Inquiry learning: elements of confusion and frustration.
Article Type: Letter to the editor
Subject: Sciences education (Evaluation)
Science teachers (Practice)
Classroom management (Evaluation)
Author: Eastwell, Peter
Pub Date: 05/01/2009
Publication: Name: The American Biology Teacher Publisher: National Association of Biology Teachers Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Biological sciences; Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 National Association of Biology Teachers ISSN: 0002-7685
Issue: Date: May, 2009 Source Volume: 71 Source Issue: 5
Topic: Event Code: 200 Management dynamics
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 201441520
Full Text: Elements of confusion seem to accompany the use of the term inquiry in science education. Here, I wish to identify what I think are two such sources of confusion-the lack of a definition for inquiry and an inappropriate view of the importance of open inquiry-and also discuss how an inappropriate view of the role of open inquiry may be causing unnecessary frustration.

A Definition for Inquiry

I find it rather strange that the science education community continues to engage heavily in discussion of aspects of inquiry learning in the apparent absence of a definition for the term (e.g., Abrams, Southerland & Silva, 2008; Johnson & Smith, 2008). How can there possibly be a fruitful conversation about a term if there is no guarantee that the participants in the discussion share the same meaning for it? Certainly, descriptions of the features of inquiry have been made available (e.g., National Research Council, 2000), but if such frameworks were sufficient we surely wouldn't have such a "lack of agreement about what constitutes an inquiry-based approach" (Buck, Bretz & Towns, 2008, p. 52).

What is inquiry in the context of science education? In particular, how can we tell if a learning experience in which students are engaged can be considered an inquiry activity or not? In a recent journal conversation, I have suggested that "an inquiry activity is one that requires students to answer a scientific question by analysing raw, empirical data themselves" ("Inquiry [continued]," 2008, p. 31). I tend to take it for granted that, if students are analysing data, they will also be drawing conclusions and be prepared to justify them. Also, I use the term activity in the broadest sense to include even projects that span an extended period of time. A detailed rationale for this definition may be found at "Inquiry Learning: A Discussion" (2007-2008), which is a freely available, online, composite reproduction of the ongoing journal discussion mentioned. I might briefly note here, though, that this definition precludes the answering of socioscientific questions, although scientific inquiry can certainly make a contribution to decision-making on socioscientific issues. It also follows that an activity such as the library retrieval of information that comprises the conclusions of others is insufficient to be regarded an inquiry activity. Does this definition provide the criteria necessary to alleviate confusion as to whether or not students are engaged in inquiry in the science classroom? Can it perhaps be improved?

Open Inquiry

In "Inquiry Learning: A Discussion" (2007-2008), I also made mention of inquiry being possible at any of four levels, depending upon which combination of question, method, and conclusion is supplied to students: Confirmation (Level 1), structured (Level 2), directed (Level 3), and open (Level 4). In the case of the latter, students answer their own questions using a methodology that they also devise themselves. Importantly, I distinguished between the amount of direction provided to students and the amount of guidance they receive, providing evidence for why unguided learning might be considered poor pedagogy.

With this as background, I then provided a rationale for doubting the role for open inquiry at higher (e.g., the post-compulsory) levels of education. My doubts were based mainly on my personal experience, over a considerable number of years, with offering open inquiry learning opportunities to high school students, and I noted that my stance would certainly be weakened if I could find examples of open inquiry being employed to teach science proper at the university level.

I was anxious to hear what others may have to say about this reasoning, as it appeared to be breaking new ground in so much as I had not seen others questioning the role of open inquiry in science education. So, it was with a feeling of some relief that I then found that Settlage (2007) had indeed also done just that, although in far more severe terms, when he asked us to speak out against open inquiry at all levels. He pointed out that it is a myth that open inquiry should sit at the top of the hierarchy of acceptable inquiry teaching approaches (i.e., that less-directed inquiry is the purest form of inquiry and something to be preferred), that methods textbooks inappropriately propagate the view of open inquiry as the ideal to be strived for, and that although many agree with this view, such an opinion is rarely expressed. He continued by saying that implementing open inquiry with any regularity is generally impractical and that there is negligible evidence to support a faith in it. Finally, he asserted that open inquiry occurs uncommonly, is pointless and misguided, and is a myth deserving of extinction.

Now, I think this raises a second very important source of confusion. Inquiry has been categorized by the assignment of levels based simply upon what is supplied to students (i.e., the level of direction provided to them). We make a grave mistake if we then interpret these levels in terms of "the higher the level number, the better," which is a completely different concept and illustrated nicely by S. Abell (personal communication, March 5, 2009):

Returning to the role for open inquiry, the only example of it being used at the tertiary level that I have found thus far is Johnson and Smith (2008). However, there is a twist; and a major twist at that. The questions students ask (e.g., How do the day and night evaporation rates from a grassy parade ground compare? How does indoor temperature in campus buildings vary with floor level? How does grass root length differ between fertilized and unfertilized fields?) would be equally applicable to the elementary classroom, and the conclusions of these inquiries do not appear to be a part of the content of the course. Rather, open inquiry seems to be used to teach experimental design and data analysis (especially involving statistics) at the undergraduate level.

