The Keys to Inquiry
Section I: Inquiry-Learning and Learning from One's Own Experience
Everyday Classroom Tools


Inquiry-Learning


"Inquiry learning" and "learning from one's experience" are at the core of the Everyday Classroom Tools Project. What does this mean, in theory and in practice? While these are terms that are used often in the current science literature, its important to unpack what they mean to consider how they are intended in the Everyday Classroom Tools Project and how this relates to the array of meanings people in the field of science education attach to them.

  • Before reading on, take a few minutes to ponder the phrase "inquiry learning." What images does it conjure up?

  • If you envisioned images of children actively posing questions, seeking answers to questions that they care about, demonstrating a strong interest in outcomes, and discussing their theories and ideas with others, you've shared in a glimpse of what makes educators so excited about the possibilities of inquiry-based learning. At its best, inquiry-based learning makes excellent educational sense.

    If on the other hand, you envisioned a chaotic classroom where children were doing things, but weren't clear about what they were doing, or what could be understood from it, or what could really be known from what they found out, you've shared a glimpse of what gives some educators pause about taking the plunge into inquiry-based learning. At its worst, inquiry-based learning can result in miseducation. Either vision is possible. So what can you, as teachers, do to enable the first vision?

    Throughout these essays, the issues that teachers need to keep in mind to help children learn well through inquiry and to develop deep understanding are presented. The "Points for Practice" are intended to help you create the first vision and avoid the second.

    Knowledge as Constructed

    Learning from one's experience and through one's questions is based on a philosophy called "constructivism," put forth by Piaget and others. According to constructivism, we don't just absorb understanding, instead we build it. Learners need opportunities to figure out for themselves how new learning fits with old so that they can attach it to what they already know, making it part of their existing knowledge structures or "assimilating it." When they figure out that new learning doesn't with old learning, they need to restructure their current understandings to fit with the new knowledge or to "accommodate it." These processes, assimilating and accommodating, are part of learners' theory building as they make sense of the world.

    What does this mean for the classroom? In part, it means that children cannot just sit like sponges and absorb information. They must do something with it. They need to be engaged in activities that help them build understanding. Beyond this, it means that often the child is the best judge of what questions he or she needs to explore to make sense of the information before him or her. For instance, if a class is engaged in an activity on weights and measurement and a child is trying to figure out if you could use pebbles as weights to measure with, introducing a particular standard for measuring weight eclipses that child's opportunity to construct an understanding of whether we need standards of measure and what purpose they serve.

    Research shows that unless children actively seek connections in their learning, they are not likely to remember what they've supposedly learned. Not only this, they often cannot apply concepts. The learning is inert or has a ritualized nature. It is also unlikely that children will discover areas of misunderstanding if they don't actively grapple with the ideas. Educational Researcher, David Perkins writes about the problems of each of these types of "fragile knowledge." Fragile knowledge hurts learners and does not empower them to understand or deal with their world.

    While most teachers find the central concepts of constructivism appealing, the concepts also tend to raise a lot of questions. The translation from theory to practice contains many possible stumbling blocks. The largest stumbling block has to do with helping students to build understandings that will serve them well in today's world. Constructivism and inquiry-based learning can lead to many dead-ends in that children find out what doesn't work instead of what does; or they find out that they asked the wrong question; or that what they did won't help them to answer the question that they want to answer. These are valuable understandings. They help students learn a lot about the process of science and what one must think about when trying to answer certain kinds of questions. However, they don't necessarily help children construct present-day understandings of how the world works.

    After all, while individual scientists might spend an entire life time developing an understanding of an isolated phenomenon, we have an accumulated wealth of scientific information that no learner could entirely reconstruct in the course of one lifetime. It has been argued that this is children's rightful inheritance.

    The "Discovery-Learning" Movement and "Mediated Constructivism"

    These issues are similar to questions raised in response to the Discovery-Learning movement of the 1960's. Students were encouraged to engage in hands-on tasks to discover science principles. Too often, students didn't have a clue as to what they were doing and why. Activities were hands-on but they weren't necessarily minds-on. Too often, the questions weren't posed by students and they may not have understood why the questions being asked were relevant. Students were learning important messages about discovery and the process of science, but without adequate scaffolding of student understandings, it was difficult to know exactly what science principles students were discovering.

    How to strike a balance between children's constructing of understanding and their "rightful inheritance" to an accumulated wealth of scientific understanding presented a puzzle that can be addressed through the work of Russian philosopher and psychologist, Lev Vygotsky. According to Vygotsky, children learned within a "zone of proximal development" which is defined by the difference between the level of understanding that children can achieve on their own and that which they can achieve with adult guidance. The role of the adult is to scaffold children's building of understanding by asking guiding questions and providing opportunities for certain experiences.

    From the joint work of Vygotsky and Piaget, arises a concept that can be called mediated constructivism. Children construct understanding by learning through their experiences and their own questions but the process is mediated by adults who hold scientific understandings of how the world works. It allows for building understanding as part of a society or community of learners. Children engage in Socratic discussion of ideas, guided by the teacher, to help them build new understandings.

    Mediated constructivism involves a thoughtful choreography between student and teacher. The teacher must constantly study the student's evolving understanding, assess what path it is on, and help the child to have and to take advantage of opportunities that enable the child to construct new and more sophisticated understandings. The teacher must guide while taking care not to be directive such that it undermines the child's incentive to explore the question. It doesn't mean that teacher can't arrange certain experiences for children. It does mean that the teacher needs to pay attention to how students are making sense of the experiences and whether the experience helps them to answer a question that they care about.


    Classroom Example

    What might mediated constructivism look like in practice? Here are some snippets from a second grade classroom discussion around a question that arose about where the stars go during the day.

