By basing learning around questions, one research project shows how inquiry-based science can be a tool for both student and teacher.
A researcher and PhD candidate who has spent many years with the Science Curriculum and Planning Division, Ms Poon Chew Leng, has been studying four teachers at a primary school for the last year. She is looking for patterns in their teaching which she then builds a framework to represent what she sees to be processes that is happening.
Chew Leng explains, “One of the strong characteristics observed in my study is that teachers use a lot of meaningful investigative activities for the kids. The teacher doesn’t teach explicitly too early in the lesson. Not that there isn’t explicit teaching, but students participate in finding things out for themselves.”
The inquiry approach
There are three core components:
- Engage: Teachers interest students in a topic through a problem, question or narrative.
- Use of evidence: Students are involved in hands-on investigations to collect data.
- Explain: Students construct explanations from evidence and communicate and defend their reasonings and explanations.”Students also come to appreciate the importance of the human element in the construction of scientific knowledge.” She explains, “Theories are models to explain observed phenomenon or patterns and trends in the data.”
A Move Towards Inquiry
A study by the Centre for Research and Pedagogy in Practice, showed that teaching and learning of science in Singapore classrooms is characterized by the Initiate-Respond-Evaluate (IRE) format. The teacher initiates the questions, students respond and the teacher evaluates.
But Chew Leng finds that increasingly in primary schools, teachers have been encouraged to adopt a more inquiry approach to teaching science. In other words, students can also ask the questions. They are taking a more active role to explore, and engage in the activities to find out answers for themselves. They also learn to use evidence from the data collected to support their findings.
The teachers participating in the study have attributed the change in the PSLE science questions in 2004 as one of the catalysts for change. That was when exams gave greater emphasis to critical thinking skills and the ability to apply concepts. Teachers recognized that inquiry as a pedagogical approach supported the need to teach students science in a manner that would enable them to learn and apply principles and concepts.
Anxiety Over Inquiry
Chew Leng’s research showed that teachers were anxious when they started adopting inquiry practice.
While it was not too difficult to pull off one inquiry lesson, teachers were concerned with the adequacy of curriculum time and resources to adopt inquiry practice on a daily basis. At the end of the one-year field work, the teacher collaborators were surprised that they were able to sustain the use of the inquiry approach and complete their syllabus. Chew Leng wants to encourage teachers to pick up the courage to try and not be bogged down by their anxiety.
Parents might also be anxious about their children learning through the inquiry-based method as it was new to most of them. One of the collaborating teachers in the study actually conducted a workshop to provide parents with the opportunity to experience this approach to learning science, and received much support from the parents.
Not Just for Teaching and Learning
The pedagogical framework is a tool for planning and enacting inquiry. At the same time, it also serves as a tool for professional development.
Chew Leng explains, “Inquiry practice is not static. Teachers modify their practice as they talk about their practice with other teachers and reflect on their practice. The pedagogical framework served as a tool for reflection and for generating professional dialogue around inquiry practice.”