I tend to take (presently, at least) a more moderate approach than Settlage (2007), providing for the notion that open inquiry might be able to play a useful role at perhaps the primary and middle school levels where the equipment that students require to investigate their questions is typically more readily available, but doubting its value at higher levels, a position that also appears to be in accord with Abell's claim that open inquiry at the college level is "absolutely unobtainable" (Friedrichsen, 2008, p. 75). I make these comments in the context of open inquiry being used in standard science classes, as opposed to special opportunities that might be made available to students in the form of a science club or purposely-designed course (e.g., Schwebach, 2008).

At the same time, though, I'm seeking to clearly identify the benefits that might be associated with students doing open inquiry during the compulsory years of education, say. If open inquiry is not necessary for the development of cognitive outcomes, perhaps its impact can be in the affective domain, as suggested by Yager ("Inquiry [Continued]," 2008). Perhaps Yager (1998), a passionate advocate of "science for all" and science/technology/society approaches, had it right some years ago when he likened science to sport:

Unfortunately, however, our students rarely get to play-rarely get to do real Science. ... Instead, school science means 13 years of learning the rules of the game. ... If potential athletes had to wait 13 years before playing a single scrimmage, playing a single set, a single quarter, how many would be clamoring to be involved (p. 77).

If open inquiry, then, is indeed more appropriate at some stages of education than at others, we can readily see why some teachers might be experiencing unnecessary frustration. Being pressured to implement a learning approach that neither they nor anyone else can justify for the particular stage of education at which they are working must surely be confusing and stressful. Perhaps we should indeed be satisfied, and even congratulating ourselves, if our classroom practices are such that Level 2 and especially Level 3 inquiry are prominent features.

I continue to deliberate on these issues, using as many means as possible to collect evidence, including seeking responses to this piece. For example, during the past couple of years I've been conducting Inquiry Learning workshops for practicing teachers across Australia. During these workshops I have shared thinking along the lines being presented here and am yet to find anyone who has seen reason to disagree.

I also recently shared my concern with MacKenzie, whose recent editorials (MacKenzie, 2008a, 2008b) appeared to be advocating the use of open learning in an unqualified way. I asked if she uses open inquiry in college/university science courses, if she is aware of colleagues or others who are doing so, and if she can point me to examples in the literature of open inquiry being used in university science proper courses, preferably with evidence supporting the practice. Interestingly, I have not received a reply, which appears to leave open the possibility that such writing is indeed promoting the rhetoric that Settlage (2007) warns us about.


Abrams, E., Southerland, S. A. & Silva, P. (Eds.). (2008). Inquiry in the Classroom: Realities and Opportunities. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Buck, L. B., Bretz, S. L. & Towns, M. H. (2008). Characterizing the level of inquiry in the undergraduate laboratory. Journal of College Science Teaching, 38(1), 52-58.

Friedrichsen, P. J. (2008). A conversation with Sandra Abell: Science teacher learning. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science & Technology Education, 4(1), 71-79

Inquiry (continued). (2008). The Science Education Review, 7, 27-36.

Inquiry learning: A discussion. (2007-2008). Available online at: http://www.scienceeducationreview. com/open_access/index.html.

Johnson, M. & Smith, M. (2008). Designing appropriate scaffolding for student science projects. Journal of College Science Teaching, 38(2), 24-29.

MacKenzie, A. H. (2008a). The necessity of students & teachers as science researchers. The American Biology Teacher, 70(9), 518.

MacKenzie, A. H. (2008b). Waiting for Godot: A reminder of the young adult learning experience. The American Biology Teacher, 70(8), 455.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Schwebach, J. R. (2008). Science seminar: Science capstone research projects as a class in high school. The American Biology Teacher, 70(8), 488-497.

Settlage, J. (2007). Demythologizing science teacher education: Conquering the false ideal of open inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 18, 461-467.

Yager, R. (1988). Never playing the game. The Science Teacher, 55(9), 77.

Peter Eastwell

Science Time Education


I appreciate Eastwell's perspective regarding apparent confusion surrounding inquiry in science classrooms; however, I want to address each of the points Eastwell sets forth in his letter. Eastwell claims there is no clear definition of inquiry amongst science educators. Second, he joins Settlage (2007) in questioning the value of open inquiry in science classrooms of all ages, especially at the university level. Finally, since there is a paucity of research for open inquiry at the university level, Eastwell questions its validity.

Although there are a multitude of descriptions of inquiry, the National Research Council (1996, 2000) reached a consensus from science educators, scientists, and public stakeholders regarding an explanation for inquiry. According to the National Science Education Standards, "Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work." Inquiry also refers to the activities of students in which they develop knowledge and understanding of scientific ideas, as well as an understanding of how scientists study the natural world (NRC, 1996, p. 23). Inquiry is a process where students actively learn and investigate their world through making observations, asking questions, and searching for answers (McBride et al., 2004). Inquiry-based teaching can take many forms across its continuum whether they be simulations, problem based learning, laboratories, or research based on a question the student is posing, e.g., Is there a scientific basis for the practice of Reiki? Is there evidence that stress creates gray hair in individuals?

