is ample evidence that few people really understand the natural
world. Jon Miller's work since 1980 has repeatedly indicated thatfewer
than 10% of U.S. citizens are literate in science. The PrivateUniverse
video indicated for all to see that Harvard graduates are unable
to explain the seasons and other information commonly
taught in elementaryand middle schools (Sahiner & Schneps, 1977).
The more recent Annenberg tapes reveal similar
lack of understanding of basic biology on the part ofMIT graduates (Sahiner
& Schneps, 1997). The cognitive science studies of the
mid 1980s reveal that even the brightest students (university physics
and engineering students) can not use what they seem
to know and do informal classrooms and laboratories to real-world problems
(Champagne &Klopfer, 1984; Mestre & Lochhead, 1990; Resnick, 1986,
With such a litany of deficiencies it seems logical that all people would be anxious to try any new approach that might yield better results.In actuality the forces are even stronger to return to the tried and true teacher-directed classrooms where successful students have only to take notes, pay attention, and demonstrate use of certain vocabulary and certainskills which teachers and textbooks proclaim as worth remembering.
Project Synthesis was a large NSF-funded effort to review the NSF Status Studies (Helgeson, Blosser & Howe, 1977; Stake & Easley, 1978;Weiss, 1978), current textbooks, and the 1977 NAEP results (1978). Fivefocal areas were used as organizers; one of these was inquiry. In the final report of Project Synthesis the Inquiry Team reported that there waslittle evidence that any school or teacher was teaching by inquiry or that any students were learning by such procedures. Hurd had reported earlier that inquiry was a failed effort of the reforms following Sputnik: "Thedevelopment of enquiry skills as a major goal of instruction in science appears to have had only a minimal effect on secondary school teaching.The rhetoric about enquiry and process teaching greatly exceeds both the research on the subject and the classroom practice. The validity of theenquiry goal itself could profit from more scholarly interchange and confrontation even if it is simply to recognize that science is not totally confined to logical processes and data-gathering" (Hurd, 1978, p. 62).
Inquiry was a major focus for the reform efforts of the 60s. Joe Schwab eloquently described the reforms which followed the launching ofSputnik I by the Soviets in 1957 while calling for an emphasis on a narrative of enquiry rather than a rhetoric of conclusions (1962). (Hepreferred to spell inquiry with an "e" to attract even more attention!) During the two decades following Sputnik, two billion dollars were used inthe United States to reform school science- almost always with an emphasis on "inquiry."
But calls for reform--even reform focusing upon what scientist do aswell as the results of the doing (i.e., the concepts which describe the waynature operates)--did not begin in the 50s. Such calls for a focus on the skills scientist use were first made in the 30s-most notably in the 31stYearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education (Whipple, 1932).
Unfortunately, however, past efforts to focus science teaching and student learning on the skills, procedures, and thinking scientists use hadlittle effect on teaching, student learning, or assessment practices. Calls for emphasis on this second dimension of science (inquiry) neverresulted in any less focus on student learning of science concepts. But,reformers have consistently called for a shift to process science for over 70 years.
For nearly three-quarters of a century in the U.S. reformers have called for an equal treatment of what scientists know about the naturalworld (concepts) and the ways scientists go about their work of knowing more about how the universe works. Unfortunately this two-dimensional view of science continues where science courses outline the current concepts heldby scientists and the skills they tap to arrive at such meaning.
The greatest contribution of the new National Science Education Standards (NSES) may be the broadening of the view of the meaning of science beyond these two dimensions. NSES identifies eight facets ofscience content to be considered in K-12 classrooms.
Unifying Concepts and Processes in Science;
Science as Inquiry;
Earth and Space Science;
Science and Technology;
Science in Personal and Societal Perspectives;
and History and Nature of Science (NRC, 1996, p. 6).
It is noteworthy that "Science as Inquiry" is the second category of content-before the three discipline-bound categories, physical, life,and earth/space science. But, inquiry is more than just a facet ofcontent. It appears along with scientific literacy, content and curricula, knowledge, and understanding, and science and technology as a special termneeding definition (NRC, 1996, p. 23).
In many ways this definition is gibberish. It says that scientificinquiry refers to the diverse ways scientists study the natural world andhow they propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work. (But, do not the explanations they propose usually precede their manipulation of nature to test the creation of their minds?) The NSES saysthat inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which theydevelop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas. (But, does this not create the problem of describing all student activities as inquiry while also suggesting that the students are merely learning what scientistsknow without any real investigation of questions?) The definition further indicates that student activities help student understanding of how scientists study the natural world. (But, doesn't this sound like studentsreplicating experiments scientists have already done?) The definition thenproceeds to a long list of activities that sounds like the scientific processes so often central to the reform efforts of the 60s.
