Inquiry-based learning – it’s all about asking the right questions

boy watering plants learning about cycles in science lesson

It is almost impossible to be a good thinker but a poor questioner. Questioning and answer-seeking drive our thoughts, and the kind of questions we ask steers us in a certain direction. Unconsciously, we often find ourselves in the realm of questions and answers in our daily lives. Suppose, we find ourselves in an environment with someone with the flu, we would ask ourselves: 

Will I get sick sitting next to the person who is sneezing and coughing all day?

What are the symptoms of flu? Are germs airborne? How long can germs survive in the air?

The list goes on…

If we limit the scope of our questions, we will find ourselves also limited in the kinds of answers we seek or find. Asking questions which only lead to a yes or no answer are naturally inhibiting. Open-ended questions have far more value as they enable the person who answers the questions to go through an important questioning process which allows him to:

  • Compare
  • Communicate
  • Infer
  • Predict
  • Analyse
  • Generate possibilities
  • Evaluate
  • Formulate hypothesis

This set of skills is exactly the essential process skills that are found in the Singapore Primary Science Syllabus today.

What are process skills and why the need for these skills?

In the new MOE 2014 Primary Science Syllabus, these skills and processes are well integrated into key concepts and essential takeaways through inquiry questions to allow students to find answers to things and phenomena around them. These skill sets are in turn classified into three different categories under communication which are essential features of inquiry, unlike in the previous science syllabus which has no such distinction:

  • Question
  • Evidence
  • Explain/Connect
process skills in science teaching and learning
Table taken from MOE 2014 Primary Science Syllabus p.8

There are 10 process skills in focus encompassed by the communication skill in the local science syllabus. The skills and processes shown in the table above are seen as part of the total process of scientific inquiry. Through inquiry learning of the what (content) and the how (process), information can be turned into useful knowledge to understand the world around us.

How does the art of questioning develop process skills?

Questions play an important role in the classroom. They are a frequent component of classroom talk that can influence the type of cognitive processes students go through in constructing their scientific knowledge. They are necessary for determining the nature of discourse during science instruction, and undoubtedly, they are the key to keep students engaged, challenged and intrigued.

However, asking questions to elicit productive thinking in students is not as easy as it seems, especially when students choose to be a passive learner in science lessons that discusses topics that do not interest them. What can be done to overcome this challenge? How can students be developed to become good thinkers and questioners?

First, it is the role of teachers to be able to:

  • integrate content knowledge into a conceptual framework of interconnecting concepts
  • pique curiosity and interest in students 
  • scaffold learning at an appropriate pace to maintain, if not increase the level of curiosity and interest of the students 

Effective questioning can only happen when the above three criteria are fulfilled. Techniques of effective questioning is closely linked to Bloom’s Taxonomy, where Bloom has broken down human thinking into six levels:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis 
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

There are three types of questions applicable to the various levels of thinking: 

  1. Preliminary (usually asked at the beginning of a lesson)
    – to assess prior knowledge and the basic understanding of the subject matter
  1. Probing (usually asked during learning)
    – to evaluate learning, address misconceptions, and reinforce understanding of concepts 
  1. Possibilities (usually asked after lesson has been internalised)  
    – to test application of concepts to the real-world context

This successful art of questioning is how process skills are developed in the students who eventually will become good thinkers and questioners.

How are skills and processes related to the essential features of inquiry?

To understand how all this relates to the new changes in the science syllabus, we can look at the new features in the syllabus format. The use of essential takeaways and key inquiry questions has been added to highlight the teaching and learning of the big ideas in the thematic approach. This inquiry learning of process skills also resonates in the textbook as students go through the topic.

Compare the following table found in the syllabus framework under the topic of ‘Cycles’ to the unique features found in the textbook:

Inquiry based approach reflected in science textbook

An excerpt from My Pals are Here! Science textbook

Key inquiry questions are available to get students thinking about the science concepts in the chapter. Once students have studied and understood the examples from the textbook, they will go through several inquiry-based activities (e.g.: experiments) which require them to investigate, gather evidence, explain and connect to what they have learnt in class through the examples shown in the textbook. It is through this inquiry process that students exercise process skills such as such as observation and comparison. It is also through this inquiry approach that students construct knowledge and understanding with reasoning. 

 

Life Cycles My Pals are Here! Science Activity Book
An excerpt from My Pals are Here! Science activity book

Nurturing process skills in our students

What can be done to ensure that students are strengthening these process skills in them?

  1. Encourage them to be an active learner
    Most students are capable of searching for answers to their questions, but how many are actually interested in the Science behind the answers? Are they challenging themselves by validating the answers to their questions?Encourage them to find out the Science behind the answers. It is observed that learners who are mentally engaged will be able to explain observations and be more interested to find out more when he/she gets down into doing it.  Such students will also be able to better appreciate the value of scientific inquiry.

  2. Learn to let go
    While it is important to ensure that students master the techniques to answering a particular question, too much guidance can evolve into over-reliance. This should put educators on red alert as it inhibits thinking and growth. For example, in a group experiment setting, encourage students to take the initiative to complete the tasks instead of relying on others for answers. Instead of merely following the procedures in a given experimental task written out in a “cookbook” style which require students to carry out the tasks unthinkingly, challenge students to redesign the given experiment or even an entirely new experiment. This process will help students understand the original experiment thoroughly as they go through the course of listing the steps to conduct the experiment, applying scientific methods, and thinking through each step to consider any other variables involved that will affect the experimental outcome (Barry et al, 1999).

  3. Keep a Science journal
    A journal helps to keep track of their learning. By recording their questions and answers about the world around them, they will be encouraged to stay observant to feed their inquisitiveness. Tomkins & Tunnicliffe also observed that diary writers tend to build more confidence in their interpretations, engage in intellectual debates with themselves over the plausibility of their explanations and ask questions that are more quantifiable (Tomkins & Tunnicliffe, 2001).

  4. Ask questions
    Constantly ask open-ended questions about the world around them. Why does the sky turn dark again today? Why do leaves fall off a plant? How can you cool the drink faster? Rest assure that you may not need to always have an answer because the best answer will come from the child bothers to search for it (using the inquiry-based approach)! 

Process skills are as important as content knowledge for one cannot occur without the other. Process skills are life skills, an integral part of our lives that seeks to help us make better and well-informed decisions. Every day, we are subconsciously using these skills to stretch our learning as we link prior and new knowledge. It is by using these skills that we are able to construct new conceptual understanding, allowing learning to happen. 

 

References

Berry, A., Mulhall, P., Gunstone, R., & Loughran, J. (1999). Helping students learn from laboratory work. Australian Science Teachers’ Journal, 45(1), 27-31.

Tomkins, S.P., & Tunnicliffe, S.D. (2001). Looking for ideas: observation, interpretation and hypothesis making by 12-year-old pupils undertaking Science investigations. International Journal of Science Education, 23(8), 791-813.

 

 

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