Teaching With Inquiry

Teaching With Inquiry – STEM It Up!

What does it mean to teach with inquiry. And why don’t we see more science teachers using inquiry as a central teaching practice. The simple answer is that it seems very hard and when done without guidance, students struggle. And we want to rescue them naturally. I decided to write this blog post because I have always been an inquiry based educator and I feel uneasy when I see students being lectured at with an occasional lab. But, when I look back at my typical classes and how I was taught it was notes, notes, lab, more notes, etc. So what made me an inquiry-based teacher? This goes back to when I was a child and my parents were very supportive of letting me explore our world, test my ideas, let me fail and then pick me back up. They were never dream crushers, rather they said “ok, how will you do that and let’s try that and see what happens.” This drove my love for science and it was likely that passion for learning that allowed me to sit through classes. Lets face it, science is more hands-on than other classes in itself.

Additionally, in college I loved my lab classes and was asked to be an undergraduate TA (teacher assistant) and teach the labs. Upon graduating I went into the zoology field and “did science.” I was gone for days at a time hiking and doing field encounter surveys for population counts. So when I decided I wanted to teach, I made a promise to myself, get kids doing science. And that is exactly what I did. So let’s get kids excited about science.

Body Model

With the implementation of NGSS, the goal was to move more to an inquiry based approach to teaching science so that students learn to think and act like a scientist in the classroom. In this blog post I hope to support all of you who have dreams to stop lecturing and let kids explore their world, be curious about the world and guide them through doing science. And I know it not easy. But small steps will get you to where you want to be and you will never go back.

TIP #1: Start Small

I know we all want to do it all, but it really does take small steps. Try to pick one activity a week you want to be inquiry based. To do this, take an activity you already know really well and have the notes, lab, and any other activities that go with it and ask yourself, how can I have students discover this rather than tell them.

TIP #2: Reverse Your Lesson

Alright, you have your lesson, now flip it. Instead of teaching the students everything and then doing the lab. Have students go through an exploration by making small changes to your lab and then follow it up with a discussion. For example, if you were teaching students about cells. Rather than give the students notes, label a diagram and then do a lab. Flip these around. Allow students to view cells in the microscope and make drawings. For example, students might look at green leaf plant, amoeba, and cheek cells in the lab. As students look at them they can compare and contrast things that they notice (All have a boundary between them and the environment, all have a dark structure in the middle, all have fluid inside them).

Then after they have gotten a chance to explore you can hold a discussion about their observations.  You might be completely surprised and what your students observe and say. Use this to lead into your notes now in more interactive way using sharing and questioning as your instructional tool. For example you can ask questions like: 

  • How do you know where the cell is and the environment begins?
  • What did you notice about the inside of the cells?

These types of questions allow students to share their ideas, but also allows you to have them label things they already noticed like the basic organelles: cell membrane, nucleus and cytoplasm. Now they have some solid similarities and your ready to discuss differences. This is where your notes that you would normally give become more meaningful and students think they were apart of this discovery and it creates more memory. 

TIP #3: Don't Be Afraid to Let Them Fail!

I know we don’t want kids to fail. But that is just it, we learn more when we make mistakes because the learning process helps look at our ideas and make sense of them. Just like in the cell example earlier, they are not going to see everything you want them to. So when you have a discussion about the cells you help them notice some of the organelles and give them the name or do a follow activity for them to figure it out. So don’t grade their first trial. Have them see how they did and make corrections.

TIP #4: Put Students in Teams of 4

Table Numers

Break out of students rows and pairs and make your classroom into tables or desk where students sit in groups of 4 (add 5th if needed for odd numbers). Scientists are collaborators. So instead of asking students and having the same kids with the answers raise their hand, build in teamwork. Think ahead and plan the questions to ask, put them on cards and give them to your groups to discuss them. Then you get everyone talking and not just 4 kids who always answer. You can always follow up with a share out to make sure everyone is successful OR address their misconceptions you heard why they were discussing and address them immediately, instead of waiting to find out on an assignment or quiz.

Tip #5: Plan For Students To Talk

Begin thinking of yourself as a facilitator of their learning instead of the expert giving them information. Again take activities you already have and reformat them into question card for cooperative learning activities. Many teachers are afraid to give up the control to students. But they will totally surprise you and do better if they can talk about what they are learning. Start building student talk with non-academic activities and then shift to academic ones with structures you have set in place.

TIP #6: Use Graphic Organizers

Cell Graphic Organizer

You don’t always have to print them, students can create them. But whenever students are learning they should be putting pen to paper. Yes in the digital age we use technology, but research still shows that the kinesthetic writing supports remembering. I sometimes give students an organizer to capture their learning throughout an activity, but also have students draw them in their science notebooks.

 For example when students are viewing cells I gave students a simple organizer where the left side was 3 circles for their field of view and the right side was for observations. To support observations, I included some words to help them observe: size, shape, etc. (Grab your freebie by clicking: Cell Organizer). Then when your ready for your discussion, you can have students label their drawings with words like: cell membrane, nucleus, and cytoplasm. Last, if you consistently use similar organizers all you have to do is tell students–”set up your microscope observation organizer and they can draw it.” 


So, I challenge you to take one lesson a week and turn it into an inquiry based activity. But here is something important you need to know whenever trying something new. The first time it might not go as planned and you might feel like giving up. Hopefully not, but if it does–you learned what you need to do to make it better the next time. Each time you will get better and better. Eventually it will feel comfortable and your students will think more critically, make better observations, and hold academic conversations. YES–they will be “Scientist.”

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