Mislabeling inquiry – a brief rant

I’m a big believer in the power of inquiry based learning. This is both of my roles teaching math and physics. As often as possible, I have my students make observations, ask questions, make a hypothesis or mental model to describe what is being observed, and then test that model against new situations to see how well the model describes them. It goes along with why kids like science in the early years – you get to play with stuff, cool stuff, and try to figure out how it works.

I was looking at an online resource for teaching science that says it uses a step by step inquiry approach, and was naturally excited to see what was involved. This is the outline of what it includes for its lesson on heat transfer.

  1. It shows an interesting set of rock formations and explain how they were formed through the transfer of energy.
  2. It asks what happens when a glass of ice water is submerged in a tub of warmer water. Students can submit their open ended responses using a text box for (presumably) the teacher to read.
  3. It shows four clear explanations for what is going on, and asks students to choose one. The teacher can see which ones students pick overall.
  4. Students can explain their reasoning for picking an explanation, or perhaps explain why the others are not correct. It isn’t clear whether these explanations go back to the teacher or not.
  5. Students then are given a set of some specific resources, mostly text, but including one video and an image to ‘collect data’ on their hypothesis.
  6. Students then take a quiz to assess their understanding based on reading the short explanations in the previous step.
  7. Students talk about what their hypotheses were, and how the information they found either supported or refuted each of the four statements.
  8. Students describe their new understanding of heat to a text box. Sadly, it does not talk back.
  9. In case it wasn’t clear, the web page then tells the students what conclusion they should have made in the preceding activity. This is accessed through a convenient button that says ‘Display Conclusion’.
  10. Students are asked one more multiple choice question, and are then told they can explore other things. It makes suggestions, and then gives the slightly hopeful statement that they can also choose something they want to explore.
  11. I apologize for getting slightly sarcastic at the end, but this really got under my skin. I have a real problem with educational solutions that help students learn science by looking at a screen with right answers on it. It perpetuates the idea that that is what science is: right answers, a whole slew of them, and you have to collect them all, or you are bad at science.

    I get that this is better than students sitting and listening to teachers telling them all the answers. I see that the students are made to be slightly more active and have to find the answers in the reference materials on the website. Of course, that is notably better than chalk and talk.

    I just found myself shuddering the whole time because at no point in the online lesson is the suggestion made to actually perform an experiment.

    The real power of inquiry is not just getting students to go out and find the answers themselves and then take a multiple choice exam to see what they learned. It is about getting to struggle with open-ended questions. Deciding what to measure, or minimally, making A measurement. I get that the goal of this is to create something that can scale to a classroom of thirty students and give them something better than lecture. I just have a problem with justifying it by saying it’s better than the alternative.