  • Teacher: So, let's think about Michael's question, "Where do the stars go during the day?" Michael, what made you think to ask that?
  • Michael: Well, you can't see any stars during the day time but then at night lots of them come out.
  • Teacher: Okay, so when you look at the sky during the day, you can't see any stars but then you do see them at night. Why might that be so?
  • Michael: They go away when the sun comes out and come back at night.
  • Teacher: What do some of the rest of you think happens? Let's collect all of our different ideas about what happens.
  • Emma: Maybe they're on the "night side" of the sky, so when we spin around we don't see them anymore.
  • Teacher: Okay, what do others think?
  • Dion: Maybe, they turn off during the day but they're still there.
  • Ashley: I think that the clouds and sun and stuff cover them up.
  • Teacher: Can you say more about what you mean by "cover them up" Ashley?
  • Ashley: ...just make it so you can't see 'em, I don't know.
  • Teacher: Perhaps you can think about what makes it so you can't see them.
  • Jared: I think that it's not really covering them up but you can't see em because the background isn't dark enough, like when we caught the snowflakes, you wouldn't see it on white paper so we looked at them on black paper.
  • Teacher: Okay. ...Seth?
  • Seth: I agree with Jared.
  • Teacher: What makes you agree with him?
  • Seth: Well, it's like camouflage because there's no black to see the stars, they blend in.
  • Teacher: Does anyone else agree? And if so, why?
  • Donna: It's like you just can't see them. Maybe you need sunglasses. (laughter)
  • Annie: But I saw the moon once in the day time and how come it didn't get camouflaged?
  • Teacher: hmm... now that's a puzzle. These are interesting ideas. What could we do to try to figure out which ones help us answer Michael's question?
  • Annie: We could look for stars in the day time.
  • Jared: We could look at a map of the stars to see if they're only on the night side like Emma said.
  • Seth: We could shine a bright light at night to see if it makes the stars go away.
    (Laughter follows)
  • Tommy: We can't make the stars go away!
  • Teacher: Ah, maybe not, but let's talk about Seth's idea. Seth is thinking about possible ways of finding out. He is doing what good scientists do. Is there a way that we could use a bright light to see how it affects our ability to see the stars?
    There is no response and some students shrug their shoulders.
  • Teacher: Okay, well, we'll come back to that question. In the meanwhile, perhaps we could collect some other information. Over the weekend, look to see if you can see any stars or the moon in the day time.

    The teacher sends home a memo to parents suggesting that next time they with their children near a big city at night or in a football stadium with lights on, or simply in their backyard with a spotbeam on, they see how many stars are visible and then do it again when they are away from bright lights. She also brings in a string of Christmas lights along with a spot light and some black paper so that the class can contrast the visibility of the Christmas lights against the two backgrounds.


    Okay, let's revisit pieces of the conversation to look closely at how the teacher is mediating children's construction of understanding :

  • Teacher: So, let's think about Michael's question, "Where do the stars go during the day?" Michael, what made you think to ask that?

    [Here the teacher starts with a child's question. She may have chosen this question to focus on because she saw it as having the potential to help them understand more about what they experience in terms of day and night. It is always difficult to choose which questions to spend limited classroom time on. This question may have been one that a number of children raised or expressed an interest in.]

  • Michael: Well, you can't see any stars during the day time but then at night lots of them come out.
  • Teacher: Okay, so when you look at the sky during the day, you can't see any stars but then you do see them at night. Why might that be so?

    [Notice that the teacher asked the child to connect the question back to his experience, to what it was that he observed that made him ask the question in the first place. She then asked him to tell about his own theory of what is happening. Children's implicit theories impact how they construct new theories. She knows that there will need to be new and convincing evidence to help Michael adopt a new stance.]

  • Michael: They go away when the sun comes out and come back at night.
    Teacher: What do some of the rest of you think happens? Let's collect all of our different ideas about what happens.
  • Emma: Maybe they're on the "night side" of the sky, so when we spin around we don't see them anymore.
  • Teacher: Okay, what do others think?
  • Dion: Maybe, they turn off during the day but they're still there.

    [Here the teacher asks for lots of different ideas about what might be happening to open up a realm of possible explanations. She doesn't stop with just a few ideas but continues to encourage children to consider what alternative explanations could be. If a child offered an idea that seemed unlikely or others thought was in some way "silly," she would have reminded them that scientists need to think openly about what they experience.]

  • Ashley: I think that the clouds and sun and stuff cover them up.
  • Teacher: Can you say more about what you mean by "cover them up" Ashley?
  • Ashley: ...just make it so you can't see 'em, I don't know.
  • Teacher: Perhaps you can think about what makes it so you can't see them.

    [Here the teacher asks Ashley to tell more about her idea. Often the children are just figuring out what they think and may not have clear access to their thoughts. The teacher provides an opportunity for this, but doesn't push Ashley for an answer at this point. The teacher leaves Ashley with a follow-up, guiding question to help her in thinking about it further.]

  • Jared: I think that it's not really covering them up but you can't see em because the background isn't dark enough, like when we caught the snowflakes, you wouldn't see it on white paper so we looked at them on black paper.
  • Teacher: Okay. ...Seth?
  • Seth: I agree with Jared.
  • Teacher: What makes you agree with him?
  • Seth: Well, it's like camouflage because there's no black to see the stars, they blend in.
  • Teacher: Does anyone else agree? And if so, why?
  • Donna: It's like you just can't see them. Maybe we need sunglasses. (laughter)

    [Some of the students are starting to support one idea that they think has potential. The teacher invites discussion of that idea]

  • Annie: But I saw the moon once in the day time and how come it didn't get camouflaged?
  • Teacher: hmm... now that's a puzzle. These are interesting ideas. What could we do to try to figure out which ones help us answer Michael's question?

    [Here the teacher direct students to a puzzle that Annie found. She also asks them to think about what experiences or evidence could help them answer the big question. This directs students back to experience, collecting data, and looking for patterns in the real world that address their questions.]

