Three Questions to Ask about Your Science Enquiry Activity

I am an enquiry sceptic. Evidence shows that when inquiry-learning techniques are used in science, the outcomes are generally worse (see Kirschner , Sweller, Clark 2006 (here)). Pupils learn more and remember more when teachers plan a deliberate sequence of learning tasks and guide them through it. 

But the evidence also suggests that adding some inquiry-based learning into the mix is optimum (Mckinsey 2017 (here) and Teig 2019 (here)). There is also criticism that directed enquiry is not minimally guided, which Sweller, Clarke and Kirschner criticize (see Furtak, Seidel, Iverson and Briggs (here)).

So I’m an enquiry sceptic rather than a denier. I own several books on enquiry in science which teach enquiry in a direct way. The most convincing are:

  • “Investigations: Developing Understanding” by Goldsworthy, Watson and Wood Robinson (2000) and 
  • “It’s Not Fair – Or Is It?” by Turner, Keogh, Naylor and Lawrence (2011).

My personal filter for enquiry activities is this question:

Can I achieve my learning goal efficiently and effectively using this activity?

To answer this, I ask three further questions:

  1. What exactly do I want my pupils to learn?
  2. What skills and knowledge do my pupils need before they can complete the activity successfully (by which I mean learn something useful)?
  3. Is the context of the task appropriate?

I’ve explained my thinking behind each question below:

  1. What do I want my learners to learn?

Enquiry tasks often demand pupils applying topic knowledge; knowledge about scientific evidence; practical techniques and social and communication skills simultaneously. If you aren’t careful, your learners will pay attention to the wrong thing and progress will be less. 

  1. What skills and knowledge do my pupils need before they can complete the activity successfully (and learn something useful)?

Consider working memory: learners can only cope with limited new knowledge and skills before working memory becomes overloaded. When working memory is overloaded, effective learning does not take place (De Jong 2010 (here)). Typically an enquiry task demands sufficient expertise in the following:

  • scientific knowledge;
  • epistemological knowledge (what evidence will provide us with answers?);
  • technical skills such as measuring;
  • sequencing tasks (most enquiries involve several stages which need to be sequenced);
  • communication skills and
  • social skills.

If the task demands expertise in skills and knowledge your learners haven’t yet acquired, consider tasks which develop the tasks separately.

  1. Is the context of the task appropriate?

You need to consider transfer. It is notoriously difficult to transfer a skill from one context to another. For example, practicing categorisation of invertebrates does not develop pupils’ categorisation of materials. You need to teach and practice categorisation in each context it will be used in. 

I hope that’s useful.

Ben

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