Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning is a powerful means for students to learn both scientific content and scientific reasoning together. Different educators and researchers have described inquiry-based learning activities in different ways (e.g., Banchi & Bell 2008, Chinn & Malhotra 2002, Hunter et al. 2010, National Research Council 2000, Ontario Ministry of Education 2013), but most agree that the essence of inquiry is learning science in ways that mirror authentic scientific research practices, or “learning science as science is done” (Hunter et al. 2010). Scientific practices (sometimes called core skills, or reasoning skills, or critical thinking) are ways of thinking about and doing science. A framework for enumerating scientific practices (from the U.S.’s Next Generation Science Standards; NRC 2012) is:

  • Asking questions
  • Developing and using models
  • Planning and carrying out investigations
  • Analysing and interpreting data
  • Using mathematics and computational thinking
  • Constructing explanations
  • Engaging in argument from evidence
  • Communicating information

Gaining competency at these practices is a critical part of becoming scientifically literate, and can be taught explicitly in astronomy education activities. We encourage activity authors to consider deeply how to incorporate teaching scientific practices into activities they design.

A framework for describing inquiry in astronomy (adapted from the Institute for Scientist & Engineer Educators, Hunter et al. 2014) is:

  1. Student learning is motivated by investigating the answer to a question.
  2. The learning activity is focused on developing learners’ competency with practices of doing and thinking about science and astronomy (as described in the list above).
  3. The learning activity is focused on foundational physics and astronomy concepts.
  4. Learning practices and concepts is intertwined: students use scientific practices to gain conceptual understanding, and conceptual understanding motivates the use of scientific practices.
  5. Students have ownership over their learning and gaining competency.
  6. Students use evidence to develop explanations.
  7. The learning activity mirrors authentic scientific research.

Inquiry activities often involve students developing their own questions to investigate based on intriguing observed phenomena, working in groups to plan and carry out an investigation to answer their question, and communicating their results with classmates to give everyone a fuller understanding (e.g., Institute for Inquiry at the Exploratorium, 2014). These activities are learner-centered, focused on what the learners do rather than on what the teacher does, but they are also not a free-for-all; the teacher has specific learning goals for students and can nudge and guide students towards those as the activity progresses.

Education research supports teaching via inquiry-based activities. General findings from education research on how people learn science (e.g., NRC 2000) include:

  • When students learn with understanding (more than just learning scientific facts), they are better able to apply knowledge to novel situations; and
  • Effective learning requires that students take control of their own learning.

Inquiry-based activities tend to teach science in ways that are in line with these and other research findings; in addition, education research tends to find that inquiry-based methods are effective at teaching conceptual understanding of scientific principles and comprehension of the nature of scientific reasoning and investigation. Inquiry also promotes learning by students from a wide diversity of backgrounds (e.g., NRC 2000). National reports in many countries on improving science education emphasize the importance of learning via inquiry-based methods (e.g., PKAL 2006). For these many reasons, we encourage activity authors to consider how they can design astronomy education activities that incorporate inquiry. (Nevertheless, we add that inquiry is only one tool in the educator’s toolbox, and other teaching techniques play important roles as well.)

Designing inquiry-based activities can be challenging, so we offer a few suggested questions to consider during the design process (and in reviewing activities):

  • Are the concepts studied in the activity deep foundational parts of the subject area?
  • Do students gain competency at scientific practices along with content?
  • Is the activity motivated by investigating questions?
  • Do students have some ownership over pathways to their learning? (e.g., deciding the questions to investigate, and/or how to investigate questions)
  • Do students use evidence to develop scientific explanations?

For feedback, questions, and ideas about inquiry-based teaching and learning, please contact the astroEDU editors.

References & Further Reading:

Banchi, H., & Bell, R., The Many Levels of Inquiry, Science and Children, National Science Teachers Association, 46(2), 26-29 (2008)

Chinn C. A., & Malhotra, B. A., Epistemologically Authentic Inquiry in Schools: A Theoretical Framework for Evaluating Inquiry Tasks, Science Education, 86, 175 (2002)

Hunter L., Metevier A.J., Seagroves S., Kluger-Bell B., Inquiry Framework and Indicators, (Santa Cruz, USA: Institute for Scientist & Engineer Educators, 2014)

Hunter, L., Metevier, A.J., Seagroves, S., Kluger-Bell, B., Porter, J., Raschke, L.M., Jonsson, P., Shaw, J., Quan, T.K., Montgomery, R., Cultivating Scientist- and Engineer-Educators 2010: The Evolving Professional Development Program in Learning from Inquiry in Practice, L. Hunter & A.J. Metevier, eds. ASP Conference Series 436: 3 (2010)

Institute for Inquiry, What is Inquiry?, (San Francisco, USA: Exploratorium, 2014)

National Research Council (NRC), A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (Washington, DC, USA: National Academy Press, 2012); esp. p. 49

National Research Council (NRC), How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, (Washington, DC, USA: The National Academies Press, 2000); esp. Chapter 1

National Research Council (NRC), Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning, (Washington, DC, USA: National Academy Press, 2000); esp. Chapters 1, 2, 6

Ontario Ministry of Education, Inquiry-based Learning, Capacity Building Series (2013)

PKAL, Report on Reports II: Recommendations for Urgent Action: Transforming America’s Scientific and Technological Infrastructure (Washington, DC, USA: Project Kaleidoscope, 2006)