  • Annie: We could look for stars in the day time.
  • Jared: We could look at a map of the stars to see if they're only on the night side like Emma said.
  • Seth: We could shine a bright light at night to see if it makes the stars go away.
    (Laughter follows)
  • Tommy: We can't make the stars go away!
  • Teacher: Ah, maybe not, but let's talk about Seth's idea. Seth is thinking about possible ways of finding out. He is doing what good scientists do. Is there a way that we could use a bright light to see how it affects our ability to see the stars?
    [There is no response and some students shrug their shoulders.]
  • Teacher: Okay, well, we'll come back to that question. In the meanwhile, perhaps we could collect some other information. Over the weekend, look to see if you can see any stars or the moon in the day time.

    [The teacher encourages the students to look at what they can see, at what their own experience tells them. This validates the importance of their own observations and experiences in finding out the answers to scientific questions.]

    The teacher sends home a memo to parents suggesting that next time they with their children near a big city at night or in a football stadium with lights on, or simply in their backyard with a spotbeam on, they see how many stars are visible and then do it again when they are away from bright lights. She also brings in a string of Christmas lights along with a spot light and some black paper so that the class can contrast the visibility of the Christmas lights against the two backgrounds.

    [The teacher also recognizes that certain kinds of experiments may be beyond the children's ability to generate given their own limited science knowledge and understandings of scientific process. So she creates opportunities for them to gain new experiences relevant to the big question that they are grappling with.]


    Teacher Response

    Here are some of the kinds of questions that teachers tend to ask about mediated constructivism.

  • My students are young and have so little experience. How do I help them build understandings when there is so little to help them build it from? While even young children do know quite a lot about the world around them, this is a real challenge and one that teachers of the youngest children face most. In part it means thinking carefully about the kinds of experiences that you in partnership with parents can provide to help children gain and think about particular questions that children are grappling with. In choosing from children's questions to decide which ones to pursue as a class, teachers need to think about what kinds of experiences those questions assume knowledge of, start where the children are, and provide experiences to get them to where they need to be. At different ages, there are questions that teachers will decide not to pursue because it isn't possible to offer the kinds of experiences that will help the students to build a satisfactory understanding

  • How do I keep students on track when they are constructing understandings? They come up with some pretty unorthodox explanations for why things are the way they are. It certainly is true that the path to constructing scientific understandings is a rocky one. As discussed further in later essays, children have certain tendencies that influence the kinds of understandings that they create. For instance, they don't necessarily worry about constructing coherent and consistent explanations for the different instances of the same phenomenon. Through guiding questions and introducing areas of discrepancy, teachers can keep student understandings along a path towards greater explanatory power. Teachers should view their role of helping children evolve better understandings more than one of immediately helping children adopt the scientifically accepted understanding.





    The Epistemology of Science

    Inquiry-based learning aims to teach much more that science content or science process as we typically think of them. It provides the opportunity for learners to learn how knowledge is created in science, what scientists do to find out and what it means "to know" something in science. This is often referred to as the epistemology of science.

    What does it mean to learn the epistemology of science? Instead of learning "facts," students are learning such things as how information is generated, what tools and techniques scientists have at their disposal to help them generate the information, what beliefs scientists share about what constitutes knowledge, and what attitudes and habits of mind scientists bring to their work. This is a much more expansive view of what is involved in science learning. The Everyday Classroom Tools Project is about helping children learn how scientists think about and frame investigations into problems by helping the children to rediscover their own curiosity and to cultivate the budding scientists within each of them.

    Why is it so important to help children learn the epistemology of science? Research shows that students are sometimes baffled by what have been referred to as the "games of science." Scientists engage in certain ways of thinking and generating knowledge, for instance, isolating and controlling variables, that can be puzzling to students who have not had the opportunity to learn how these "games" work and how they are important in the larger context of knowledge generation. Not understanding these "games" often divides those who feel comfortable pursuing math and science and those who don't. Often those who don't feel comfortable with the games are women and minorities. This may contribute to lesser numbers of men and women in math and science.

    Beyond this, most students carry around certain misconceptions about the nature of disciplinary knowledge. For instance, they often view science as a collection of dusty, old facts--rather than a dynamic, evolving state of how we best understand the world. School practices that don't provide opportunities to learn how scientists come to know and find out can contribute to these misconceptions.

    In talking with children about epistemologies, it is often helpful to talk about it in three different ways: as roles; as tools and techniques; and as ways of knowing. The emphasis that the teacher places on each of these ways teachers depends in part upon how young the learners are and how much "science talk" they have been engaged in. In the early elementary years, one might talk about it primarily as a role, what is it that scientists do and why do they do it? One can also introduce talk about the tools of the discipline. What kinds of tools and techniques do scientists use to help them find out? For instance, scientists try to create "fair tests" by attempting to control for extraneous variables. Eventually, teachers will want to talk with students about the "rules" (and the rationale for them) that scientists employ for knowing and finding out. For instance, science involves the purposeful discarding of theory as discrepant evidence arises and theories with greater explanatory value evolve.


    Classroom Example

    What might such a discussion look like in the classroom? How might teachers of different age children talk differently about epistemology or processes for finding out and knowing in science? Here are some snippets from classroom discussion at different grade levels:

    Kindergarten:

  • Jared: My car is the faster one.
  • Josh: Can't beat mine!
  • Teacher: How can we find out which one is fastest? What would be a fair test?
  • Jared: We could have a race.
  • Teacher: Should we have both cars start at the same time?
  • Josh: yeah, cause otherwise it's not fair.
  • Teacher: What about at the same place? What if we started Josh's car up here and Jared's back there?
  • Josh: My car would win!
  • Jared: But it wouldn't be fair!!
  • Teacher: That's right, it would make Jared's look like it took longer to get to the finish cause it has further to go. When a scientist wants to compare something, like your two cars, he or she tries to make everything else the same so that the only difference is how fast the cars go.

