First Thoughts on The ASE Enquiry Panel Discussion Jan21

Yesterday I took part in a panel discussion at the ASE conference on enquiry in science. Chris Harrison and Jane Turner invited me because of my concerns about enquiry in science teaching (see here). 

Panel Session: Revisiting enquiry for what it offers science learning

Chaired by Jane Turner, ASE Chair Elect.
From around 2005 until 2018, the European Union funded a number of science and STEM education projects to introduce and strengthen enquiry/inquiry in classrooms to engage more children in science learning. There remains a range of views across the science community as to the value and feasibility of enquiry activities in science at both primary and secondary level. This panel session looks at current thinking from a number of science educators and teachers who have actively been researching, teaching and thinking about enquiry in the science curriculum. Come along and hear their views and share your own!

Sarah Eames CSciTeach, Teacher at Sandfield Close Primary School/ Mentor with PSTT, Sandfield Close Primary School
Sally Howard, PhD Student Science Education inquiry/enquiry Inquiry based science, Oxford Brookes University
Ben Rogers CSciTeach, Director of Curriculum & Pedagogy, Paradigm Trust
Jason Harding, Section Leader Primary & Biology, CLEAPSS
ASE Panel discussion on enquiry

We each had an opportunity to talk and then answer questions. The hour went really quickly and we regretted not having more time to talk (and possibly have a pint together afterwards). I think given more time, we might have discovered more in common.

The chat was particularly lively (there were 60+ attendees).

I think we all would like to keep the conversation going, so I’m going to type up some thoughts and questions and preliminary responses to questions which flashed past in the chat that I would have liked to talk about. 

What evidence is there?

I rudely described the evidence supporting both perspectives as a ‘swamp’ (sorry), but it is true that trying to find evidence to convince a sceptic either way has been really difficult – let alone someone whose mind is already made. I fell back on PISA, because at least it’s big.

The correlation between factors affecting student performance and PISA test scores (2015)
The Impact of Different Class Activities on PISA Test Scores (2015)

It isn’t a smoking gun, but it’s enough to ask serious questions about enquiry.

I’m genuinely keen to see the evidence supporting enquiry as a pedagogical approach. Please send me pdfs!

What outcomes could we all agree on?

I think I could get behind any pedagogical approach which proves to be effective and efficient. We need to agree the outcomes we think are important. At the moment, direct teacher instruction outperforms enquiry pedagogies when traditional assessments are used, so I’ll back that. If we can agree on other outcomes, and then test classroom approaches, I’ll be happy.

Is enquiry the route to creativity?

I have a problem with the word ‘creativity’. I flinch when other subjects (I’m looking at you Art) describe themselves as creative – as though other subjects aren’t. I feel bothered when enquiry is described as creative. Advocates of guided instruction see creativity as an intended destination best reached through careful development of learner skills and knowledge.

Is it helpful to think of learners as little scientists?

Real scientists have a deep understanding of both the relevant knowledge and the approaches they will use. Learners do not. A novice is not a little expert.

The scientific method is a reliable way of generating new knowledge, but it is very slow and only experts can do it properly (see here). We learn much more reliably and efficiently as novices when an expert guides us. Our role as teachers is to carefully structure and guide learners from ‘where they are’ to ‘where we want them to be.’ This isn’t how science develops.

Even if we did consider pupils as little scientists, we should think about what scientists really do all day. The amount of time spent reading and discussing far outweighs time in the lab for most research scientists. Science is a literary subject before it is a practical subject. And for those children who choose not to become scientists, hopefully they will continue to read, discuss and learn about science throughout their lives, even if they never touch another Bunsen burner.

How do we avoid echo chambers?

I have spend a lot of time with enquiry sceptics over the past 5+ years – I admit, I was surprised by how influential enquiry remains. I got the impression that some colleagues yesterday were surprised at my perspective. Thank you Jane and Chris for inviting me – I hope I can be invited back – and thank you to my other panelists.


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