Tuesday, April 02, 2013

inquiry science rocks, or does it?

aps | Although "inquiry teaching" has been a hot topic in science education for many years, it may be useful to reflect on some unresolved issues associated with it. The main point of this essay is that the relative effectiveness of different types of instructional "approaches" is not always investigated with the same rigor that permeates all strong scientific disciplines–clear definitions, well-defined empirical procedures, and data-driven conclusions. The second–and more contentious–point is that for many aspects of science instruction, "discovery learning" is often a less effective way to teach than a direct, didactic, and explicit type of instruction. Some in the physics education community may view this assertion as a foolhardy heresy, while for others it may be a dark secret that they have been reluctant to share with their colleagues. But heresies and secrets are hardly the way to discover and implement maximally effective instructional methods for teaching science.

I am not alone in suggesting that common practices in physics education may have scant empirical support. Several years ago Handelsman, et al.1 asked: " … why do outstanding scientists who demand rigorous proof for scientific assertions in their research continue to use and, indeed, defend on the basis of their intuition alone, teaching methods that are not the most effective?" (p. 521) The specific lament in Handelsman et al. is the claim that much science education is based on a traditional form of didactic lecturing. However, one could just as well use that very same critique about the lack of "rigorous proof" to challenge the current enthusiasm for "inquiry approaches" to science education.

For example, an influential report from the NAS on inquiry approaches to science education2 states that "…studies of inquiry-oriented curriculum programs … demonstrated significant positive effects on various quantitative measures, including cognitive achievement, process skills, and attitudes toward science." This would seem to be clear evidence in support of inquiry-approaches to science instruction, except that the report goes on to note, parenthetically, that "there was essentially no correlation between positive results and expert ratings of the degree of inquiry in the materials (p. 125)." Thus we have an argument for the benefits of a particular pedagogy, but no consensus from experts about the "dose response", i.e., the extent to which different "degrees of inquiry" lead to different types or amounts of learning.

One wonders about the evidential basis for the wide-spread enthusiasm for inquiry science, given the lack of operational definitions of what constitutes an "inquiry-based" lesson–or entire curriculum–and what specific features distinguish it from other types of instruction. There is a particular irony here in that the very field that has developed extraordinarily clear norms and conventions for talking about methods, theories, instrumentation, measurement, underlying mechanisms, etc. often abandons them when engaging in research on science education.


umbrarchist said...

How many of these studies ask whether or not the kid is interested in the subject? I repeat, SF books made science more interesting than any of the teachers I had. But I started in grade school and didn't get a science teacher until my 2nd year of high school. But today even people who claim to like science fiction seem to denigrate the science in the stories. It is all about world building and characterization these days.

Ed Dunn said...

I spoke to a grade school class recently that practiced this inquiry method and was very impressed. The kids were slamming me with very inquisitive questions and the kids got the art of asking questions down. I made sure all of them got the answer they wanted. Sorry, but I'm sold!!!!!

CNu said...

You're right Ed. if one's goal is the enhancement of conceptual understanding and problem-solving ability among high-school or
undergraduate students then (s)he should probably consider utilizing discovery-learning-like "Interactive Engagement" pedagogy rather
than direct-instruction-like "Traditional" pedagogy.http://listserv.aera.net/scripts/wa.exe?A2=ind1304&L=AERA-L&F=&S=&P=57

CNu said...

Here's the thing Umbra, you were an adept reader capable of substantial self-instruction (doubtless you kept a dictionary close to hand) such that when you encountered SF, it was the equivalent of a duck encountering water. Further, the cognitive ecology in which you grew up was nowhere near as media saturated as the one in which today's children have been reared, so that your imagination could amply and ably serve as your primary media go-to. Many, many children struggle with the fundaments of literacy to the point where their imaginations never get fired up because they're embroiled in the mechanics of reading.

umbrarchist said...

But now we have mp3 audiobooks to synchronize with the text.

CNu said...

A Windows 8 tablet running the free Adobe Reader will read a standard pdf document to you http://www.lenovo.com/shop/WW/products/splitter/tablets/ThinkPad/gallery/ThinkPad-Tablet-2-PC-Fitted-Sleeve-View-10L-940x475.jpg

That Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2 is truly a thing of immense beauty to behold. Includes an active stylus. The Droid killer if ever there was one http://www.lenovo.com/products/us/tablet/thinkpad/thinkpad-tablet-2/ - and don't even get me started on the ultimate POS iPad.

Umbra, I'm telling you, once you pick and handle a fully accesorized Thinkpad 2, (design aesthetic classic Bento box http://wineatfive.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/bento.jpg) no other device will even remotely begin to compare.

umbrarchist said...

DUDE! $700 The Huyndai T7s is $186. That is 15 kids with computers versus 4 kids with computers. And I am prejudiced against Windoze. They will just make you pay to upgrade once you are hooked.

CNu said...

lol, Bill Gates gotta eat too..., But seriously, most schools are still on Windows XP with a smattering of iOS - they're so far behind the contemporary curve it's pathetic. Getting onto Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 (same reinvented kernal) has certain definite advantages. As far as the kids go, they've already been trained on Windows 7 and are accustomed to Android and iOS - so Windows 8 will be like candy to the babies in its proper touchscreen hardware context. Oh, and don't forget the smart stylus on this bad boy, how else you gonna free-hand equations and formulae?