    Second Grade:

  • Teacher: Travis wondered if our bean plants really need to have sun to grow cause he found some plants growing under leaves. So let's think about it together. Can you tell about the plants you found, Travis?
  • Travis: They were under a pile of old leaves where the sun couldn't get to and when we moved the leaves we found them.
  • Teacher: Can you describe them?
  • Travis: They were sort of yellow colored and skinny, I think that they were some flowers my mom planted.
  • Teacher: What do the rest of you think? Do our bean plants need sun to grow?
  • Kate: Everything needs sun or it would be really cold and dark and nothing could grow.
  • Timmy: Well, I saw a plant, an Indian Pipe, in the woods once that my dad said didn't need sunlight.
  • Teacher: How would a scientist test out whether or not bean plants need light? What would he or she do?
  • Chloe: Maybe put one in the dark and see if it grows...
  • Teacher: That's a good idea, Chloe. A scientist might try it to test the idea. Let me ask you some questions about that. If we put a seed in the dark and it did grow, what would that tell us?
  • Travis: That plants can grow in the dark.
  • Scott: Nooo...That doesn't mean that all plants can!
  • Travis: Well at least the bean plant could.
  • Teacher: What if we put it in the dark and didn't grow? What would that tell us?
  • Ariana: ...that it can't grow in the dark?
  • Tara: It could have just been a bad seed or maybe we forgot to water it enough.
  • Teacher: Okay, how can we solve the problem of maybe getting a bad seed?
  • Scott: You could plant a bunch of seeds.
  • Teacher: Okay a scientist would probably test lots of seeds. What about the watering problem?
  • Chloe: We should see how much water bean plants need and give them the right amount.
  • Teacher: Okay, let me ask another question. Suppose the plant in the dark grew some. Would you know if being in the dark made a difference in how it grew?
  • Emma: Not unless you check beans that aren't in the dark.
  • Teacher: Okay, so a scientist might compare beans that grew in the dark to beans that grew in the light. The scientist would try to keep everything else the same except the amount of light it had so that he or she would know that the light made a difference. What are some of the kinds of things the scientist would try to keep the same to make it a fair comparison?
  • Ariana: how much dirt
  • Scott: the kind of dirt, too, I have two, the size of the pot, too.
  • Chloe: how much water
  • Teacher: Shall we try our experiment?


    Fifth Grade:

  • Teacher: Okay, so what patterns do we notice in our shadow stick data?
  • Eddie: The shadows are getting longer each day.
  • Teacher: Ah... Can we make any predictions about what our future data will look like based on the patterns that we see.
  • Gina: It will probably just keep getting longer and longer until... I'm not sure what.
  • Steven: Well, till the length of the sunlight changes.
  • Teacher: Okay, so you're thinking that the length of the shadows has to do with how long the sun is out?
    Okay so we have a theory about length of time the sun is out making a difference. What kind of evidence would support your theory?
  • Steven: If the shadows stopped getting longer when the length of sunlight is lessening.
  • Teacher: What kind of evidence would contradict your theory?
  • Steven: I guess if the shadows did keep getting longer when the sunlight time was lessening.
    A few days later....
  • Steven: It's not just the length of time, it's the position of the sun seems to make the shadows longer and shorter at certain times of the day.
  • Teacher: What made you want to revise your idea?
  • Steven: cause I thought about it and thought well, if the sun was out a really long time, but stayed in one place, like right overhead, it wouldn't make our shadow change size. Then when I looked at where the sun was when we went outside, I saw that the position was different and it reminded me to include position in the theory.
  • Teacher: Okay, so we'd like to revise our theory to include information about the position of the sun affecting the length of the shadow. Scientists often make informed guesses based on the patterns that they see but then they make sure to keep their minds open to new information and evidence that might invalidate a theory or make them want to modify it in certain ways.



    Each discipline can be viewed as a lens on the world. Certain kinds of questions, tools, and ways of thinking about knowledge are common to each lens.

    What are some of the kinds of questions that scientists might explore?

    How can I find out about what I can't see, what happened before, what could happen?
    How can I find out how it works?
    How can I find out what causes what?
    How can I prove it?
    What evidence can I find for what I think is so?
    What patterns can I find? How can I show the patterns I found to others?
    How can the tools of math help me to find out?
    How can I measure it?
    How can I use data to prove it?

    What are some of the tools and techniques that scientists use to find out?
    experimental method
    controlling and isolating variables
    observation
    collecting data or information
    measurement
    graphing
    mathematical relationships such as means, modes, ranges, etc.
    What are some assumptions that scientists make about what knowing looks like?
    An objective, "knowable" reality is assumed..
    There are regular, orderly phenomenon in our world.
    To some extent, we can control situations to know what causes what.
    Patterns in the world can be understood and manipulated by quantifying them.
    Past information or what happened before can help us predict what will happen next time.
    Certain rules enable us to carry out tests that approach objectivity. There is a purposeful attempt to minimize subjectivity.
    Abstractions can help us explore the concrete world.
    Concrete examples and models can help us understand abstractions better.

    ©1997, Tina A. Grotzer. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with permission.






    The New Frameworks and Content Standards

    Increasingly, the new standards and frameworks set forth by educators, scientists, and policy-makers reflect the need for a greater constructivist approach to teaching science. They recognize the need to emphasize process, and to understand the nature of scientific inquiry.


    Read over these standards and consider how each encourages a constructivist view of knowledge and an understanding of the epistemology of science.

    The new standards call for deep understanding of the ways of scientists--how they come to know and find out, how they think about problems, what they consider to be valid information, and so on. These are the kinds of skills that the Everyday Classroom Tools Project aims to cultivate. The standards also call for helping students learn the habits of mind, the attitudes and dispositions of scientists. By working with scientists in the Everyday Classroom Tools Project, students have an opportunity to come to understand the kinds of attitudes and habits of mind that characterize their work.

    What is known about teaching modes of thinking such as these? Researchers David Perkins, Shari Tishman and colleagues stress that helping students develop effective habits of mind entails helping them develop: 1) sensitivity to occasions for certain types of thinking; 2) skills that will enable them to think well; 3) and the inclination to sense opportunities and apply those skills.

