Over the last few years, the Australian curriculum and its variants have increased the emphasis on inquiry-based activities. What is inquiry-based learning? According to the National Research Council (USA), inquiry focuses on a scientifically oriented question, problem, or phenomenon, beginning with what learners know and actively engaging them in the search for answers and explanations. In the Australian curriculum, inquiry is embodied in a set of Science Inquiry Skills (SIS). Broadly, SIS fall into five main categories of formulating questions and/or hypotheses, planning and conducting scientific investigations, processing and analysing data and information, evaluating the validity of methods and conclusions, and communicating and justifying scientific ideas and information.
There are also year-level variations. For example, at years 4 and 5, students need to be able to identify questions in familiar contexts that can be investigated scientifically and make predictions based on prior knowledge, but with guidance; at years 7 and 8, students need to be able to do this without guidance and for unfamiliar contexts; but they do not have to formulate their own questions or hypotheses until years 9 and 10.
There are many reasons why inquiry-based activities are good for learning. First, modern education emphasises that learning is more than mere factual knowledge, but involves the ability to apply knowledge to solve problems. Second, in constructivist models of learning, learners construct new knowledge on the basis of pre-existing ideas (see April 2014 issue, p. 33). When pre-existing ideas are inconsistent with accepted scientific knowledge, inquiry permits exploration of observations and concepts; discovery and resolution of these discrepancies in knowledge can lead to better and deeper understanding. Third, in social constructivist models of learning, social interactions associated with evaluating and justifying conclusions, and critiquing different approaches to the investigation, help to reinforce student ideas that are consistent with accepted scientific knowledge. Fourth, when students direct what they do in their learning and have social interactions, there is greater ownership and engagement in the process of learning. Finally, inquiry-based activities enable students to have a small experience of the processes of scientific investigation, which is a part of the Science as a Human Endeavour (SHE) area of the curriculum.
The ultimate goal is for students to be able to undertake open inquiry, which means that that they have achieved mastery, and are able to plan and undertake all aspects of the investigation independently of the teacher. Over a sequence spanning 1–2 years, individual laboratory learning activities will range from little or no inquiry at introductory stages to open inquiry at the mastery stage. The ‘openness’ of inquiry is normally divided into prescription (no inquiry), confirmation, structured inquiry, guided inquiry and open inquiry.
An example of prescription is where students follow a prescribed procedure such as learning how to use a set of balances by weighing standard masses: there is no link to any scientific question and no inquiry. A confirmation inquiry is very similar, where again students follow the teacher’s detailed instructions, but work towards a scientific question. In structured inquiry, the teacher leads students by asking questions and providing guidance; the students have the opportunity to adapt and refine procedures that have been suggested by the teacher. In guided inquiry, the teacher acts as the students’ guide by giving broad outlines, giving advice on procedures and implementation; the students make the final selection or refinement from a range of options. Open inquiry resembles authentic scientific research: the student-researcher defines and drives the investigation. A variation is that of coupled inquiry, in which a single investigation is divided into two parts, or there are two closely aligned investigations: the first part is done as a guided inquiry, while the second part is open inquiry.
For a long time, an entire investigation was considered as a single entity when deciding on the level of ‘openness’, but in 2000, the National Research Council (USA) recommended that each separate aspect of inquiry (formulating questions, planning investigations, and so on) should have its own level of ‘openness’. This gives teachers greater flexibility in planning how to progress students in different inquiry skills from introductory level using prescription or confirmation activities, through development of skill level using structured and guided inquiries, to application of mastery using open inquiry. Australian projects, such as ASELL for Schools (see February 2016, p. 36) provide professional development to help teachers better implement inquiry.
Ultimately, learning through inquiry-based investigations is one approach in a range of pedagogical strategies. While inquiry-based learning has many benefits and advantages, it is not always appropriate. As always, it is up to individual teachers, as learning experts, to decide on the appropriate level of inquiry to be used in any particular activity.