Which practice is at the top of the eight NGSS Science and Engineering Practices? Good question! It’s asking questions and defining problems.
And why is asking questions so important? (Also a good question.)
Because science isn’t just facts. Science is a process of finding answers—a process that starts with questions. That’s why students learn like scientists best in a science classroom defined by phenomena-based learning, also known as inquiry-based learning.
How can science educators bring this approach into the classroom?
That’s one question host Eric Cross and science educator and professional development facilitator Jessica Kesler address in the latest episode of Amplify’s Science Connections: The Podcast.
The power of questions
Kesler’s mission at TGR Foundation, a Tiger Woods charity, is to empower educators to create engaging classrooms that foster future leaders.
“We train teachers on STEM competencies and the pedagogical tools and strategies to implement the STEM we’re doing in our learning labs,” she says. “Then they can implement it in the classroom and have this multiplicative effect that can help us reach millions of kids and prepare them for careers.”
Those pedagogical approaches include student-centered learning practices. Using those practices, teachers spend less time delivering facts and more time asking questions, while developing students’ ability to do the same.
That’s how we shift science from, as the NGSS frames it, “learning about” to “figuring out.”
Per the NGSS: “The point of using phenomena to drive instruction is to help students engage in practices to develop the knowledge necessary to explain or predict the phenomena. Therefore, the focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the learning and teaching. The practice of asking questions or identifying problems becomes a critical part of trying to figure something out.”
Inquiry-based learning examples and approaches
Kesler recognizes that a shift to inquiry-based learning can’t be made overnight, or all at once. “We never suggest overhauling your classroom…add a little bit here and there and see how it impacts your students.”
Here are some strategies Kesler suggests for empowering educators to deliver inquiry-based science learning.
- Cultivate an inquiry mindset. We live in a world where answers to pretty much everything are right on our phones, right in our pockets. That ease and accessibility can dampen student curiosity. But when teachers start shifting focus from asking students for answers to asking them to develop smart questions, students can grow that mental inquiry muscle.
- Make inquiry visible. No need to be sneaky—you can be explicit with students about what you’re doing, and what you’re inviting them to do. Think: “What are tools and strategies you can use so that students can illuminate their thinking for themselves and for you and their peers?” Kesler says. “So the students get to see their own thinking as they progress, and you get to tell the story of how their minds have evolved.” Paying attention to student questions also enables you to observe where students are making mistakes, where misconceptions come up, and where you should target your next lesson, Kesler adds. “So it makes you more responsive in the moment.”
- Build an inquiry environment. Asks Kesler: “What are the things that you can embed into your physical space and develop in a student’s intellectual space that will help you create a holistic inquiry environment?” There’s no one right answer, but a shift in environment can support a shift in intellectual approach. (Consider the opposite: “If you take someone out of an old habit or space and tell them, ‘We are gonna change your minds and teach inquiry,’ but put them back in the same environment, they’re going to be conflicted,” Kesler says. You could create displays that present questions rather than facts, or arrange the room to support conversation rather than lecture—whatever makes sense for your space.
Definitely test, explore, experiment—even take risks—and ask your own questions. After all, the inquiry mindset is for you, too!
Explore how Amplify Science supports inquiry-based learning.
Listen to all of Season 1, Episode 10, Empowering the science educator: Jessica Kesler, and find more episodes and strategies from Amplify’s Science Connections: The Podcast.