Higher EducationPrimary EducationScience

Inquiry First, Talk Later

The first week of classes are in the bag at my university where I’m currently teaching a class called “Foundations of Science: Physics, Earth Science, and Inquiry based Projects.” I’m teaching K-8 physics and earth science concepts primarily to education majors, but in a way that neither they nor I have learned science before. As countless articles and research papers have suggested over the decades, we’re going to learn first by doing.

The class starts with a group activity exploring some concept in physics or Earth science. The students work through the activity together while I float around the classroom and help where needed and monitor progress. Only once they have completed the assignment and turned in their worksheets do we delve into a lecture and discussion of the topic at hand. By learning, through inquiry first, we hope that students will gain a better understanding of the science at hand.

But this is a meta-class of sorts, as learning the science content isn’t the primary goal for my students. Rather, I’m hoping to show them how to teach science through these hands-on activities, as these will come in handy in the changing education climate that they will be entering. Illinois is a Next Generation Science Standards state, and these new standards are especially focused on science and engineering practices.

So far, this class system is working well, though we’re only two classes in. It helps having access to a resource center full of science demos, labs, and toys. I hope the students are enjoying it as well. At least you can’t fall asleep in an active group of three or four when your class is at 8am! I hope to have more updates on this cool classroom structure as the semester continues.

Featured Image CC Amy on Flickr

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Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/noisyastronomer


  1. August 24, 2014 at 7:28 pm —

    I hope you keep us posted on how this goes!

  2. August 24, 2014 at 9:11 pm —

    You’re probably already doing this, but keep in mind that to really teach your students to use these types of activities when THEY become teachers, you need to explicitly discuss what and why you’re doing it. This concept is generally true – as I try to teach my students about how the scientific method distorts or explains how science works, I do more than just present inquiry activities or discuss historical examples where science is carried out counter to a step-by-step scientific method. I also ask them questions about how the science here differs, and why that’s okay. And also as you probably know, inquiry-based lessons need to be distinguished from “discovery learning”. The DL buzzword tended to refer to asking students to come up with everything on their own, and often doesn’t ensure that students leave with accurate conceptions.

    In contrast, what you say: “The students work through the activity together while I float around the classroom and help where needed and monitor progress” is vitally important. We shouldn’t expect students to spontaneously reinvent great discoveries that took hundreds of years to develop. The teacher’s role is to scaffold and guide students to accurate conceptions. A lot of teachers who are reluctantly forced to shift from lecture to inquiry try it a few times without supporting their students, then use their students’ failure to learn as evidence that inquiry doesn’t work!

    Good luck with the new class and don’t lose heart – I’m certain that this method can and will pay dividends for you and your students (and their students)!

  3. August 27, 2014 at 6:46 pm —

    This is the method that I use to teach most of my classes, I find lecturing to be exhausting. This method it is all in the prep-work, and then you actually spend time in class learning and learning how your students actual learn so that you can better prepare future lessons.
    Two pieces of advice I would give to you and your students 1) If the lesson does not work it does not mean that the concept of what you are trying to do is bad. The difference between a lesson working and not working can be as simple as material distribution or scaffolding a difficult question by breaking it apart into a few smaller questions that guide the way through the thought process or even the difference between how a brain trained in science thinks and how other people’s brains work. I can’t tell you the number of times I grabbed a special ed teacher and asked “What is wrong with this question? I am trying to get this answer.” It has greatly improved my lessons. It might be an interesting exercise to have a lesson that does not go well and have the class problem solve ways to improve it.
    My second piece of advice is when working with kids, especially ones that are used to rote answers, it is important to communicate with them and their parents that this method is different and it may take some time to adjust. I usually tell my classes on the first few days of school that in the month of September they will hate me and hate this class, but most people like my class by October.

    Good Luck with that class I’m sure you will love it.

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