    How does all this translate into what students need in the science classroom? It suggests that:

    1. Students need opportunities to engage in scientific thinking.

    A wealth of opportunities creates the context for learning. These opportunities should not be "handed" to kids. Rather, students should be encouraged to be sensitive to opportunities for good scientific thinking. They should look for "thinkpoints" or places in the curriculum and in the course of their lives where thinking like a scientist can help them live better, more interesting, more informed, and more thoughtful lives.

    2. Students need models of what good scientific thinking looks like and a vocabulary to talk about it.
    Good thinking can be harder than other things to learn because so much of it goes on in people's heads and isn't easily available for examination. Students are helped by teachers who talk their thinking and the rationale for it out loud. "For instance, now I'm going to consider the evidence for this claim. I am going to think about the source of the evidence and whether or not the source is a reliable one. Here are the criteria that I am going to use...."

    3. In addition to models of good scientific thinking, students benefit from explicit reflection upon, and self-assessment of, scientific thinking.
    A language to talk about scientific thinking and reasoning enables us to unpack what is going on in our minds and share it with others. For instance, a teacher might say, "I'm comparing the two theories in my head to see which better explains what happened but I'm finding it hard to hold all the ideas in my head at once. I think I will download the ideas onto paper so I can think about them without having to remember them all at once." This gives the students a glimpse into what her thinking is like and what she can do to support it.

    It is important to be explicit about why certain types of thinking are better than others. Too often, we assume that students notice and understand the rationale for our choices when indeed they may not. If students are to learn good patterns of thinking, we need to help them see what they are, why they work, and instances in which they apply.

    4. Students need to be alerted to pitfalls of good thinking and what to do about them.
    People often fall into certain pitfalls in reasoning and thinking. Without focused instruction to learn new ways of reasoning, people persist in these patterns. For instance, in science, it is common to confuse correlation and causality. Students will persist in these tendencies unless they have models to help them think about causality and correlation differently.

    5. Students need to see the value of the forms of thinking in science to be inclined to use them.
    It isn't enough to notice opportunities for good thinking or even to know how to do it. Students also need to see a value in good thinking such that they are inclined to make the extra effort to do it. Therefore, teachers need to make certain that children see the pay-offs of their thinking: increased understanding; solving a puzzle; answering a question, feeling in control of the learning process, and so on.

    Some Habits of Mind Called for by the American Association for the Advancement of Science
    IntegrityOpenness to New Ideas
    DiligenceSkepticism
    FairnessImagination
    Curiosity
    (Rutherford, F. J. & Ahlgren, A. (1990). Science for All Americans. New York: Oxford University Press.)


    Classroom Example

    What does it look like to teach the kinds of concepts in the standards in the classroom? It is like how a teacher talks about epistemology--the way a scientist thinks and finds out. Here are some snippets of conversations you might hear:

  • Teacher: If a scientist wanted to answer that question, what might she do?
  • Michael: She would test it to get some information.
  • Teacher: What kind of information would be good evidence in this case?
  • Cindy: Wow, I noticed that this leaf has really different patterns of color than this one even though they come from the same tree.
  • Teacher: That is very careful looking, Cindy. What does that make you wonder about?
  • Timmy: His shadow seems taller than mine, but we're exactly the same height!
  • Teacher: What are some ways that we could find out if his shadow is taller or not? Do we have any tools to help us?
  • Sara: I'm not really sure if this experiment answers our question. We're not sure if we measured the shadows right and that could mess up our results.
  • Teacher: It is important to think about the quality of the information and to consider whether it tells you what you think it does. Let's think together about what problems if any, your data set might have.
  • Chloe: Hey, doesn't it change the temperature of the solution when we put such a big thermometer in it? The thermometer has been sitting on the cold table, it must be colder than the solution.
  • Teacher: Ahh, there's some very careful thinking. What do others think about Chloe's critique of the procedure? Does it impact what we are trying to find out and if so, how?
  • Steve: I think it could affect the temperature of the solution. But I don't see how you could ever take anything's temperature without doing that.
  • Teacher: It sounds like you're identifying an important puzzle or problem in science. Let's take some time out to think about the nature of the problem in detail and to think broadly about potential solutions.
  • Devon: On the way to school, I noticed that there was a lot of muddy water in the river near the new construction site. I never realized how much we needed the concrete walls they're building next to the new mall to keep the river from looking so dirty. It's good that they're making the mall and those big walls.
  • Teacher: Let's think together about how the muddy water, construction, and walls are related. In order to figure out what is causing what, we'll need to ask ourselves some questions. For instance, what are some things that contribute to the river getting dirty? Was the river looking dirty before the construction? What are some other questions we might ask?






    Development Interacts with Children's Sense-Making

    One of the challenges to inquiry-based learning is knowing how to handle issues of development. Teachers are faced with a number of them. For instance, "We started off on a question that the students were interested in. It sounded simple enough and then all of a sudden, we were into territory that was way over their heads..." Or "The children start coming up with ideas that seem to make a lot of sense, I'm just not sure how to get them to see that scientists think about these things differently." And "I could use a model and a formula to help show the idea, but they don't yet understand the relationship of the model or formula to the real phenomenon or of the formula to the model." These certainly are important concerns and signal areas that need special thought and attention. Let's consider each area in turn.

    1. Children's questions sometimes lead to complexity that they're not yet equipped to handle.

    "We started off on a question that the students were interested in. It sounded simple enough and then all of a sudden, we were into territory that was way over their heads..."

    This is a common concern of teachers who use inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. The students' curiosity about a question leads to complexity that the teacher doesn't quite know how to communicate to young children. Questions that are bound to interest young children, such as "What makes the colors?" "Why do sounds seem louder at night?" "What does it mean to reflect?" can quickly lead to physics concepts that are over their heads. The problem isn't about getting students to understand some things about the phenomenon that they are studying--it's about getting them to understand it deeply enough such that they can explain it and can understand the "whys" behind it.

