There is no other way to slice it.
For the last seven years, I taught in a school that gave me near-complete freedom to teach what and how I wanted to. With the National Science Education Standards and the Washington State Standards as rough guideposts, I focused on big ideas and my students investigated them deeply through prolonged project-based learning experiences. To ice the cake, I sported a 1:1 student:computer ratio in my classroom.
Inquiry was deeply ingrained in what we did but often on more of an academic, rather than scientific, level. Student curiousity and questions would absolutely drive the learning, much of which was accomplished via online resources. My students did some really amazing interdisciplinary technology-rich projects.
As proud as I was of these projects, I sometimes felt too little of the learning was rooted in scientific inquiry. This was especially true in biology. It is just plain hard to teach certain aspects of biology through scientific inquiry.
Physics and chemistry were always much easier to attack via rich scientific inquiry. I think this is mostly because the physical sciences are rooted in universal phenomena that we can often reproduce fairly easily (an inexpensively) in any classroom.
So, what’s so special about scientific inquiry?
When students actively engage in gathering data about the world around them and use this data to answer THEIR questions, they come to much deeper understanding of scientific principles than through “discovering” them on the Internet.
This brings us to my present context. Because I’m no longer spoiled with the freedom and technology riches that made my life easy before, I’m having to reinvent myself. So far, I’ve been surviving – sometimes using methods and materials that I would have shunned in the past few years. I’m increasingly finding my groove, though.
One thing is certain – it’s making me a better teacher.
Scientific inquiry is the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m identifying one or two key “labs” per content standard to serve as an anchor experience. From there, students will explore outward as their curiosity leads them. The key is helping them to come back together to share learning from their experimentation and to clearly connect their findings back to the standard. One way I’m doing this is with lots of whiteboarding and socratic discussion. Another way is with a strong emphasis on evidence and reasoning.
As I’ve started doing this, I’ve identified my students’ need for discourse skills. I’m thinking I need to develop protocols for small group and whole class discourse to scaffold them toward effective scientific discourse. Once I put these protocols together, I will share them here for feedback.