Institute of Inquiry: Day 1


Five fellow educators from the Cranbrook Institute of Science and I had the opportunity to attend the Institute of Inquiry at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. A series of posts will document our thoughts as we progressed through the week-long workshops.

Many of us had been hoping to attend this professional development opportunity for some time, so to touch down in California and look forward to a week of not only learning but a chance to reflect and discuss out work with each other arrive was certainly exciting. Yet we also shared uncertainty about what each of us will take away from it: How it will connect to the different types of work we do? What we can transfer this knowledge to the educators and students we serve? I think the first day put some of those concerns to rest, even as the complete picture on inquiry was not yet revealed.

We joined about twenty-five other teachers, principals, professors, and informal educators in a conference room around 9 in the morning. Some worked at the Exploratorium, others worked elsewhere in the state, but they were in the minority. Most had travelled from elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada, and a few had traveled as far as from Japan, Hong Kong, and Spain. This would allow for rich conversations with the various perspectives and experiences in the room, which is often just as valuable as the content being presented.

The day began with a brief introduction, including the core ideas of the workshop:

  • Personal Experience of Inquiry: deconstructing inquiry by allowing us to apply it to an investigation of shadows on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning
  • Elements of Inquiry: Comparing different ways to do hands on science on Monday; take a closer look at best scientific practices, with a focus on asking questions on Tuesday; ending with subtle shifts of taking a structured activity to more open inquiry
  • Professional Development Design: a third of the time will be spent on how we structure professional development with the intent we can instruct our fellow educators on inquiry, along with ample time for reflective conversations
  • Collegial Network: learning and sharing with each other, with the idea these relationships will continue beyond the week of workshops

Each day we will be presented with take home messages to consider during the day. For Monday they were:

  • All approaches to hands-on science are not alike – each approach has distinguishable characteristic.
  • Different approaches to hands-on science support different objectives for learning.
  • Effective science teaching requires using a variety of approaches and matching the appropriate approach with specific content, process, and attitudinal learning

We also started with a very brief history of science education. We are emerging from No Child Left Behind with reinvigorated interest in science education due to the emphasis on STEM and adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. The connections of science to Common Core standards is also encouraging and a topic I need to investigate further. These standards reflect current understandings of learning where students need direct experience with investigations in order to truly understand the world around them. We also need to develop a “disposition for learning”, allowing them to be active thinkers beyond the classroom.

Next Generation Science Standards have been adopted by 13 states, covering 30% of U.S. students. Eleven states are in process of deciding whether to adopt, but no matter how many states ultimately come on board, NGSS will dominate discourse on science standards, as they are the best thoughts about science education at this time. The three dimensions included in the framworks are: 1. Best Practices in Science 2.Disciplinary Core Ideas (content) 3. Crosscutting standards, and most states will include some version of these in their standards. NGSS uses performance standards, to see what student will accomplish, bringing thinking to the forefront. Previous standards had many misunderstandings of inquiry, which will be dispelled during these workshops. Some have considered NGSS to be Inquiry 2.0.

Inquiry should not be the only way to teach science, but it is an important way. There are two misunderstanding we were asked to consider:

  • There is no dichotomy between content and process. We do inquiry to gain deeper knowledge about world, which fits with the three dimensions of NGSS.
  • Inquiry is not without structure, but carefully choreographed so learners can reach set goals, particularly when trying to meet standards.

To construct this knowledge, we participated in a an hour long activity on comparing approaches to inquiry by rotating through three station. None of these approaches are inquiry itself, but make up inquiry when considered together. Each station asked us to construct spinning tops using paper discs/plates, sharpened pencils, skewers, pennies, and masking tape, among other assorted materials, but did so in markedly different ways.

Station A: Construct a top following step-by-step instructions, changing the placement of penny weights on the disc and recording differences in spinning times.
Station B: Attempt to meet three challenges: 1. Construct a top with a 1.5″ spindle and see if it it can spin for 10s. 2. Construct a top with a 3″ spindle to spin for 10s. 3. How long can a 3″ spindle top spin?
Station C: What can you discover about structure and behavior of tops?

We spent 15 mins each in Stations A and B, 30 minutes in Station C. Due to logistics (but also by design), each group experienced that stations in different orders. Once we had completed the stations, we reflected in three ways:

  1. Identify the characteristics of the different approaches.
  2. Compare the different approaches by identifying if it is the learner or teacher that’s in control.
  3. What situations would fit best for each of these approaches?

We noted how important the order we experienced the stations were in how we approached them. I completed it in A-B-C order, which worked well by going from a rigid to more open approach. Others did them in B-C-A order, and found it quite limiting to end with A. For those that did them in C-A-B order found the first open approach to be more bewildering without any direction. We debated for a while might make the most sense, with my thoughts being a C-A-B-C ordering might work well. However, I think teachers will have to be prepared to dynamically change their approach based on the background knowledge and learning styles of the class.

All approaches respect evidence, but in different ways. We were reminded again that all of these stations were not demonstrating inquiry, but elements of inquiry. Asking which teaching technique is like asking which tool is best – it depends on task on hand. Books and lectures can be wonderful means of learning, but you can use other techniques to show power of metacognitive learning. There is no one best approach to learning. Many educators use approach A, but few use approach C. Prompting and responding to students in that open environment is a skill that takes time to develop.

After a break, we then shifted our focus to how to approach inquiry in professional development design. We can use the same activities to present these materials to teachers we serve. When first presenting them, we should stick close to how the activities are written, then as we get accustomed to them, start to modify for our needs. These workshops are not about making and taking back activities but about pedagogy, which is not necessarily what teachers expect. We need to be up front about this – we are not focused on content knowledge, but means towards different approaches of inquiry based activities.

The PD design principles that I found quite useful:

  • Match activity to learning goals – can have many smaller goals leading to larger goal
  • Allow ample time for context – give reason why learners are being asked to do something
  • Allow ample time for meaning-making – often gets forgotten, provide time for reflective discussion, reflected in NGSS with argumentation
  • Deliberate sequencing – each activity builds upon the others

In our week-long teach workshops at Cranbrook, we do a good job on the first and last points, but fail to build in enough time for reflection and context, since we are often running from one activity to the next. The pace of these workshops put these practices into action, as we often spend time reflecting on our own with a short writing prompt, discussing in small groups, then returning to a large group to discuss further. This needs to be built into our programs as well with students. I can see opportunities to do this with our middle school programs, but it may be more of a challenge with younger students, or at least more time consuming. John suggested giving reflection prompts to teachers to use with their students once they return to their school.

We ended with a quote from Messing About in Science by David Hawkins, that stated that nothing is more important that messing about in the classroom, or in life; we need time devoted to free inquiry. Students are given equipment without detailed instructions, but with a subtle structure in place due to the prompt given, the equipment provided, and the nudges and questioning from the teacher. This work can create a foundation for formal work later.

Our homework was to read and respond to an article on Handling Children’s Questions by Wynne Harlan, which I would recommend for any science teacher. It was something I struggled with when considering science fair project questions.

By the end of the first day, we were left hungry to dig further into inquiry and how to change our approach to science education, which is a good place to be.




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