We learned (especially from the inquiry-based programs for elementary schools during the 60s) that little is gained by teaching skills'because they are important.' Students rarely see the importance of suchskills in any way other than the context in which they were presented. The definition used in NSES does not approach the first goal of school scienceoffered by the standards: producing students who can experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world. The definition misses the point of science beginning with questions, curiosity, wonderment. The definition seems "third person"-something that people called scientists do, something alien to the lives of most people.
The elaboration of inquiry as outlined in the content standards does little to help with a vision of its meaning. It says that inquiry is "a step beyond science as process. It is more than learning about observation, inferences, and experimentation" (NRC, 1996, p. 105). The writers pontificate that a new vision of inquiry includes processes of science but requires students to combine process with scientific knowledgeas they use scientific reasoning and critical thinking to develop theirunderstanding of science. (By emphasizing "scientific" the writers further glamorize the skills!) The writers claim that inquiry teaching will provideall the outcomes for which most yearn. And yet our experiences of the 60s should cause us to be skeptical.
Readers of the NSES are then referred to a table which identifies the abilities and understandings which define or describe what is to bedone when inquiry teaching occurs. Interestingly, the same words are usedfor grades K-4, 5-8, and 9-12. They list only: 1) abilities necessary todo scientific inquiry, and 2) understanding about scientific inquiry. Later some guide is given for the abilities and concepts that underlie inquiry content (NRC, 1996, pp. 145-146).
The assessment standards provide the richest information about teaching inquiry. The example given for assessing the ability to inquire(NRC, 1996, p. 98-100) is the clearest vision of the desired skills and howthey can be assessed in terms of student learning. Perhaps the value of this description is the specific context and example given. Unfortunatelyit is only for the high school level and the activity is designed to be an ongoing project. Such work would be ideal in college classrooms andlaboratories. One should be able to exemplify aspects of inquiry in a single class period.
There are too few in education who have practiced science-who have experienced first hand the first goal for science education espoused by thestandards: student should experience the richness and excitement of knowing about and understanding the natural world. Many feel they arealready "process" teachers and that they practice inquiry. They accept astheir jobs the transmission of this understanding to their students. For such people a look at the assessment standards is suggested.
Would it not be better to insist that all real science starts with a question-a real question about something in the immediate surroundings?All humans have questions-as soon as they are aware of things around them.And, all human beings try to make some sense of the things around them, i.e., the way nature operates. Unfortunately this "sense" that all peopledevelop does not coincide with the research and the consensus developed by the scientific community. Too often we merely teach what scientists knowand report and expect this teaching to replace constructions/ explanationsthat most people have developed on their own-in their day to day living outside science classrooms. This results in a conflict between what makes sense and those things teachers an schools report as important if students are to succeed.
Would it not be desirable to encourage students to share their own conceptions/explanations about natural phenomena? Would it not be desirable to compare these explanations arising from students and use themas a basis for further investigations? Would it not be desirable if the tests students devise to provide evidence of the validity of their explanations were inconclusive? Would it not be appropriate and realisticto have to develop more tests? Would it not be an obvious question to ask:Has anyone else over centuries ever asked this or similar questions? Whatdid they find? How did they interpret their results?
Most teachers know that inquiry is good-something they should practice, something that real scientists do, something that reformers havechampioned throughout their professional lives. And yet it remains something elusive; something that is poorly defined, something so broad that all can truthfully say they are doing some of it. And yet is ithelping us with reform efforts and the realization of the vision in the NSES?
Basic to the Scope, Sequence, and Coordination Project (the $25 million reform sponsored by the National Science Teachers Association) wasthat meaning should be carefully established before use of a term. Are we guilty of not practicing such a basic feature of reform in our own discipline?? Inquiry is a word in common use-but is there common understanding? Is there any reason to believe that we are any closer to realizing student learning of inquiry, by inquiry, from so-called inquiryactivities that we were doing three or four decades ago? What is therelationship of inquiry to the other seven facets of content included in the broader view of science content envisioned in NSES?
Maybe we still need the scholarly interchange and confrontation about inquiry that Hurd suggested nearly 20 years ago.
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