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Influences on How Students Understand Scientific Inquiry

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will explore the development of scientific thinking as we learn ways for teachers to support students as they develop focused questions, make explorations, and articulate their findings.

Development of Scientific Inquiry

What is scientific inquiry? Scientific inquiry involves asking scientific questions and seeking evidence-based answers that are connected to proven scientific theories. Scientific inquiry builds upon the innate curiosity that children have about the natural and physical world by providing a flexible structure for making explorations, collecting data, and drawing inferences. As students develop more advanced vocabulary, they are able to make more advanced connections between what they know from experience and what they have discovered, enabling them to articulate their findings and defend their answers. Let's find out more about things teachers can do to support their students' understanding of scientific inquiry.

Asking the Right Questions

How do you get your students to learn to become scientific thinkers? First, it is important they can make connections. Cognition is the process of acquiring knowledge, and it is dependent on students making connections between what they already know and what new things they are learning. Let's say Ms. Delaney is beginning a unit on the periodic table. One strategy she can use to stimulate these connections is to have her students create a KWL chart. KWL charts ask students what they already know and what they want to know about a topic before the lesson begins. This will generate discussion and ideas around the topic that students can use to jump start their thinking about what they may want to learn. At the end of the lesson, students write what they have learned and connect back to what they knew or thought they knew. KWL charts support scientific inquiry by activating prior knowledge, and students also learn to develop guiding questions that focus their learning experience, making it more personal.

When students are engaged in a learning experiences that is centered around a guiding question, it is called inquiry-based learning. For example, when students are first learning about the periodic table, the lesson may begin with a question such as, 'How are the elements arranged on the periodic table?' or 'What do the elements within a group have in common?' Then, allowing students to explore books and computer-based resources, as well as perform experiments and make observations, will help students construct a meaningful hypothesis based on the guiding question.

Developing Scientific Thinkers

What can you do to develop scientific attitudes in your students? Scientists are curious and willing to learn new information, even when it doesn't mesh with their preconceptions about the way the world works. When you as a teacher model curiosity and openness, your students will begin to adopt those attitudes.

For example, Mrs. Delaney brainstorms ideas about about how the periodic table is arranged. She discovers that one of the misconceptions her students have about the periodic table is that it is arranged by atomic mass, rather than atomic number. In lieu of simply correcting them, Mrs. Delaney tells students they will be performing a scavenger hunt to test their theory. Of course, the elements that Mrs. Delaney highlights in the scavenger hunt will be those that are not arranged by atomic mass. By using this approach and allowing students to construct their own meaning from the activity, the students learn to ask questions and that it is perfectly acceptable to change their views with experience.

Scientists are skeptics by nature. Scientific skepticism involves using critical thinking skills to review the evidence in a logical way that helps students draw logical conclusions. For example, skeptical scientists will use discernment when selecting sources of information. Mrs. Delaney will have her students compare opinion-based science blogs against evidence they themselves have generated through scientific methods so they can learn to be skeptical and investigate the authenticity of sources.

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