Our guest blogger today is Jan from Dr. Jan’s Math and Science Lab! She’s sharing her thoughts on how to fit science in through inquiry-based instruction into today’s schools. Enjoy!
Science instruction in elementary schools has been dwindling for some time now. As a science lover, this has been a disheartening reality. In my research as a doctoral student, I learned that science is only taught an average of 1.5 hours per week in elementary classrooms. This is a fraction of the time spent on other subjects. With so much pressure to perform on high stakes tests in math and language arts, science tends to get pushed aside.
Elementary teachers are truly amazing! ( I was one for 21 years.) They are tasked with being experts on every topic, from fractions to plate tectonics. Finding time to get everything in can be challenging, to say the least. In this post I hope to empower teachers to fit science in. By teaching what I like to call “precision science,” teachers can focus on quality of instruction rather than quantity. If teachers can teach a science topic well in just 3-4 days, teaching science suddenly becomes more doable.
So, what are some of the most effective ways to teach science? Research suggests that inquiry-based instruction is one of the most effective techniques for teaching science topics well. Inquiry-based instruction has been touted as a best practice for teaching science concepts, but it hasn’t really caught on at the elementary level. One common misconception regarding inquiry-based instruction is that it is hard to do. In reality, it’s just a different way of approaching teaching science that requires more facilitation than direct instruction.
So, What Is Inquiry-Based Instruction?
As the name implies, inquiry involves questions. In guided inquiry a teacher supplies a question and some materials, and students are given the opportunity to explore and investigate on their own. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh my! Where is the structure?!” This technique does require a different mindset in the classroom. Students will not be sitting quietly at their desks reading from a book during inquiry lessons. They will be collaborating with their groups, tinkering with manipulatives, and occasionally squealing with delight.
When I first introduce inquiry-based instruction to my university students, they are baffled. After all, most of us did not experience this type of learning in our own schooling. The structure of the lesson seems a little wonky at first–almost out of order. Students are given the chance to explore before any vocabulary or concepts are taught. We use a simple 5E Instructional Model format to construct inquiry lessons. The 5E Instructional Model format was originally designed by BCSC. Click here to learn more about this lesson plan format.
An Inquiry Lesson
Although I am no longer a 5th grade teacher, one of my assignments for a doctoral class I took involved doing an experiment. Since my new position at the university was training teachers to use inquiry to teach math and science, I wanted to find out if this approach to teaching was indeed more effective. I developed a lesson on Heredity and Traits that was to be taught to two different classrooms in two different ways. Class #1 would receive a traditional lesson with a PowerPoint, reading, and discussion. Class #2 would receive an inquiry lesson. The inquiry lesson is detailed in the following section.
This mini inquiry unit involved students collecting data from parents on easily observable inherited traits, such as bent pinkies, widow’s peaks, attached earlobes, and the ability to roll the tongue. Once the students came back to school with their data, they made models of each parent’s traits, along with models of their own, using beads and pipe cleaners.
On day 3 I introduced vocabulary for students to connect to what they had discovered. I then showed a cool video on Punnett squares. Students love filling Punnett squares out and figuring out the probabilities for each trait. (A chance to bring in some math!)
After administering a post-test to both Class #1 and Class #2, I discovered that my suspicions were right on: Students in the inquiry class learned significantly more than the students in the traditional class. I am convinced that inquiry-based learning is the way to go with science. Students learn more and are more engaged when they are given the opportunity to construct their own knowledge.
The Dilemma We Face Is Fitting It In
Another argument for using inquiry-based instruction at the elementary level is time. Teachers don’t have the time they would like to teach science. I believe the answer lies in quality instruction in the form of inquiry. If students are given opportunities to inquire about concepts, then they construct their own knowledge. This is a much more engaging and valuable way to learn. This type of learning is also more likely to be long lasting and applicable to future learning. Quality over quantity may be the answer to fitting in science. Teaching precision mini-units may have a profound difference on your students’ experience with science. I challenge you to do your students a favor and give it a try!
Jan Smith is a clinical assistant professor at Boise State University. She currently teaches STEM education majors in the IDoTeach program. Jan has 21 years of elementary teaching experience. Visit Jan’s TpT store to preview some inquiry-based science mini-units.