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How should we teach Inquiry-based Science?

December 15, 2014 – 12:28 pm | 6 Comments | 328 views

What kind of student-centered practices do you use in your science classroom? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.
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How should we teach Inquiry-based Science?

December 15, 2014 – 12:28 pm | 6 Comments | 328 views

Photo by Kentucky Country Day

What kind of student-centered practices do you use in your science classroom? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.

As a science teacher in the 70s and 80s and then as a science consultant in the 90s, I often had discussions with other teachers about which teaching methods to use when presenting science topics. “Should I present the known scientific facts about the topic to my students?” “Should I put the students into a situation where they discover them as the result of a guided lab activity?” The same questions persist today. Seldom is the answer clear. Each situation is different: the topic, the nature of the class, the materials available. There are always other pressures, too. Some argue that using inquiry or discovery takes too much time, and the number of topics that have to be covered simply doesn’t allow for it. Others feel that by giving students the facts, one can be sure that students get it right. Many, however, feel that students have to “construct” their own knowledge to really understand.

The Constructivist – Behaviorist Continuum

These concerns presents a real dilemma for science and technology teachers. They are forced to situate themselves somewhere in the constructivist vs behaviorist continuum – between having the students discover/construct the “facts” or receive the “facts” from the teacher.

A lot of the move towards an inquiry-based classroom is based on the switch from a teacher-centered to a student-centered approach. Academics call this a move away from behaviorism (remember Skinner and Pavlov’s salivating dogs?) and towards constructivism. In a behaviorist class, the teacher is the provider of all knowledge and the decision maker for all activities. In a constructivist classroom, on the other hand, the students construct their own knowledge and have a strong say in directing the learning activities. Windschitl (1999) says the basis of constructivism is that “learners actively create, interpret, and reorganize knowledge in individual ways.” “Actively create” means taking new knowledge and comparing it to one’s current perception to arrive at a new, revised understanding. Knowledge is constructed, not merely transmitted, and requires regular hands-on science activities. In my recent experience, most science and technology teachers use methods that fall somewhere in-between the extremes of full behaviorism and full constructivism.

In 1991, when I was a science consultant for a school board in Montreal, I came across an article in The Science Teacher written by Robert Yager in which he made a strong case for a constructivist, student-centered approach for science teaching. Below is a table in which he contrasted behaviorist and constructivist approaches. See where your approach fits in under the categories he identified.   I suspect that, even in strong inquiry-based classrooms, teachers find themselves at varying places between the two approaches.


Objectivist/Behaviorist Constructivist
Teacher Identifies the issue / topic Student
No Issue seen as relevant Yes
Teacher Asks the questions Student
Teacher Identifies written and human resources Student
Teacher Plans investigations and activities Student
No Varied evaluation techniques are used Yes
No Students practice self-evaluation Yes
No Concepts and skills are applied to new situations Yes
No Students initiate actions Yes
No Science concepts and principles emerge because they are needed Yes
No Extensions to learning outside the school are in evidence Yes

Source: Yager (1991)


But there’s a lot more to inquiry-based science and technology teaching and learning than this. In the next blog post, I will take a look at research into teaching using The Scientific Method (TSM).

What kind of student-centered practices do you use in your classroom? Tell us below or tweet @learnquebec.


Windschitl, M. (1999). The Challenges of Sustaining a Constructivist Classroom Culture. Phi Delta Kappan, 80(10), 751.

Yager, R. E. (1991). The constructivist learning model. The Science Teacher, 58(6), 52-56.

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