    What kinds of solutions have teachers come up with? Here's how some teachers handle the issue:

    €"I communicate to kids that there are lots of connections in the world and whenever we study a topic, sooner or later we'll come to a connection that we may not be able to understand yet, but that's okay, we know more than we did before"

    €"There are different levels of understanding. Some topics can't be understood at the deepest levels at certain ages. I try to let my students know that they need to come back to topics, you don't just learn them once. You can always come back and explore the topic deeper."

    €"I try to scope out the questions that we are going to spend a lot of time with in advance. I look for concepts that will serve as obstacles to understanding at this age. If there are a lot of them, it's not a question that we spend a lot of time on."


    2. Children have great ideas, but they're not always very scientific.

    "The children start coming up with ideas that seem to make a lot of sense, I'm just not sure how to get them to see that scientists think about these things differently."

    Research shows that at a very young age, children theorize about their world and why it is the way it is. They come up with intuitive theories to explain many things. These theories tend to be fairly resistant to change because they make sense to the child, they represent the understandings that children have figured out. Researchers have identified a number of characteristics of these theories. 1) Because they represent the individual child's experience, they can be personal and idiosyncratic. 2) Children don't necessarily hold coherence as a criterion for their theories so the theories may be customized for each event explained. 3) The theories tend to be stable and resistant to change. Children are often quite comfortable with the sense that they have made and have no reason to change a serviceable theory.
    This has both a positive and a negative side for inquiry-based learning. It says that children actively seek to make sense of their worlds and that their curiosities help to motivate learning. It also suggests that they have many "figuring out" tools to help them learn. On the other hand, understandings that children evolve do not always represent current day scientific understandings. This presents a challenge for teachers.

    Research shows that kids bring a "sense-making mission" to their worlds and that they have many "figuring out" kinds of tools to help them build their theories. Infants as young as six weeks of age demonstrate some understanding of causal contingencies and in the first six months babies show surprise at events where their causal expectations are violated. Children seek out patterns in the world and attempt to explain those patterns. Children also hold certain perceptual tendencies. These are largely helpful, though they can support or limit understanding depending upon how they are applied and the phenomenon in question.



    1. From an early age, children develop ideas related to how the world works and what different science words mean.
    2. These ideas are usually strongly held.
    3. These ideas may be significantly different from how scientists view the world.
    4. These ideas are sensible and coherent from a child's point of view.
    5. Traditional teaching often does little to influence or change these ideas.
    Table reprinted with permission from Math/Science Matters: Resource Booklets on Research in Math and Science Learning
    ©1996, Tina A. Grotzer, All Rights Reserved.


    At least three broad perceptual tendencies have been discussed in the science learning literature. 1) Children's thinking tends to be based upon what they can observe. They learn most readily from what they can gather through their senses. In many instances, this is a useful tendency. In cases where appearance and reality diverge, it can trip them up. 2) Children consider absolute properties or qualities before those that involve interactions. This often leads straightforwardly to accurate conclusions. However, it can also lead to misunderstandings of complexity. 3) Children tend assume a linear, unidirectional relationship between events and effects that they observe. Again, this often leads to straightforward, accurate answers but in some instances it leads to a misunderstanding of extended and complex effects.

    How Can Children be Taught Scientific Views of the World?
    1. Lessons need to start with the ideas that children hold. The current understandings must be revealed.
    2. These ideas need to be explored as possible solutions.
    3. Children need to be confronted with ideas that are discrepant with their ideas. It is important to provide evidence that is contrary to their expectations on something that they care about.
    4. Children need opportunities to compare the differences between the ideas.
    5. Children need opportunities to connect the new idea broadly to the world. Otherwise they may see it as an isolated case.
    Table reprinted with permission from Math/Science Matters: Resource Booklets on Research in Math and Science Learning
    ©1996, Tina A. Grotzer, All Rights Reserved.




    We need to help students see when their intuitive theories do not account for scientific phenomenon. They need to see when outcomes are discrepant with what their theories would predict. This creates dissonance which invites them to evolve new and more scientifically-accepted theories. They need opportunities to compare the differences between the ideas--to see how one has greater explanatory value than the other. Finally, children need to seek connections to connect the new theory broadly to world so they don't view it as an isolated case.

    What methods can teachers use to encourage students to reveal and revise current understandings in an inquiry-based approach?

  • Interviewing to see how students construe word meanings.
  • Interviewing using questions of interpretation that reveal hidden misconceptions and limits of understanding.
  • Developing activities that start with a deep question--one that is revealing of current conceptions (Sometimes it is the same activity as the one that creates a discrepancy between an expected outcome and an actual outcome.)
  • Asking the question another way.
  • Recording kids' talk around a science problem or everyday event.
  • Offering students' everyday instances./Asking them what would happen.
  • Giving "homework" with everyday instances and see what they reveal to parents and others.


  • 3. The means to an understanding represents developmental hurdles.

    "I could use a model and a formula to help show the idea, but they don't yet understand the relationship of the model or formula to the real phenomenon or of the formula to the model."

    Sometimes it's not the understanding itself that poses the first developmental challenge. There are some instances where the tools that teachers would use to help students achieve understanding contain developmental hurdles that make them more or less useful at particular ages.

    Children's understanding of models represents one such challenge. Around three years of age, children begin to show early understandings that a model is a representation of something else. For instance, research by Judy DeLoache shows that they could use a model room to guide their actions in finding the location of an object in a real room. These early understandings suggest promise that fairly young children can unerstand some things about models, yet understanding a model as a representation requires an extra leap in that the model is a thing unto itself. Even if the child perceives it as similar to the original room, the child must also reflect upon and realize that it is being used as a representation of the room. According to researcher Usha Goswami, understandings such as this are a form of analogical reasoning in that children need to recognize the relational similarity and reflect upon the similarity in structure. Using a model to show something about a scientific phenomenon involves 1) understanding the model to be a representational object, not the object itself; 2) understanding the process as it applies to the model; 3) considering how relationship between the model and the process is analogous to the phenomenon in question; 4) holding both in one's head at once; 5) mapping the analogous relationships to enable understanding of the phenomenon in question. That's a lot to think about!

