come to the same conclusion with their own five senses. This is fundamental for inquiry-based science.

The other major point of the chapter was to emphasize the importance of choosing appropriate topics in inquiry-based science. The topics should be relevant to the students' lives, and for young children, this means very directly relevant - since they are still such concrete learners. For example, teaching about habitats by studying the rainforest (which, for most of us, is miles away) is much less relevant to students' lives than learning about the garden in their schoolyard. Using situations that arise in the classroom - such as the death of a classroom pet, or a parent visit - to launch learning units is inquiry-based science.

The book provided a great list of questions that you can use when choosing a topic for your science units. The questions included "Why is this topic especially worthwhile for this group of children?" and "Can the children actively explore this topic through their senses, close observations, and scientific investigations?"

I think that this will be hard for many teachers to do, though, particularly for those of us who are expected to teach a prescribed curriculum, such as FOSS Science. My units are set ahead of time, and I am supposed to follow the scripted lesson plans provided by the company. The conclusion here is clear - scripted science curriculum is NOT inquiry-based science.

Fortunately, a lot of districts are beginning to incorporate the Next Generation Science Standards (including mine)! These standards are more like the Common Core, in that they provide rigorous, deep learning standards but do not require a scripted curriculum. (In fact, there are no boxed curricula for them on the market right now!) Hopefully, many districts will realize that writing or purchasing scripted curriculum, in which every class does the same thing at each grade level, is not good science teaching. Instead, teachers should be trained to use inquiry as the backbone of their curriculum.

I'll leave my summary there for now. But since I brought up the Next Gen Science Standards (NGSS), which I am pretty excited about these days, here are some great resources for incorporating them into your classroom, if you have the freedom to do so!