The Spark Behind the Spark

Using Inquiry-based Learning Principles for More Effective Science Teaching

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an 18th century Swiss philosopher and writer, once said: “We should not teach children the sciences but give them a taste for them.”

Similarly in a recent interview with respected South African epidemiologist Prof. Salim Abdool Karim he said: “To become a scientist you must have the basic elements of curiosity, imagination and a staunch belief in the rigours of experimentation. I am concerned we are not doing enough in our schools, to generate students with that curiosity, those students who are going to be tomorrow’s leaders in questioning the world and coming up with new ideas.”

A shift to inquiry-based learning

Many educators, particularly in the past, were more concerned with pushing content than stimulating curiosity, which is understandable given the demands of a packed curriculum. However, over the years, and especially as a result of the pandemic, Science teaching is shifting to embrace inquiry-based learning (IBL).

For students, this means using evidence-based reasoning to come up with solutions to a problem posed. For teachers, this means moving students beyond general curiosity into the realms of critical thinking by asking the right questions, encouraging them to ask questions and guiding and supporting students through the investigation process.

Student-centered learning

Student-centred learning

In short, IBL is moving from a teacher-centred classroom to a more student-centred classroom. The aim is to extract thinking from students that empowers them to identify what they need to learn, so that they have greater engagement, innate curiosity and take ownership of their learning.

At St. Mary’s, we intentionally use the IBL approach to inspire curiosity in the Science classroom through the 5E Model of Instruction. This model was developed by American STEM education experts and provides a carefully planned sequence of instruction that attempts to place students at the centre of the learning process.

1. Teachers first engage students by using a ‘hook’ or a driving question – something that immediately captures students’ attention, sparks their curiosity, and makes them wonder. These hooks make content feel more relatable, relevant and are often vehicles for deeper discussion.

2.Encourage exploration by the students. We try to start each section with a fun exploration task, where each student is engaged in a common experience. We let the students generate ideas using their own vocabulary and terminology. Traditionally we often do this process in reverse by explaining, using vocabulary that the pupils don’t understand, and only afterwards encouraging them to engage and explore.

When we introduce new concepts where students can see the real-life value in what they are studying, we find that they are more willing to invest time and effort in their learning. Furthermore, we realised that it was not necessary to conduct ‘wow’ experiments to engage students. Applying a simple inquiry-based task, with just enough guidance often brings about that lightbulb moment and a real sense of accomplishment to even notoriously mundane learning areas.

3. Only after this important step of exploration does the teacher explain what the students have observed, introducing the correct terminology, and linking observed patterns. Once the students have engaged and explored on their own, they start to generate ideas of understanding how the phenomenon works. It leads to more learning retention and more engaged students all around.

4. The elaboration segment allows students to test ideas and apply their knowledge. There are a variety of ways to do this.

5. Finally, there is evaluation, which provides an opportunity for students to reflect and review the entire process. This can be formal or informal, formative or summative.

Dry ice experiment as part of inquiry-based learning

For example, in grade 8 we investigate temperature change by introducing energy transfer by getting the students to drop blocks of dry ice into beakers of coloured water. The discussion that ensues is animated as students try to figure out why the water becomes cold, and what makes the ‘smoke’ form above the beaker. We prepare weak basic solutions with indicators, so that when the dry ice is added the resulting carbonic acid produces some wonderful colour changes.

By grade 12 we use IBL to teach concepts like chemical equilibrium through a water-transfer activity using different sized beakers and coloured water. This provides an effective analogy for chemical equilibrium, particularly the constant, non-equal volumes of ‘reactants’ and ‘products’ in the last transfers.

The IBL approach does not need to be intimidating. One can start small, but if the teacher’s calling is to help students learn, we need to be more flexible and open to rethinking our methods. Courage and creativity in the classroom can be learned, and it improves with practice. As science teachers we need to think more like scientists and re-examine old knowledge to pursue new insights.