He is an English teacher? Was my first thought when I started diving into Trevor Mackenzie’s book, Dive into Inquiry. As a science teacher, I assumed that we were the experts in inquiry as it is embedded in what we teach, what we do. We have the scientific method, science fairs, laboratory investigations all rooted in making observations and asking questions. Shattering my preconceived thoughts, Trevor has some great insights into the inquiry continuum and demonstrating that inquiry is for all teachers even those seasoned with inquiry. In the secondary science class, we’ve mastered structured inquiry, where “students follow the lead of the teacher as the entire class engages in one inquiry together”, however within the inquiry continuum there is a need to move beyond structured inquiry into controlled, guided and eventually free inquiry in attempts to build student agency and engagement in our science classes.
In my own teaching practice, I am attempting to shift from standard, structured inquiry to a controlled inquiry; a simple sounding task, but difficult especially in the secondary science panel. With high levels of content and time constraints, many secondary science educators are hesitant to change their standard practice as they say inquiry is already embedded in their course. After reading Dive into Inquiry, I am more confident that science educators need to be at the forefront of the change as we are the early adopters that don’t need to be convinced of benefits of inquiry and should be diving deeper into our own practice.
Moving our laboratory investigations to a controlled inquiry is a matter of perspective and modifying the standard structured inquiry activities that we already do. With controlled inquiry, “the teacher chooses topics and identifies the resources students will use to answer the questions”, such as studying the saturation of alkanes and alkenes in senior chemistry. A common lab is to test organic hydrocarbons with bromine water and look for changes in colour and identify different hydrocarbons. Why not elevate this lab by removing the Socratic teaching component? Let’s provide resources such as model kits for students to observe the structure of the compounds, different test solutions (other halogenated compounds), timers and measurement tools to collect data, so the students can synthesize their own understanding of the concept.
In shifting the focus of our classes along the inquiry continuum, an easy first step is to view the lab investigation as the keystone of the unit and determine an essential question. Too often the questions we ask in the science class are limited to testable questions that will feed into the scientific method, however, we should take a step back and start a unit by asking an essential question. One of the most impactful parts of Dive into Inquiry is on essential questions, where Trevor provides the key characteristics of essential questions and prompts to help create them. In the example with the hydrocarbons, an essential question to frame the investigation could be “How do alkanes compare with alkenes?” or “What is the relationship between bromine water and the hydrocarbons?”. To address the essential question, we can start with a controlled inquiry method and have the students begin to take the lead. As science teachers, we are already in the inquiry water, let’s show other educators how we swim.
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