How should we teach Inquiry-based Science?

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.

Dressed for Success: The Teaching Coat

Stefania Cosentino’s Coat


Good teaching cannot be reduced to technique but is rooted in the identity and integrity of the teacher. (Palmer, 1997)

This year as I began my own journey working with the graduating class from the School of Education at Bishop’s University, I had to find ways to tap into what I already understood about teaching and the profession they were preparing to enter and develop means of pushing them to think deeply about the teacher landscape.  In our few weeks together, we discussed a multitude of topics including inspiration, leadership, global education and teacher identity.  We read, we reflected, we discussed and then we wrote; only to start the process again.

It was here that I came across this thought-provoking quote by Parker J. Palmer from his inspirational book “The Courage to Teach”

Good teaching takes myriad forms but good teachers share one trait: they are authentically present in the classroom, in community with their students and their subject. They possess “a capacity for connectedness” and are able to weave a complex web of connections between themselves, their subjects, and their students, helping their students weave a world for themselves. The connections made by good teachers are held not in their methods but in their hearts — the place where intellect, emotion, spirit, and will converge in the human self — supported by the community that emerges among us when we choose to live authentic lives. (Palmer, 1997)

These teacher candidates, who were sitting on the cusp of pre and in service, sat quietly in that large academic room and wrote about their hopes and fears of entering the profession; of what they would bring to their future students, and how they would strive to make a difference. As they shared their commitment for the future that would soon be upon them, I worried about how they would be able to protect themselves in the harsh environment they would surely encounter at times.  What could they wear to repel some of the thorns and barbs that would tear at the hearts they wore on their sleeves?  What could I offer to shield them and their developing fragile teacher identity? How could they enter this landscape secure and confident?

As luck would have it, I came upon an interesting teacher, Tiffany Poirier, who herself had been inspired by Palmer’s book and from his writing had created just what I needed to safeguard my students: The Teaching Coat. In essence, it is a wearable teaching philosophy.  A way to represent all those ideals that you believe in and the values that you hold and bring with you into the classroom every day.  As Poirier writes, “My Teaching Coat creates around me a sense of place. In any classroom, in any school, I am at home with myself – wearing the wisdom of my inner teacher.” She continues to build the sense of purpose this professional garment fosters by stating, “I am not afraid to show my true colours, to draw students in and say ‘This is where I have been and what I’m about.’”

I would like to share with you now a few examples of Teaching Coats created by the graduating pre-service teacher community at Bishop’s.  They as always, surprised me, moved me and left me confident that our future students would be in the hands of teachers who valued the role they would play in the lives of so many young people.


Megan Legere's Coat
Megan Legere’s Coat


Miranda McGie writes: I wanted my Drama/Teaching coat to be a cape…costumes help actors change who they are; it reinforces character identity…I do know what symbols, quotes I would want on my cape.  Images like a director’s chair, megaphone, and clapperboard are essential…I have included a few Shakespeare quotes because I believe they would help provide my future students with a sense of devotion…“To thine own self be true” and “Love all, trust a few”, “do wrong to no one”. I would put all these quotes in the inside of the cape, so when I move around the classroom, students will see these quotes as I lift my arms around.

Alessandra Tiano's coat
Alessandra Tiano’s coat


Josh Quirion writes: My coat would consist of a multitude of pockets…Sure it would rest on my shoulder like a conventional coat, but its primary purpose would be to place an infinity of pockets at my disposal. It would be a long trench coat, to maximize pocket space obviously, and it would be rather modest on the outside, beige, not pretentious…I wear it like a magician, always ready to pull a trick out of my pocket or like a witch doctor, always prepared to produce traditional medicine from my pocket, or like a merchant in Time Square, prepared to negotiate a bargain with a customer.

Amanda Gautrey writes: On the left sleeve, I have listed words that describe my students and/or the classroom setting I wish to create. I want to create life-long learners in my students who are excited about school and more importantly, about learning…In the sleeve, I have placed a pink paper which says, “tricks, activities, plan A, B and sometimes C! This simply implies that we have to have many tricks up our sleeves and many other backup plans and ideas. Most of the time, lessons do not go as we have them planned and it is important for us to be able to adapt to situations and improvise in order to maintain a good learning environment.

Amelia Brooker's coat
Amelia Brooker’s coat

Why not take the time to recharge and listen to the wisdom of your inner teacher.  What might your own Teaching Coat look like? What words, images, symbols and inspirations might you add and why?


Resources for future reading:

Palmer, Parker J. 1997. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Inquiry-Based Science Education: What is it? Does it Work?

Photo by Shawn Calhoun CC NC-BY 2.0

Is science education preparing students for real work in scientific fields? Tweet @learnquebec

The research is in. Active inquiry-based learning in the science classroom leads to a deeper understanding of science. Or does it? I remember learning physics and chemistry in high school. It was the early 1960s and our science teachers taught us the facts, for example: what the atom was, Newton’s laws of motion, the Periodic Table, neutralization, acceleration of gravity. We went to the chemistry lab on Friday. Our teacher gave us a well-prepared set of detailed instructions to follow. The purpose was to illustrate some of what we had learned during the week. Everything always seemed to work as expected and we were always convinced that the facts were right – the colour changed as predicted; the acceleration of gravity was pretty close to the theoretical value; there was twice as much hydrogen as oxygen in the tubes after the electrolysis of water. We understood that if we followed the instructions carefully, we got the right answer, and, hopefully, 9 or 10 out of 10 on the lab report. I liked my science classes and activities and I got pretty good marks.

Joseph Schwab, however, didn’t think that this was a very good way to learn science. He is considered to be the one who originated the idea of inquiry-based science education. Writing in 1960, he realized that teaching science by transmission of knowledge – the facts – was an illogical way of making students into scientific thinkers. He reasoned that, with the rapid expansion of scientific and technological knowledge, what was new knowledge in 1960 would become obsolete within 10 to 15 years. It would be so modified and updated that it would no longer be relevant to the young learner. “It means that the time-hallowed instrument of instruction – the lecture which aims to be simple, clear and unequivocal; the textbook which aims to eliminate doubt, uncertainty, and difficulty; the test which aims primarily to discover what the student knows and how he applies what he knows about a subject – these will be inadequate or even inappropriate for much science teaching.” Schwab (1960 p180).

He points out that the way science has been taught gives a dangerously false impression of what science is. “It is seen as knowledge literally true, permanent – even complete. We tend to provide a structure which admits no loose ends. We minimize doubts and qualifications.” Schwab (1960 p185). Students need to understand the inquiry nature of science – that it is not a set of immutable truths but a process of discovering and improving on our understanding of natural and technological phenomena. He sees the teacher’s role as that of helping students learn for themselves. This requires that students be placed in learning situations in which they have to carry out inquiries which require them to rely more on their own resources to learn and make meaning.

So what did he recommend for the science classroom? The science lab should cease to be a place where students follow a set of detailed instructions to illustrate what they have already been told in the preceding classes. Instead, the lab manual should pose problems so that students can discover relations that they did not already know from their classes and textbooks. There needs to be an appropriate level of latitude for the students to devise ways of solving the problems themselves. Open discussion, debate and uncertainty need to be part of the process.

This is the first in a series of science education posts with the aim of reporting on the findings of research into the teaching of science and technology. I will discuss the findings, both pro and con, of studies which examine inquiry-based science teaching and learning – what it is and how effective it is. I welcome comments from science educators, academics and anyone else concerned with how students learn science.



Schwab, Joseph J. (1960). Inquiry, the Science Teacher, and the Educator. The School Review, University of Chicago Press, 68 (2), 176-195