11. Guided Inquiry in the Science Classroom

        This curriculum began 25 years ago by James Minstrell, a physics teacher.  At the beginning of his career, he asked students about weightlessness and just continued to ask questions without evaluating.  If you really want to know what students are thinking, you need to listen respectfully and without evaluation.  Learning is an active process.  We need to acknowledge their attempts to make sense of things and confront inconsistencies in their thinking.  Teachers can model the sorts of questions students might ask themselves when conducting personal inquiry.  It is important for students to develop qualitative understandings of phenomena even before quantitative understandings are developed.  


Part A: What Gravity Is Not

        Authors Note: Teachers need to respect students abilities for learning complex ideas.  Teachers earn the respect back when they act as instructional guides.  The teacher and students need practice with guided inquiry to take part in this unit.  It should probably start about one month into the school year after several norms have been set up.  
        One way to find out students' misconceptions is to have them write their responses to several relevant questions.  The "vaccuum inside a bell jar" is an excellent example for this unit.  When asked, more than half the students have very undeveloped or serious misconceptions.  One mistake teachers often make when asking preconception questions is just asking a simple specific question and never returning to it, leaving the students just doing the assignment.  Rather, the question should be asked in a broader context, be returned to through several iterations, and have discussion.  
        At first, students are asked not to comment or offer counter suggestions, but instead to listen to the speakers' argument.  They should be asked clarifying questions to allow them to complete their explanations.  Teacher encourages students to look at contradictory explanations, then asks, how do we come up with an answer?  Should we just take a vote?  He then shows the result of the experiment.  After seeing it (and being excited), the teachers starts a discussion, asking student what and why did it happen.  In the end, the teacher asks, so what did we learn?  There is some discussion on the difference between results and conclusions.  
        After the discussion, students complete a worksheet asking them to review their initial ideas.  This helps them monitor their own learning.  Because the teacher noticed slipped back to beleiving that air pressed only down or up, more time for investigation was built into the curriculum.  Students participated in elaboration activities where they had to try the same concepts in different settings (group were assigned to each different experiment).   Some new concepts or problems come up, such as the stickiness hypothesis.  The teacher continually asks for the students to clarify.  The students use their reasoning to justify their points of view.  At first, these elaboration activities were planned like a circus (10 minutes each station).  But because students enjoy it so much, not two days are given, where on one day they major on one, and on the next they just examine the others.  On the third day, presentations are finished about each station.  
        After the presentations, where students use informal terms to explain their ideas, formal terms such as "cohesion" and "adhesion" are applied.  
        Next, a more complicated question is posed.  While most textbooks stop with these explanations, they are further pushed to put together the simpler ideas into more complex ones.  Only after this, does the initial question returns in an analogues situation, and students are asked to now give their explanation.  Following this, an effort to bring the students to a consensus on the initial question is attempted (successfully).  Students are given opportunities to reflect on and summarize what they learned.  
        A computerized assessment is used to diagnose students understanding in the middle of the whole process.  These questions reflect on what happened, checks their reasoning, and extends their understanding to new contexts.  This was aimed to help the teacher monitor the students' understanding and to see if they have attained the learning goals.    
Part B: What Is Gravitational Attraction?

        In Part A, students separated the effects of the surrounding medium from the effects of gravity on static objects.  Next, they move on to look at "action at a distance," a key idea in understanding gravity (this related to magnetic/electrostatic and gravitational effects).  Students should see that science evolves and how there are many questions still unanswered. 
        Instead of giving students answers, students should be given opportunities to test their answers.  So in the next part, students are again probed for the initial ideas to an observed phenomenon (a piece of wood, hanging parallel to the ground that can spin).  In one part, a styrofoam cup that is not electrocuted does not move the wood.  However, the teacher then asks what will happen after rubbing the cup to his head?  Next, after seeing the result, the teacher discharges the cup by huddling it and blowing warm air.  Again, students are asked to predict, give reasons, then observe.  
        At the end of the demonstration, students are given the opportunity to summarize the big ideas and build consensus.  
        Some key points of the teacher are that students' thinking can be developed just by asking questions, reflectin gstudents' comments back to them, and avoiding expressing judgements on right or wrong.  A goal of inquiry-based instruction is to get students to be the ones asking questions.  Lecturing isn't necessarily bad, as even young students can understand if they have had sufficient first-hand experience.  Students should frequently answer questions such as "How do you know?" or "What do you beleive?"  

        The sequence of activities described could have been in a different order.  Teaching and learning are complex activities that spawn multiple problems with multiple solutions.  Employing the 4 principles are critical.  Learning need to devleop from first-hand, concerete experiences to more distant or abstract.  Ideas develop from experiences.  When terms come first, students just memorize.  Students tneed to see where ideas come from .  Teachers can model the sorts of questions that the studetns will later ask themselves.  The teacher does not need to tell the students the answers; instead, teachers canguide their students with thinking questions.  This can help students monitor their own learning.