    Research shows that into middle school and high school, students still tend to view models as physical copies of reality rather than conceptual representations. Students benefit from scaffolding to help them understand models as metaphors and to map the deep structure of the models not to get caught up in superficial features of the model.

    Despite the developmental challenges of helping students grasp and use models well, research shows that conceptual models are very important to helping students develop math and science concepts. This is in particular contrast to the focus in many schools on teaching students quantitative explanations or formal laws for understanding science phenomenon.

    It is important for teachers to seek a balance between determining that a certain avenue to understanding is over children's heads with offering them early experiences that will lead to understanding of the concept. Teachers can bolster early understandings by coming at them in a number of different ways so that the children are not dependent upon models as a sole means towards understanding.


    Classroom Example

    Rethinking Why We Wear Coats: How Insulation Works
    A Third Grade Science Lesson

    The following picture of practice describes a lesson in which students are exploring the purpose of insulation and concepts of heat and temperature. It deals with a common misconception that young students tend to hold that their coats are a source of heat energy.

  • Teacher: Today, we're going to work on a special question that has do with coats and how they work. I'm going to ask the question in just a moment, but first I'm going to ask that you don't shout your ideas out loud. That's because I want everybody here to think about their own answer and to get a chance to test it out. We're gonna spend two science periods on this so there'll be lots of time to talk about it later.

    Here's the question: If you wanted an ice cube to last for a long time in our classroom, would you make a thick or a thin coat for it? Just think about it, don't say any ideas out loud. We're each going to design a coat for an ice cube. You can make it thick or thin, and everyone is going to have a coat for their ice cube. First, we'll draw a diagram of what we think the coat should look like, what we need, and why we think it will work. Then we'll make the coats. And in our next class, we'll test them out. Are there questions?

  • Dillon: Can we work together?
  • Teacher: In this case, I want everyone to think about what their own ideas are, so once you have your idea on the paper, if someone else's is similar to yours, you can make the ice cube coat together.
  • Stefan: Is it really like a little coat with buttons?
  • Teacher: No, it's more like a package. (She shows some examples, a plastic container with styrofoam, a balloon, a plastic envelope)
  • Crystal: Can we use whatever we want to make it?
  • Teacher: Well, I have lots of different materials here, plastic, balloons, styrofoam, etc. But what do you think, should we use any kind of material?
  • Crystal: Well, we shouldn't use stuff that's way too big or too hard to get.
  • Hanna: If we all use different stuff, how will we know if it was the stuff or how thick the coat was that made it melt faster? (A discussion ensues about how to make a good comparison. Two volunteers offer to make two coats that are exactly the same except one is thick and the other is thin. The students decide that this will help with a good comparison and that the rest of them can make what they want.)

    The students set off to design their coats. Some of them decide that a thick coat will "warm up the ice cube and make it melt faster." Others decide that a thin coat will result in the ice cube melting faster because it is a warm day in June and there will be less around the ice cube.

    (At the end of the session, the students come back together to discuss what will happen in the next class. How will they do the test? What will make it fair? It is decided that everyone's ice cube should have the same amount of water and be the same shape.)

    In the next session, the class discusses their ideas. Each student shows their container and explains why it will work. There are clear differences of opinion. The teacher stresses that no matter what happens with the ice cube, everyone is helping the class to gather important information they are thinking like scientists.

  • Sara: I made mine thick because it is hot in the room and I wanted to keep the warm air away from my ice cube.
  • Dillon: Well, I think a thick one will make it melt really fast because it will make it hot.
  • Teacher: It's great to see you all thinking carefully about your ideas and reasoning them out. All of us are thinking like scientists and the many different ideas in the classroom will help us to learn a lot about how coats work.

    The teacher gives everyone their ice cube as quickly as possible, removing it from the cooler with tongs and putting it directly into the children's containers. She explains how she carefully measured the water in each cube. In addition, to putting cubes into the two containers that are identical except for thickness, she puts one cube out on a plate without a coat. Some kids think it is the "luckiest" ice cube and will last the longest, others feel "sorry" for it! The class discusses why it is important to check their ice cubes only at certain intervals, realizing that it would throw off their results to check it every few minutes. While waiting, they brainstorm as many different things that they can think of that would be considered coats.

  • Susan: a coat of paint
  • Teacher: Ah, how is it like a coat?
  • Susan: It covers the wall and keeps it from getting dirty.
  • Dillon: A jacket
  • Teacher: Okay, tell about a jacket.
  • Dillon: It keeps the cold away.

    [Notice that the teacher does not correct their use of the terms "cold" and "hot" as entities yet. In some instances, the teacher even uses the exact same words back when quoting a child ( i.e. Can you tell me how "it keeps the cold away"?) Their language reflects their mental models and ultimately when they shift to a thermal equilibrium model, she assumes that their language will shift as well or that the shift can be facilitated at that time.]

  • Sara: a roof is like a coat
  • Teacher: Tell how.
  • Sara: It keeps the snow and rain out.
  • Stefan: Your skin is a coat.
  • Teacher: Ah, what are some things that your skin does?
  • Stefan: Well, it keeps germs out of your body for one thing.
  • Travis: It also holds your insides in!

    Eventually, the whole board is filled with things that are coat-like. The children begin to see that these things keep what's out, out and what's in, in leading to new ideas about what constitutes a coat.

    They stop to check their ice cubes. Low and behold, those in thin coats are melting faster! Some of the students are very surprised. And that poor ice cube without a coat, it's melting very fast. The class closes up the coats with the ice cubes inside and continues their discussion.

