Learning Environments Focused on Scientific Investigation

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about why it's useful to teach through scientific investigation. Find out about the benefits and the challenges. Take a quiz to see what you can remember.

Learning Through Inquiry

Children are naturally curious. Babies, in particular, are like little sponges that absorb astonishing amounts of information in the first years of life. As soon as they can speak, they ask questions, curious about the world in a way people of other ages don't always seem to be. You could argue that a small child is a natural scientist, even if they lack the skills to properly investigate the answers to the questions.

Einstein famously said, I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.
Einstein famously said, I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.

An approach to teaching science that is becoming increasingly popular and valued is learning through inquiry or scientific investigation. There are many names for this, but one common name is discovery learning. The idea is that if children learn by completing scientific investigations, and answering the questions about the world themselves, they'll stay curious longer.

Science isn't really a body of knowledge - it's more of a process. So when we're teaching science, our goal isn't just to transfer knowledge, it's also to help our students learn about what is involved in doing science. We can tell our students what scientists do ten times in a row, but it will be just as lifeless every time. On the other hand, if our students do science themselves, they'll understand it faster and more deeply. They'll know how to brainstorm, solve problems, collect and analyze data, and form logical conclusions. Learning by doing is important in every area of education, after all.

Outline of the scientific process
Outline of the scientific process

Challenges of Discovery Learning

But there are challenges of using discovery learning in the classroom. One of the first things a teacher might tell you after discussing inquiry-based lessons is that there just isn't time. Teachers are under a lot of pressure to impart huge amounts of knowledge in short periods of time. And anyone who has done discovery learning in the classroom knows that it really does take longer. To really implement this kind of teaching, we need to acknowledge that giving our students a deeper understanding of science is more important to us. It's choosing depth over breadth.

Students will often resist at first, and feel very confused. That's because students are used to being given the answers by teachers. Having to discover the answer themselves is outside of their comfort zone, but they'll get used to it if you're patient, and learn important problem-solving skills in the process.

Another issue with this kind of teaching is that our students are not yet scientists, and they're certainly not all geniuses. It took scientists hundreds of years to learn what we know now. So how can we expect our students to investigate and discover the same in a few years of science?

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