Inquiry Science in the Learning Process

Reasons for Inquiry-based Learning

Inquiry has been a strongly advocated approach to teaching and learning generally and particularly in science for many years. The term has a long history in the ideas of key US educators such as John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. Joseph Schwab in the 1960s argued for a science curriculum that focuses on the way science ideas are posed, experiments performed, and data converted into evidence for new knowledge. Schwab’s vision thus aimed at aligning science classroom processes more closely with the knowledge producing practices of science itself. 

There are numerous advantages offered for applying inquiry-based learning strategies. Important aims of a science education are to have students develop reasoning and imagination, to use knowledge flexibly, and to connect their classroom learning to their real-life experiences. For this, they need to be challenged to move beyond simply recycling what is given by the teacher, to apply ideas in new settings, and to be given a degree of independence in how they apply and extend their learning. This is not to say that a degree of direct teaching is not useful, but that it needs to occur in settings where students have the opportunity to explore the nature of problems that scientific ideas have been developed to solve, and where students are challenged to use these ideas flexibly in new settings. Inquiry teaching privileges reasoning with new ideas rather than repetition, and higher order thinking alongside comprehension, In this way it aims for a longer-term understanding of the concepts taught in classroom.

Inherently intellectually demanding activities encourage students to actively engage with what they are learning, linking conceptual knowledge to science inquiry skills.  Many of the Laboratory Learning Activities (LLAs) resemble what scientists actually do, offering students an opportunity to develop deeper understandings about contemporary science practice, showing the day-to-day lives of scientists and their work, and its applications and contributions to modern life. Connecting students to passionate scientists talking about their field of work may encourage them to consider science as an endeavour they can relate to.

Difficulties and Misconceptions about Inquiry-based Learning

In debates about inquiry vs ‘direct teaching’ approaches, there is a confusion around three issues. First, ‘inquiry’ as a pedagogy ranges from strongly guided approaches where the teacher frames student exploration and discussion towards scientific understandings, to ‘open’ inquiry where the teacher plays more of a background role and students explore phenomena of interest in their own terms. Second, inquiry can have a very specific meaning in terms of investigative skills such as questioning, experimental design and analysis, which are distinct from the conceptual learning aimed at in inquiry pedagogies more broadly. Third, inquiry pedagogies target higher level competences such as problem solving, team processes and meta-representational competence which tend not to be the focus of standardised testing regimes. In guided inquiry, these often are scaffolded using direct teaching. Comparisons of inquiry vs direct teaching are therefore fraught, since they are not strictly oppositional, and they can focus on different levels of outcome.

One of the difficulties with talking about inquiry learning is that it is not a well defined construct. Inquiry is often talked about as a ‘reform pedagogy’, emphasising student agency but encompassing a wide variety of teaching strategies and varied degrees of teacher guidance. Less effective forms of inquiry have involved minimal teacher guidance and insufficient scaffolding. Inquiry can also have a more specific meaning, referring to science investigative processes encompassing a range of inquiry skills such as formulating questions, experimental design, analysis and communication. Here, inquiry can again vary from strongly guided investigative work, to ‘open’ investigation where the student makes all decisions. ASELL focuses mainly on investigative forms of inquiry and has developed a rubric to help teachers vary the type of scaffolding they offer in a systematic way, to develop specific inquiry skills.

Despite being full of promises, inquiry teaching does not come without its challenges. Inquiry learning demands more from students and this means that they must be sufficiently engaged to work through inquiry challenges, and also be sufficiently prepared to be able to work out what to do next. It is a misconception to think that inquiry teaching necessarily involves only student-led activities. Teachers have a fundamental role in guiding students to conduct their investigations, a task that can be more demanding of the teachers themselves. There are different degrees to which the teacher might allow students to make decisions in the class, accordingly to the teacher’s goals with the activity (see Assessment of Inquiry Skills) and their assessment of student learning needs.

How to Best Apply Inquiry-based Learning

Research by Furtak, Seidel, Iverson, & Briggs (2012) highlights some of the best practices within inquiry teaching in terms of their positive impact on student learning. They are as follows:

  • Engaging students in generating, developing, testing, and justifying their explanations;
  • Integrating content (science concepts), procedural (skills) and epistemological (Nature of Science) components to activities;
  • Providing appropriate guidance and support for their students.

Furtak et al, 2012, “Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Studies of Inquiry-Based Science Teaching”. Access this article for free through JSTOR ( or read Furtak et al’s earlier 2009 work “Recent Experimental Studies Of Inquiry-Based Teaching”, made available by the University of Colorado on: < >.

Applying inquiry-based approaches to teaching in order to achieve learning outcomes is promoted by the Science By Doing resources.  Check out the Science By Doing – Teacher Guide.

In inquiry approaches such as Lawson’s (1995) Learning Cycle, or Bybee and colleague’s (2006) 5Es approach, a key characteristic of inquiry is that students explore phenomena and ideas before the teacher builds explanations, and that science ideas are discussed rather than transmitted as “given”. Key differences with inquiry teaching as opposed to ‘traditional’ teaching relate to the relative roles of the teacher and students to introduce and explore ideas in the classroom community, and the degree of latitude allowed to and encouraged in students in investigating phenomena, and ideas.

The 5E’s approach is used in Science by Doing and is very popular in science lesson planning. Recommended by the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority (VCAA), the steps of the approach are summarised in the table below:

A recent article from Kieran Lim (the Node Leader of the ASELL for School – Victorian Node) follows:

Inquiry-based investigations

The ultimate goal is for students to be able to undertake open inquiry, which means that that they have achieved mastery, and are able to plan and undertake all aspects of the investigation independently of the teacher.