  • Teacher: (She draws a diagram of an ice cube on a plate, an ice cube in a thin coat and an ice cube in a thick coat) What is the air temperature in our room? After checking:
  • Travis: 90 degrees
  • Teacher: At least what temperature is your ice cube? Class: 32 degrees
  • Teacher: Can anyone explain how the things we figured out about other kinds of coats might affect the ice cubes?
  • Karem: The thick coat helps to keep the hot out and the cold inside.
  • Sara: The ice cube in the thin coat has no protection!

    [Notice that the students do not yet have a notion of heat as thermal energy and that they speak of hot and cold as entities. This suggests the importance of helping students see where the concept of a coat as "keeping what's in in and what's out out" breaks down. See more on this below.]

    Then they go on to consider other cases. What about the student who put his ice cube in a coat with water around it?

  • Anat: The water is warmer than the ice cube so it makes it melt faster.
  • Teacher: What happens when you put an ice cube into a warm drink on a summer day?
  • Anat: It melts fast!

    The discussion continues as they consider the different examples of coats that they have tested. "What about the students who used balloons for coats?" and so on...

    Later the class checks their ice cubes again. By now, those wearing thin coats made of balloons are merely balloons filled with water. Those in the thickest coats have barely melted. Many students are still surprised at the differences between the thick and thin coats. Again the teacher stresses how important all of the different information is and that it helps us to find out the way that scientists do. She tells the class that getting the "right" answer is not as important here as thinking like a scientist.

    Then the teacher engages them in some connection-making:

  • Teacher: If you put your hand in a hot oven, would you want a thick or thin "coat" around it? (She draws the picture of the oven showing how it is at 400 degrees and asks the kids to compare this to their approximate range of their external body temperature on different days.) Devon: You'd want a thick one to help keep the coolness of your hand in and the hotter air in the oven out.
  • Travis: But it is different with a coat you wear, it makes you get warm.
  • Teacher: Let's think about how that happens. Pretend I left my coat outside over night in the winter so it's really cold in the morning. What happens when I put it on?
  • Travis: It would feel cold. But after a while, it would warm up.
  • Teacher: Where does the warmth come from? Anyone? (no response)
  • Teacher: Okay, what if I put my cold coat on a snowman instead of me, what would happen?
  • Dillon: It would stay cold.... Stacy: not if it was a black coat and was in the sun, then the sun would warm it up.
  • Teacher: Okay, but if the sun wasn't out and the coat was white? Stacy: It would stay cold.
  • Teacher: So why does it "warm up" when it's on me, but not on the snowman?
  • Sara: Your body heat!

    The discussion goes on to consider body heat and energy.

    Realizing that the students need to see that ultimately thermal equilibrium is reached and that insulation cannot permanently keep "what's in in and what's out out" the teacher has the students check their ice cubes throughout the day. Eventually the ones in the thickest coats also melt and the class reconsiders their theory about how coats work.

  • Dillon: Well coats can't really keep what's in, in and what's out out, after a while the warmth gets in.
  • Sara: It's like the coat slows it down but it still happens.
  • Teacher: What still happens?
  • Sara: The ice cube melts. The outside and inside get to be the same temperature.
  • Travis: The hot takes over the cold.

    [Notice that some of the students think of hot and cold as entities and other students are beginning to speak in terms of reaching thermal equilibrium. The class will revisit concepts of thermal energy throughout the year and it won't be until the students have learned about the nature of energy and the particulate nature of matter that they will come to a yet deeper understanding of what insulation does. With older students, a natural extension would be to talk about heat transfer processes: convection, conduction, and radiation, and how the ice cube is impacted by each in each case, no coat, thin coat, and thick coat.]

    In the next few days, the teacher gives the students as individuals another opportunity to think about the question. She has them design a better ice cream cone, one that will insulate well between the temperature differential between the hand and the ice cream. The reason for doing so is that she knows that some children may have changed their ideas based upon the ice cube experience and some children may see it as one isolated instance.

    Note: This example borrows from concepts in a curriculum unit developed by ESS on heat and temperature. The particular modifications and examples draw from the work of Tina Grotzer and students in the public schools in Burlington and Arlington, Massachusetts.

    1997, Tina A. Grotzer, Reprinted here with permission.



    Engendering Lifelong Learners

    Taken together, constructivism, inquiry-based learning, and learning the epistemologies of the sciences can lead to an entirely different attitude towards learning. No longer is science a subject that is tucked away between 1:00 and 2:00 from Monday through Friday. Instead, science is a way of living your life, a way of seeking understanding, a lens that we use to know and find out.

    When learning is connected to children's questions, as in the Everyday Classroom Tools Project, it sends a clear message about who the learning is for. Children come to expect that the result of their inquiry should be increased understanding of the thing they were puzzling over and at least as often as not, a new set of questions to try to answer.

    By building upon children's tendency to wonder, we help them to develop a tendency to seek out puzzles and to investigate. According to teacher and writer, Hilary Hopkins, who interviewed many different scientists, what stood out for as distinctive about their childhoods was a burning desire to know "Why?" Nourishing this desire in all children will help to encourage lifelong learners who approach their lives with the eye and heart of a scientist even if they spend their days in some other profession!


    Classroom Example

    What does it sound like to communicate messages about lifelong learning to students? Here are some examples:

    Teacher: I've always wondered about what it would be like to visit Antarctica. Last night, I watched a program on it and now I have some new questions. I'd like to learn how penguins are able to stay under the water for as long as they do.

    Student: But we already learned about volcanoes in second grade!
    Teacher: One of the wonderful things about learning is that the more you know, the more there is to know. Last year, you learned some things about what a volcano is and how it erupts. This year, we'll learn some things about where there tend to be active volcanoes and how this connects to the rocky plates on the earth. You'll have fun discovering the relationships.

    Student: What are you going to do for the vacation, Mr. Thompson?
    Teacher: Well, I've always wanted to learn about the patterns on those old cemetery stones in Concord. I'm thinking that I'll go and read them and see what different kinds I can find and if there are any books to help me understand them.






    Author: Tina Grotzer
    Project Zero
    Harvard Graduate School of Education