Learning science is something students do, not something that gets done to them (NRC, 1996). This style of teaching facilitates a more accurate representation of the nature of science (Abd-El-Khalick et al., 2004). Students who experience a primarily inquiry-based curriculum often have a deeper understanding of the nature of science instead of simply viewing science as a body of facts to be memorized (McBride et al., 2004).

This process of discovery by learning through inquiry-based teaching is authentic science and it does not reinforce an "illusion of certainty" to students where they might believe that science produces unchangeable and definite proof (Bencze & Hodson, 1999). The more opportunities there are for students to question their findings, the more opportunities there are to promote student learning (Glasson, 1989). Eastwell states that doing research on a topic is not open inquiry. Those scientists who specialize in examining evidence through written documents would disagree.

Finally, Eastwell claims there is no data demonstrating that open inquiry works at the university level. Open inquiry is the hallmark of the university science experience, especially at the graduate level. Do we need evidence that research is beneficial to those pursuing masters and doctoral degrees? Does there need to be research done to demonstrate the efficacy of research experiences for the undergraduate student? Eastwell provides examples of questions he finds inappropriate for the university level. Again, applied scientists continually work with questions that may be simplistic but are far reaching when product development is concerned. Open inquiry provides these experiences for students and therefore do they need to be substantiated when university researchers and applied scientists investigate these issues daily? Open inquiry is a process. Do we question the applicability of music majors to engage in performance? Do we question the appropriateness of art majors to produce works of art? Isn't this actually the same sort of experience we want our students to do as science majors? If they aren't science majors, shouldn't the world of doing science be made available to them?

Eastwell wants data that inquiry works. Research demonstrates that inquiry-based teaching improves students' abilities to perform on higher-level conceptual test questions (Chang & Barufaldi, 1997). In addition, success in inquiry-based classes is more closely linked to one's ability to problem-solve and think critically as opposed to one's previous experience in the subject matter (Johnson & Lawson, 1998). Students who experience inquiry-based learning show significantly more content knowledge and process skills than those experiencing traditional instruction (Taraban et al., 2007). Not only do test scores support these findings, but survey data has also revealed that students feel as if they learn more through the inquiry-based teaching as opposed to traditional instruction (Krystyniak & Heikkienen, 2007; Taraban et al., 2007).

I believe open inquiry is a necessity for science courses to provide the relevant, needed experiences for our students. Inquiry does occur on a continuum and all levels of inquiry need to be incorporated into classes. Open inquiry should not be the only way to teach science at the university level, but it has its place. University courses providing science as a set of facts do a disservice to our students. Inquiry is not new. Inquiry is the hallmark of how science is done and therefore has a place in all science classrooms. Clarity exists for inquiry in the science classroom at all levels because without inquiry, are the science courses really scientific?


Abd-El-Khalick, F., BouJaoude, S., Duschl, R., Lederman, N. G., Mamlok-Naaman, R., Hofstein, A. et al. (2004). Inquiry in science education: International perspectives. Science Education, 88(3), 397-419.

Bencze, L., & Hodson, D. (1999). Changing practice by changing practice: Toward more authentic science and science curriculum development. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 36, 521- 539.

Chang, C.Y. & Barufaldi, J.P. (1997). Initiating change in students' achievement and alternative frameworks through a problem solving based instructional model: Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, Chicago, IL, March 21-24.

Glasson, G.E. (1989). The effects of hands-on and teacher demonstration laboratory methods on science achievement in relation to reasoning ability and prior knowledge. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 26, 121-131.

Johnson, M. A. & Lawson, E. (1998). What are the relative effects of reasoning ability and prior knowledge on biology achievement in expository and inquiry classes? Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 35(1), 89-103.

Krystyniak, R. A. & Heikkinen, W. (2007). Analysis of verbal interactions during an extended, openinquiry general chemistry laboratory investigation. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(8), 1160-1186.

McBride, J. W., Bhatti, M. I., Hannan, M. A. & Feinberg, M. (2004). Using an inquiry approach to teach science to secondary school science teachers. Physics Education, 39(5), 434-439.

National Research Council. (1996). National Science Education Standards. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and The National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Settlage, J. (2007). Demythologizing science teacher education: Conquering the false ideal of open inquiry. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 18(4), 461-467.

Taraban, R., Box, C., Myers, R., Pollard, R. & Bowen, C. W. (2007). Effects of active-learning experiences on achievement, attitudes, and behaviors in high school biology. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44(7), 960-979.

Ann Haley MacKenzie

Department of Teacher Education

Miami University

Oxford, OH 45056
Why do science educators think that open inquiry-the highest
   level-is the best? Best for what is not clear. Is this the best way
   for students to learn science? What do students actually learn from
   doing open inquiry? I don't think there is good empirical evidence
   here. Do students learn science concepts? Not usually. Do they
   learn the nature of science? Pretty much no. Do they learn how to
   set up experiments? Maybe.
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