LogoScience IDEAS Project: 2002-2009

Inquiry and Science IDEAS

The Science IDEAS model places a strong emphasis on “inquiry”. In this sense, Science IDEAS is “inquiry-oriented”. At the same time, the form of inquiry in Science IDEAS fits more closely to its role in programmatic scientific research than on the type of question-oriented, teacher-student or student-student verbal interaction emphasized in the science education community.

This is not to say that Science IDEAS learning environments do not involve a high degree of verbal interaction among teachers and students. Such teacher-student and student discussions of science concepts being learned are an integral part of Science IDEAS instruction. However, Science IDEAS instruction is not “question-driven” in the sense that is advocated by some science educators who emphasize the importance of questions to inquiry in instruction.

Rather, Science IDEAS instruction, as a knowledge-based model, is “concept-driven”. That is, instructional activities are concept-focused (vs. question-focused) and increasing concept understanding in each successive Science IDEAS activity involves a dynamic interaction between student prior knowledge and present learning experiences. So, in Science IDEAS, the type of inquiry that is emphasized is the development, organization, and accessing of conceptual prior knowledge in order to successfully complete following learning experiences. In this sense, such “learning more about what is being learned” parallels the inquiry processes in which scientists engage to build knowledge as a form of expertise.

In Science IDEAS, the resulting context for raising questions-to-be answered is knowledge-based. AS an example, consider the following hands-on inquiry-oriented activity having to due with relative density of liquids.

Materials: A graduated cylinder and three containers with different colored liquids with different densities.

Task: Students are told the activity illustrates relative density of liquids. Students are asked to predict what will happen when the liquids are poured into the same cylinder.

Non-Knowledge-Based Approach:
Students make predictions, the liquids are poured into the cylinder, the liquids separate (based on their densities), students are asked to confirm/disconfirm whether their predictions are right or wrong, students are asked for possible explanations or the instructor does the explanation.

Knowledge-Based Approach:
Students are asked or students ask what the relative densities of the liquids are. Then, with that information, they predict the separation of the liquids from knowledge of (a) the densities of the liquid and (b) their knowledge of how the relative density of the liquids determines how they will separate relative to each other.

Considering the preceding example, the knowledge-based approach explicitly links the relevant conceptual relationship with the information specific to the application.

A similar form of argument contrasting non-knowledge-based and knowledge-based instructional approaches applies to “argumentation” or “writing” as science learning activities. Certainly, both provide a context for the investigation and application of knowledge, because both activities require knowledge to be applied. And, both are useful in improving student learning.

However, the majority of research initiatives in science education neither include nor report the foundational conceptual knowledge (and task-specific information) necessary for sound argumentation or clear writing. For example, in Science IDEAS, students learn to use propositional concept maps as a tool for coherent writing. So, to engender coherent writing about science concepts, having a formal representation of knowledge is a powerful guide. In addition, considering the writing practices of scientists, it is not unusual for scientists to construct a visual map to guide their writing about a complex topic.